New plans for redeveloping Ventura 'go big' on housing. Some say, too big. | News | Palo Alto Online |

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New plans for redeveloping Ventura 'go big' on housing. Some say, too big.

Ambitious neighborhood revitalization effort faces grim economics

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A residential and commercial building along Park Boulevard in Palo Alto borders the 60-acre North Ventura area, which city leaders are working to revitalize. Photo by Jocelyn Dong.

When Angela Dellaporta learned about Palo Alto's effort to come up with a new vision for her neighborhood, Ventura, she happily signed up to help.

"I wanted to see something beautiful in our community," Dellaporta, a retired Gunn High School teacher, told the Weekly. "I wanted to see us come together rather than become isolated. I wanted to see a place where people can be attracted to a beautiful area and get a strong sense of community that people in general crave."

In April 2018, Dellaporta was one of 14 residents chosen to serve on a working group charged with crafting a new vision for her centrally located but generally underserved neighborhood just south of California Avenue. At a March 2019 meeting with the City Council, which took place at the Ventura Community Center, she was one of about 100 residents who attended to learn about the process and offer feedback. Dellaporta pointed to a recent survey of the neighborhood showing that most people support adding housing, particularly for teachers, nurses and middle-income families.

"They also want to see some of this housing go to low-income families. They want to see a reduction in car traffic, and they want to see a lot of green space — accessible and welcoming to the public," Dellaporta told the council.

Council members were similarly full of hope as they entertained ideas from residents. They also encouraged the consultants and the working group to really explore the possibilities, even if it meant considering options that would not be politically popular.

"I want one of those alternatives to be a real challenge to all of our thinking," Councilwoman Alison Cormack said at the meeting.

If the council was trying to inspire staff to stretch the possibilities, it seems to have succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. On Jan. 21, the North Ventura Concept Area Plan working group received a new proposal from staff and its consulting firm, Perkins & Will: three alternatives that made their collective jaws drop.

The plans, which will be refined in the coming months and which are scheduled to go to the council in May, show alternatives for the 60-acre site that would turbo-charge development. The plans, as expected, call for more housing. But what caught most members of the group off-guard was the type of residential development being proposed.

The numbers in the new alternatives exceed by orders of magnitude what the council has been previously considering for the site. The city's Housing Element identifies the former location of Fry's Electronics at 340 Portage Ave. as a site capable of accommodating up to 249 new units. For the broader North Ventura area, the number of new units is 354. (This is in addition to the 128 homes that currently exist.)

By contrast, the least intense alternative of the ones presented by Perkins & Will calls for 952 new apartments and townhomes, while the most ambitious one would add 2,646 housing units to the area, which is bounded by Page Mill Road, Lambert Avenue, El Camino Real and Park Boulevard.

Like most of her colleagues, Dellaporta said she was surprised by the numbers.

"Most people are worried about higher density and more people, and I have reassured them, 'Don't worry. We probably won't go much above 30 units per acre because that's what the zoning is (RM-30).' It's not quite clear to me why we would go so far above the 30 units per acre and make it so much more dense," Dellaporta said at the Jan. 21 meeting, after hearing the Perkins & Will presentation.

Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, said she was in "shock and awe" when she saw the new alternatives, with one scenario recommending more than 2,600 housing units — an intensity beyond what any of the city's zoning designations allow.

Doria Summa, a member of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission who also serves on the working group, said she too was shocked by the new proposal. The most ambitious alternative, known as "Designed Diversity" calls for building homes for 6,300 new residents.

That, Summa noted, amounts to squeezing about 10% of the city's population into an area that makes up just 0.5% of the city.

"It so far exceeds (the Housing Element numbers) and it's so far from anything we've talked about — I don't think any of these bear any resemblance to reality," Summa said.

Former City Councilwoman Gail Price was the only member of the working group who spoke in favor of "Designed Diversity," which would add new office buildings and retail in addition to housing.

Unlike the other two alternatives, which seek to preserve (either partially or fully) the old cannery that until recently housed Fry's Electronics, "Designed Diversity" envisions tearing down the Fry's building, adding 567 new housing units at 340 Portage Ave., and creating new multifamily developments throughout the planning area, including 628 units at the site of the Cloudera office building, at the intersection of Park Boulevard and Page Mill Road.

While planning for the site, Price said, it's important to consider what Palo Alto's needs would be for the next 10, 15 and 20 years.

