Palo Alto's ambitious but uncertain plans to reimagine the Ventura neighborhood confronted a stark political reality Wednesday night, when neighborhood residents and some planning commissioners warned that the latest alternatives fail to reflect community's perspectives or account for the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The concerns came out during the Planning and Transportation's public hearing on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, a land-use document that will create a new vision for a 60-acre area bounded by Page Mill Road, Oregon Expressway, Lambert Avenue and Park Boulevard. The centrally located but historically underserved area has long been viewed by Palo Alto officials as one of the city's most promising sites for new housing. Palo Alto's Housing Element document estimates that it can accommodate about 354 units of housing, Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner said.
Among the most promising sites in the planning area is the 12-acre site at 340 Portage Ave., which until recently housed Fry's Electronics. The site, which is owned by The Sobrato Organization, is zoned for residential use, though the council voted in 2006 to allow commercial use in perpetuity to appease Fry's. While the council is still hoping that the site will include housing, Sobrato signaled last year that it has no plans to redevelop its commercial properties.
The planning effort, which the City Council launched in 2017, has run into numerous complications over the past year. Sobrato's reluctance to redevelop has prompted some council members to lower their expectations, culminating in a decision last December not to approve a contract extension with a consultant to provide the kind of analysis had initially hoped for. Some members of a specially appointed working group, which includes residents and property owners from the neighborhood, have criticized the process that has ignored their input. Others suggested that staff and consultants are ignoring key constraints — including development standards and existing zoning — in issuing their recommendations.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which crippled the retail and theater industries seemingly overnight, added another level of uncertainty. Commission Vice Chair Giselle Roohparvar argued Wednesday that the city should pause the process until the pandemic ends and the city has a better understanding of the new reality.
"We just don't know what the world is going to look like," Roohparvar said. "We know it's going to be different, we just don't know how."
The rise of telecommuting during the economic shutdown may have important ramifications for both the value of office space and its traffic impacts, she said. The economic downturn that resulted from the imposed shutdown — and the mortgage default that it may ultimately engender — may have bearing on the type of housing mix the city would like to see in Ventura. And the rise of e-commerce and online streaming of entertainment — to the detriment of brick-and-mortal retailers and theaters — can also influence what types