"Our children and grandchildren are moving away. Seniors are moving if they can't afford a place here. That's a real driver for me. This particular area in my view presents opportunities that are significant, and I think that can be done very beautifully and with some sensitivity," she said.

A moving target

The release of the three alternatives is the latest milestone for a planning effort that has already run into numerous obstacles.

The Fry's building, the centerpiece of the planning area, was last year deemed a "historical site" owing to its roots as a cannery. The designation makes it eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources and guarantees that any potential redevelopment would require extensive analysis — and ensure political pushback.

Then the Fry's property owner, The Sobrato Organization, indicated that it does not plan to demolish the building or to build housing on the site any time soon — a serious blow to the city's goals of building more than 220 units there.

And the City Council's commitment to the area plan's success has wavered, with three council members voting in December against expanding the consultant's contract (even though four of the seven council members supported the contract, passing the budget amendment required five votes, so the money was not authorized).

"If the property owner isn't on board, what are we doing here?" Councilman Greg Tanaka said at the Dec. 2 meeting. "That's a big problem."

Yet even if the council does nothing, change is on its way for 340 Portage, a campus of connected commercial buildings that has long stood out as one of the city's most glaring zoning wildcards.

Even though the site is zoned RM-30, which means it allows up to 30 residential units per acre, the land has been used for industrial and commercial purposes ever since 1918, when Thomas Foon Chew first constructed a cannery there. Eager for tax revenues, the council formally agreed in 1999 to allow Fry's Electronics to continue its "nonconforming" commercial use at the residentially zoned site for 20 more years.

But in 2006, the council voted to eliminate the 20-year amortization provision, which would have required the Fry's site to revert to residential use in July 2019. At the time, planning staff had determined that the proposed revision to the zoning code would be "minimal in scope but would provide a positive and welcoming message to Fry's from the city," according to a 2006 report from planning staff.

Efforts to maintain Fry's are "most important," the report noted, given that it was one of the city's top 10 sales tax generators.

This "minimal" change has had profound effects. By eliminating the amortization date to please Fry's, which closed this past December, the council effectively stripped away its leverage to demand residential uses for the city's most promising housing site. Mindful of this possibility, members of the Planning and Transportation Commission in 2006 opted not to vote on the proposed elimination of the amortization clause. Weeks before the council was set to consider the change, then-Planning Commissioner Lee Lippert called it "a very hasty decision." Fry's Electronics, he presciently noted, will eventually leave.

"There are no guarantees as to what that retail would be," Lippert said at the Oct. 4, 2006, meeting. "That retail could very well wind up ... being a supermarket or for that matter it could be a Walmart. ... Can you live with that? So that's what it boils down to: What are the rights here of the property owner and what is the best use for the citizens of Palo Alto — not the fact that there is fiscalization of land use here?"

Thirteen years later, his anxieties are playing out. Housing at the site is now an unlikely possibility given Sobrato Organization's lack of interest in redeveloping the building or converting it to residential use. Residents and council members have proposed "adaptive" commercial uses that would preserve the most important sections of the historic cannery and transform it into an eclectic gathering spot filled with art, music and food. But the new building occupant is more likely to resemble the type of tenant Lippert had warned about than a community hub like "The Barlow" in Sebastopol (a former applesauce cannery that is now an outdoor market) or Drake's Dealership in Oakland (a former auto dealership that is now a beer garden).

Earlier this month, Tim Steele, Sobrato's senior vice president for real estate development, informed the Ventura working group about a prospective tenant who has been itching to set up shop in Ventura: Target.

The store, he said, would be small in scale (about 30,000 square feet) and would cater to the particular needs of the area, he said.

"I know some people will bristle at the word, but we've done a lot of research and we looked very closely, and in the context of the location, we were surprised that any retail would be interested in going into a mid-block type of space," Steele said at the Jan. 21 meeting.

Steele said Sobrato had turned Target away a few months ago, but the company persisted.

"They came back and essentially parked on our front door and said, 'We're not leaving because we think we have a product that we think will work," Steele said.

He pointed to examples of smaller Target stores throughout the nation, including in Cupertino, Berkeley and Boston. In some cases, the stores are only 12,000 square feet. And to blend in with neighborhoods, particularly in historically significant areas, the stores have minimal exterior signage.

"This is a company that's finding ways to blend in with each community differently," Steele said.

Looking at the economics

Housing advocates in a city that is famously opposed to chains and big-box stores are unlikely to welcome a Target — even a baby Target — with open arms. But it's not hard to see why Sobrato is so reluctant to convert the site to housing.

The economics of Silicon Valley continue to strongly favor commercial development over residential, even before one considers Palo Alto's height limits, density restrictions and parking requirements.

A new analysis by the firm Strategic Economics determined the cost of developing a market-rate apartment in a four-story building to be about $770,270. This includes $429,000 in construction costs; $128,000 in "soft costs" (including city fees and financing); and $95,071 in land costs. The figure also includes $117,499 in estimated profits for the developer, which represents a rate of return of about 15%, said Sujata Srivastava, principal at Strategic Economics.

The figure also assumes that the residential developments are rented primarily at market rate rather than at the below-market rate that Ventura residents said they would like to see for their neighborhood, even though the city's "inclusionary housing" law will require 15% of the new units to be offered at below market rate.

"Construction costs for these kinds of projects are high enough that there's not a huge gap between what you can charge for market rate units and how much is left over in terms of revenues for you to then be able to subsidize a lot of units," Srivastava told the working group.

The report from Strategic Economics concluded that when one considers the city's fees and below-market-rate requirements, a developer spends about $988 per square foot of an apartment and receives $928 in value (which represents a net value of -$59). For office construction, a developer spends about $1,097 per square foot and gets a net value of $127.

Sobrato also has personal experiences to fall back on. In October 2017, the council approved the company's proposal to build a 50-apartment development at 3001 El Camino Real, a site just west of the Fry's site that used to be occupied by Mike's Bikes. It took three and a half years to get the project approved, costing the company about $4 million, Steele said at the Jan. 21 meeting of the working group.

Last year, the company notified the city that the development is not penciling out and requested an extension on the project. Sobrato has also shifted its sights away from the rental sector, Steele said.

"I will suggest that the rental market is not supportive economically, but possibly ownership" housing would be, Steele said. "We're exploring maybe partnering with a for-sale builder to build it, since Sobrato does not build for-sale housing of any kind."

Mixed reactions

The new alternatives from Perkins & Will try to reflect the city's stark economic reality: Housing has become so expensive to build that in order to encourage it, the city will have to either completely blow up the zoning code, provide massive financial subsidies or allow some office development as an incentive for the builder to construct homes.

Long-held zoning standards such as parking requirements and the 50-foot height limits would have to be amended or scrapped for the ambitious proposals to come to fruition. The most pro-housing scenario calls for "mid-rise blocks" with 85-foot-tall apartment buildings and underground garages with one parking space per unit.

Not surprisingly, the dramatic proposals have attracted dramatic — and divergent — reactions.

Former Mayor Karen Holman, who chaired the working group that put together the South of Forest Avenue 2 (SOFA 2) area plan in downtown, said she has grave concerns about the Ventura process, which she argued has strayed far from the council's goals for the project. These goals include developing "human-scale urban design strategy, and design guidelines that strengthen and support the neighborhood fabric."

Rather than considering how growth can accommodate existing residents and businesses, including the historic cannery building, the new plans view this eclectic area as effectively a blank slate, she argued.

"They're treating it like it's a brownfield or something of that nature — which it's not," Holman told the Weekly. "There's no regard for existing developments and how people would live in this area — no weaving of how that works together to create a livable area. There's not a cohesive aspect to it that creates livability."

These flaws, Holman told the working group on Jan. 21, will likely doom the planning process once it gets to the council.

"What's going to happen when the plan that's being encouraged by staff and consultants gets to the council ... and the council looks at goals that they established and looks at this and says, 'What happened?' ... I just don't see how this will be a productive process if this continues along the path of super, super density."

Others, however, see the proposed influx of housing as exactly what the city needs at a time of sky-high rents and barely existent housing construction. A new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services notes that the median sales price for all homes in Palo Alto increased from $2.24 million in November 2017 to $2.72 million in November 2019. Rental listings over the same time rose from $3,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment to $4,280 a month.

Mark Mollineaux, a renter and local housing advocate, said the proposal from Perkins & Will is an indication of a larger problem: "absurdly low density" throughout most of Palo Alto, which has resulted in exorbitantly expensive rents. He said he strongly supports increasing density in Ventura, in line with the consultants' recommendations.

Kelsey Banes, also a renter in Palo Alto, said she's moved every year because of rising rents. Most recently, her rent went up by 18%, she said.

"When you hear on a daily basis stories about people getting priced out of their homes and pushed into more and more desperate situations, the urgency of this crisis we're in becomes very, very salient," Banes said. "If you say to someone, 'I want this neighborhood to change in dramatic fashion, that will cause anxiety. ... You can empathize with that anxiety and then bring it back to our values as a community and why this is important. We want to have an inclusive community. We want to have different ages of people being a part of our community and serving our the community."

Planning Director Jonathan Lait said he's heard a variety of opinions about the newly released scenarios, which he said aim to reflect the council's desire to "go big." In proposing scenarios with many new housing units — well beyond the number in the Housing Element — city planners are trying to prepare for the next cycle of the Regional Housing Allocation Needs (RHNA) process, which sets housing targets for every city. Lait said he expects the process to result in significant new allocations for Palo Alto.

"As we look ahead, we wanted to imagine one scenario — what might be an outlier scenario — if the RHNA numbers doubled," Lait said. "What would that look like here, in this area?"

He also said that the goal was to present options that would get a reaction from folks and then narrow down options to what the community deems to be an "acceptable range." He rejected the notion that the scenarios are "unrealistic."

"We'll hear from council, and the working group members and the community. And if we need to pull back and focus on something closer to the lower alternatives, we're happy to do that," Lait said.

The debate will unfold in the coming months, as the city holds community meetings and the working group continues its review of the new alternatives, which would then go to the council.

But even though the broader community has yet to weigh in, the reaction in Ventura has been less than enthusiastic. Dellaporta said that while she and her neighbors fully support the goal of adding housing, they were hoping to see plans with housing numbers more in line with the existing Housing Element. Many are concerned that the housing scenarios proposed by Perkins & Will would worsen traffic and not produce the housing that would accommodate moderate and low-income people.

"We want to make sure that teachers and nurses and firefighters and other people who provide services to our community can actually live in our community," she told the Weekly.

How much housing?

Plans proposed in December by city consultants Perkins & Will for the North Ventura area of Palo Alto recommend hundreds if not thousands of new townhomes and apartments.

Currently, the neighborhood bounded by Page Mill Road, Lambert Avenue, Park Boulevard and El Camino Real includes 128 housing units.

Three basic types of housing developments have been outlined in the plans: townhomes (three stories), low-rise (four or five stories) and mid-rise (eight or more stories). Heights of mid-rise buildings typically reach 85 feet or more.

Here's a breakdown of the housing proposed in each plan as well as examples of Palo Alto buildings that are considered low-rise and mid-rise.

• Leading with Legacy (version A) - New housing: 952 units.

• Leading with Legacy (version B) - New housing: 1,581 units.

• Adaptive Core - New housing: 1,674 units.

• Designed Diversity - New housing: 2,646 units.

• Mid-rise example - Tan Plaza Continental, 580 Arastradero Road.

• Low-rise example: 800 High St.

View maps of each plan and photos of the mid-rise and low-rise examples here.

Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

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Comments

57 people like this
Posted by Shameless Exploitation
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2020 at 7:53 am

By the time I finished reading this article, I was angry. How can anyone defend this rapacious exploitation of Palo Alto's most diverse, lowest income and, as noted, underserved neighborhood.

The plan sound downright colonial in the aggressive willingness to exploit the resources of this sweet neighborhood against so counter to the express wishes of neighbors who were told their vision would be valued and respected.

Planning Commissioner Summa notes this plan "squeezes about 10% of the city's population into an area that makes up just 0.5% of the city." "It so far exceeds (the Housing Element numbers and it's so far from anything we've talked about — I don't think any of these bear any resemblance to reality."

Have we lost our minds? This would never be envisioned for North Palo Alto. This has overtones of classism and racism and I am disgusted. People have blinders on, willing in their zeal for housing, to sacrifice their neighbors and our most vulnerable neighborhood to get what will be mostly market rate housing for those with a lot of money.

To put a bow on it, the 85-foot tall, so-called "mid-rise" apartment buildings - have one parking space per unit. That's a nightmare again perpetrated on the Ventura neighborhood, not to mention spillover into other nearby areas.

This whole process has gone off the rails in a distortion of what was promised. Staff needs to cut it out. The planning needs to return to first principals and adopt the SOFA process which got what all recognize as a remarkably successful outcome.

Note what adoption of the XCap is getting us with Grade Seps - it is not too late to do the right thing.


23 people like this
Posted by Midlander
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2020 at 8:07 am

This sounds like great news. Finally a proposal to add a significant amount of very badly needed housing!


52 people like this
Posted by Stop Developers from Ruining Palo Alto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 31, 2020 at 8:17 am

We don't need one more square foot of offices in Ventura. We need instead affordable homes, community-serving stores, traffic reduction, and pleasant public spaces for children and adults.

Claiming that building housing and retail "doesn't pencil-out" financially is an outrageous hoax perpetrated by cynical developers and obsequious city staffers. A few blocks south at Curtner, a project is going up that's almost all housing and retail. A similar project is under construction a few blocks north of Page Mill. Neither is very high density and yet they pencil out, so why can't similar projects in North Ventura?

The residents of Ventura should take control of this failed community redesign process. Otherwise, their neighborhood will be further ruined by the insatiable greed of developers.


47 people like this
Posted by We are here, we are here, we are HERE!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2020 at 8:17 am

"They're treating it like it's a brownfield or something of that nature — which it's not," Holman told the Weekly. "There's no regard for existing developments and how people would live in this area — no weaving of how that works together to create a livable area. There's not a cohesive aspect to it that creates livability."

Thank you Karen, for reminding that people live here.


47 people like this
Posted by Susi Naurentaus
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2020 at 8:18 am


So has Palo Alto staff again taken instructions from one council member to densify the Ventura neighborhood in the name of “housing” as staff did inserting housing into the last of Palo Alto’s public community spaces, Cubberley?

The she would be Alison Cormack. The funding for these “affordable” housing would be through bonds which again mostly residents would be burdened with.


47 people like this
Posted by The point of zoning
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:05 am

The point of zoning is to tame the avarice of big developers so that a rich and harmonious blend of uses exists in a city ......zoning by the “pencilling out “ method would simply mean abandoning all uses except tech offices , huge law firms etc.... voila! Let’s just turn the whole city into one giant Stanford research park so that
“The pencilling out” is absolutely complete?
families, schools, parks, churches, synagogues, libraries, shops, community centers .....are getting in the way of the “pencil out”


28 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:14 am

>> Then the Fry's property owner, The Sobrato Organization, indicated that it does not plan to demolish the building or to build housing on the site any time soon — a serious blow to the city's goals of building more than 220 units there.

>> But it's not hard to see why Sobrato is so reluctant to convert the site to housing.

>> The economics of Silicon Valley continue to strongly favor commercial development over residential, even before one considers Palo Alto's height limits, density restrictions and parking requirements.

It is zoned for housing. It has been zoning for housing for many decades now. Build housing.

And stop telling "us" that we aren't doing enough for housing. Talk to the developers. They can building housing if they want to. They just don't want to. Respect the zoning and build housing.



44 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:34 am

For those who have said, "we're not talking about turning Palo Alto into Hong Kong or Manhattan" - well, now we are. "10% of the city's population [squeezed] into an area that makes up just 0.5% of the city." "Mid-rise" buildings that "reach 85 feet or more." Taking one of the least served, least powerful neighborhoods in the city, and adding an under-parked Co-op City apartment block.

Thanks Alison Cormack and Adrian Fine. Make sure to put the image of a high-rise on your campaign lawn signs.


40 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:39 am

"Pencils out" - current and past councils have taught developers to wait for better zoning, PC benefits, or other concessions. That's the fault of the council members. If we set zoning to housing and didn't change it, the value of the land would fall until building housing made sense. The value is only higher because of the chance that office might someday be built there. If you take that off the table, the speculative land-owner takes the hit (good!) and the building will get built - there's no more value to waiting.

The council needs to restrict future wavering. Maybe set the zoning to housing and require a super-majority to change it, or require a city-wide vote (like decommissioning park land). This is a solvable problem if our "leaders" just tried to take it on rationally.


33 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 31, 2020 at 10:04 am

@Resident: Amen. Palo Alto voters need to take back control of their town. A referendum. A change to the city charter. Something has got to work.


16 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2020 at 10:22 am

When 14 acres were at play – before the sharpies rezoned a much wider swath, 50 acres – I spoke in public hearings about the need for a major park 7 acres consistent with our per capita standards in the general plan or comprehensive plan.
So now I am saying how about a 10 acre park in Ventura? How would this help the current residence of Ventura who generally lag behind the rest of us -we owe them this.


7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2020 at 11:03 am

Forget it. Sobrato knows what it wants to do, and the city planning department will dutifully go along.


6 people like this
Posted by Mirounga
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2020 at 12:47 pm

More like "SHOCK and NAH!"


64 people like this
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:45 pm

Hi Gennady and Everyone. Thank you PAW for covering this story and pretty much letting the facts speak for themselves. Thank you interested readers for paying attention to this tiny part of the City, but big part of Ventura. This could be the most important issue of the coming years.

If you don't want to read my analysis of the situation, just jump to the bottom to review the elegant and simple solution that will get us the results we (residents and Council) want:


After sifting through documents and attending meetings, it is obvious to me that there is no way we will get the housing we want at that site. Sobrato points out that as developers, they need to make their profits for their investors in order to justify the risks. Makes total sense. In order to "underwrite" below market rate housing and truly affordable units while still making the money they need to meet their obligation to maximize profits, Sobrato would need lots of at-market-rate housing and lots of office/commercial rents- which make way more money for property owners than housing. Also because owners can charge more per square foot for one bedroom and studio apartments, in order to build family housing - which is what is desperately needed -- then we will need to densify even more to justify building more family housing because family housing is less profitable.

A consequence of more offices/commercial is an exacerbation of the already ludicrous 3-1 jobs to housing imbalance. Planners also know that office/commercial means more new net daily car trips in and out of a property, and housing means less per diem trips. So a second consequence to commercial development there is even more traffic and congestion in Ventura and near the already stressed intersection of Page Mill/Oregon and ECR.

The Perkins and Will recommendations of three option bore no resemblance to what had been discussed at the prior working group meetings. The report signals a complete disconnect and a complete disrespect to the working group members and all their incredible work.


SOLUTION: Here's the solution:

The City fixes its own loophole and reinstates the RM-30 designation, which means no commercial/no office. Such action is within the purview of what the City Council can do and DOES.

Then... wait for it...here it comes...

We EMINENT DOMAIN the property and the City partners with Palo Alto Housing and any number of eager non-profit agencies and we put 100% affordable and below market rate housing at the site.

That is the answer, and remember "eminent domain" doesn't mean we steal Sobrato's property. Independent experts come up with the fair market value. Sobrato can use that money to develop elsewhere and fulfill its profit-driven mission. And we get to have all housing all the time. Plus some amenities like a health clinic or a grocery co-op or a lovely park could be possible in a new model. When a project becomes non-profit, so many wonderful things can happen.

There! Isn't that the obvious fix here?

PALO ALTO HOUSING will soon be breaking ground on Wilton Court, housing for developmentally-disabled adults, just two blocks from my house. We didn't protest. We questioned. We asked. We grappled but we got it! Housing for the people that desperately need housing!

It is my experience that things usually work out for those who can afford market rate housing. So I'm not really worried about the big earners out there who can't find the place they want in Palo Alto. Plus there is nothing to stop anyone from building more market rate housing elsewhere in the city. Remember the City has met or surpassed the quota assigned for market rate housing by ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments). Where we get a big "fail" is below market rate and truly affordable housing to serve teachers and public servants, etc.

I'm calling on the residents of Palo Alto to rally and for the Council to do its darnedest to solve the problem they say is uppermost in its priorities - the housing of humans. Here's chance to do something legal and revolutionary.

Thank you for reading.


PS Here's a few humdingers based on my conclusions upon reading the Perkins and Will report:

Current for-profit paradigms at the site call for roof top gardens since available garden and park space will needs be limited because there is no money to be gained by it. Seriously, what parent wants their toddler playing on a roof top, 8-stories high with the gusting wind. "Look out below" as balls and toys rain down. Ventura will need more parkland, not less, especially if more neighbors are added at this site, no matter what the density.

According to Perkins & Will, public park space could be enclosed in a fortress like building with archways for entering. Would you like to take your picnic into say the courtyard of the Pentagon and spread your blanket and read your book with windows looking down on you from all sides? How welcoming is that? There would need to be signs outside the fortress to point the way to the "Park."

With P&W, we will need to go at least 8 stories in one place in order to make room for the offices and luxury homes needed to maximize profits and underwrite the most important housing. The three plans can't maximize lower cost housing without building up and out and over. Our current height limit is 50.

And let's not forget the President Residential Hotel downtown. The 75 tenants got the boot even though the owner knew he would not be able to convert the residential use to commerical use, under current zoning laws. Still the owner has submitted an application to the City. The City should send a clear signal to this developer that we are serious about retaining housing on the site. The owner should give us a plan that gives us housing and which makes it pencil out for them, or to sell it to someone who is willing to maintain the legal use - housing.

Who's with us? Let's get this done!





35 people like this
Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 31, 2020 at 2:00 pm

No more damn office buildings in Palo Alto. That former Fry's building may be old but it is not wonderful looking. Tear it down and build LOW-INCOME housing. Good grief!


44 people like this
Posted by Council Watcher
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 31, 2020 at 2:30 pm

@becky sanders, thank you for the important point: the citizens / stakeholder committee is being ignored. This falls directly in the lap of city manager Ed Shikada, who has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for community input and guidance, and a talent for driving toward mediocre or worse solutions based on mediocre or worse consultant input. This is Shikada's way, and the Council needs to address it head on. If they won't, we need new council members who will (eg Pat Burt).


20 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Posted by Becky Sanders, a resident of Ventura:

>> SOLUTION: Here's the solution: [...]
>> We EMINENT DOMAIN the property and the City partners with Palo Alto Housing and any number of eager non-profit agencies and we put 100% affordable and below market rate housing at the site.
>>That is the answer, and remember "eminent domain" doesn't mean we steal Sobrato's property. Independent experts come up with the fair market value.

Here's the problem: what is the fair market value, if Sobrato and all the other developers think that they can somehow upzone into some kind of mixed-use development that includes a bunch of office space?

How much land does Sobrato own in North Ventura anyway? I know that it is more than just the actual Fry's site. One article stated 39 acres. Is that correct? How much did Sobrato pay for it? Is there any way to know?

I don't think it is fair for the city -- that is, us resident taxpayers -- to pay Sobrato for the profit that they might have had if they had succeeded in upzoning. And still might -- look at the current, office-space-developer-friendly city council.


16 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 31, 2020 at 2:53 pm

Why not skyscrapers? Developer will make more money per sq.ft.
I am waiting to see when we allow developers to build in the parks.

None of PA residents will benefit from new building. Only developers...


16 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2020 at 3:09 pm

Posted by Mark, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> Why not skyscrapers? Developer will make more money per sq.ft. I am waiting to see when we allow developers to build in the parks.

Please don't talk like this. Developers will take your sarcasm and run with it and lovingly call it "the new urbanism".




11 people like this
Posted by C
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 31, 2020 at 7:53 pm

> They want to see a reduction in car traffic,

Yeah, good luck with that.

I'm against increasing the population density, but single-family homes, I'm fine with. Sobrato's probably forgotten the last two recessions, in which office space along Bayshore was unoccupied for *years*.


9 people like this
Posted by Magillicuddy
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 1, 2020 at 9:58 am

Really great idea Becky Sanders - this could work well


12 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 1, 2020 at 1:15 pm

No to Target.
Yes to Becky Sanders’ obviously well-informed ideas.
Please - act soon, City of Palo Alto.
This benefits all of us.
We need substantial housing.
No on retaining the Fry’s buikding.
Otherwise, state officials are given cause to criticize Palo Alto. And THEIR “ideas” are detrimental, even unreasonable.



19 people like this
Posted by densely
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 1, 2020 at 4:13 pm

That "The economics of Silicon Valley continue to strongly favor commercial development over residential" is why we need zoning and a planning process that shift priority to what Palo Alto needs. We need to develop a balance of commercial space, housing, and transit to keep the region viable. Keeping it livable would be even better.


18 people like this
Posted by You Need to Fight
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2020 at 1:40 pm

It is increasingly clear that the question is, "Who decides what our communities will be like?" which is to ask, "Who are they for?" On the one hand are residents, that's clear. On the other, though, isn't poor people, the homeless, etc. - it is large employers and the developers who make money from them.

If the employers get to choose, then what's best for them is the denser the better, so they can grow cheaply. Companies don't care about quality of life, traffic, backyards, park space, open space, Little League; they don't even care about schools much. They care about making money, for themselves and their shareholders. That's a simple fact.

The problem is that employers and developers are much much better at funding political campaigns (looking right at you, Liz Kniss! When's that FPPC report coming out?) and lobbying efforts. They have concentrated wealth, full-time employees, and no moral restraint - getting their candidates elected and bills passed is just a means to an end for them. So they are better at pursuing their narrow interests than communities are at pursuing their general interest.

Some people think that's ok; some think it's inevitable. Some are "useful idiots" who think they are helping "the needy" as they serve employers and developers. But if you don't think communities should be designed by and for employers, YOU NEED TO FIGHT LIKE HELL. Because the game is set up for them to win, and they are winning.


14 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2020 at 10:02 pm

Why are the naïve Palo Alto residents who voted for Alison Cormack and Adrian Fine, and the other growth CC members, now surprised??

This kind of exploitation of the citizens of Palo Alto has always been the agenda of the pro-growth CC lobby and developers.

You can also tell, that by starting out with these ridiculous numbers, that the "compromise" will still exceed the current zoning.

Say goodbye to the Palo Alto we knew! Courtesy of Alison Cormack and Adrian Fine.


5 people like this
Posted by AP
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2020 at 10:05 pm

A violent upheaval is needed to change the CC as soon as possible.


5 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 5, 2020 at 11:32 am

"It is my experience that things usually work out for those who can afford market rate housing."

Are you kidding me? I'm sure all it's worked out for all those folks in Manteca and Tracy that commute to the Bay Area because of lack of market rate housing.

This is an inane statement not based on reality.

Focusing on BMRs just squeezes out the middle class. Just look at San Francisco.

Works out for those who can afford market rate housing? Ridiculous. Are you shilling for PAH for more government subsidies or something like that?


3 people like this
Posted by Craziness
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 5, 2020 at 2:29 pm

Becky Sanders wants to eminent domain property. Seriously, she has lost all her marbles. Today you want to steal (oh yeah, you mean pay market rate for) someone else’s property. Tomorrow it could be yours and of course you would be so happy to give it up without a fight.

Her ideas are usually ill informed and based on assumptions - she’s outdone even herself this time.

I would hope no sane city council member reads her comments and thinks to themselves oh yeah we could always just take someone’s property. Easy. Like saying ok, let’s just take everyone’s home along Churchill for the grade separation. No problem. They’ll get market rate.

The GM of the Giants once said about crazed fans - they are the lunatic fringe. Let’s pray that’s what this idea and its support represents.


5 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2020 at 3:09 pm

Posted by Craziness, a resident of Ventura

Before we start:

"California eminent domain laws can be found in Title 7 of Code of Civil Procedure. Eminent domain is the power of local, state or federal government agencies to take private property for public use so long as the government pays just compensation. Pursuant to Cal Code Civ Proc § 1230.030 private property shall be taken by eminent domain only when there is a public use. Examples of “public uses” for which the government might exercise its power of eminent domain include such things as schools, roads, libraries, police stations, fire stations and similar public uses." Web Link


>> Becky Sanders wants to eminent domain property. Seriously, she has lost all her marbles. Today you want to steal (oh yeah, you mean pay market rate for) someone else’s property. Tomorrow it could be yours and of course you would be so happy to give it up without a fight.

Eminent domain may be used when the government needs a property-- ==> when there is a public use <== .

Now, Palo Alto is being required to, and may be => punished <+ if it doesn't, expand its housing by a certain number of units in a certain formula. The city is being required to, even though housing is provided by private entities (profit or non-profit). Private developers aren't getting the job done, so, eminent domain may be the ONLY way this gets done. If eminent domain is the only way the city can meet its legal obligation, that sounds like a ==> public use <== to me. But, maybe there is an alternative. Like, for example, a property owner developing housing on a property it owns and which is zone for housing. Ahem. So, let's skip the hyperbole about "steal" etc.

Now, what is your suggestion for an alternative? I don't think anyone wants to go down this path, but, it may be the only way housing can get built on land zoned for housing (for 30-40 years).


4 people like this
Posted by Craziness
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 5, 2020 at 3:31 pm

I am fully aware of what eminent domain is and that it is legal. It is a bad precedent. Rational council members, even your heroes in the residential isn’t camp, wouldn’t go for it.

Clearly you don’t own commercial property because like most socialist experiments, it’s good when you get to take someone else’s hard earned money or land, but if it were yours, you of course wouldn’t behave the same way. That much is obvious.

If a landowner doesn’t want to build housing oh well. Besides, Palo Alto does not have cash after they subsidized Wilton Court. Oh wait, they’ll raise more revenue by taxing everything in sight.


9 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2020 at 3:52 pm

Posted by Craziness, a resident of Ventura

>> If a landowner doesn’t want to build housing oh well.

If a landowner buys property that is zoned RM-30, and then wants to build office space instead-- "oh well". The property owner knew all along it was zoned RM-30. If the property owner is allowed to build office space, flooding the area with new traffic, that is ==> theft <== from all the surrounding property owners.



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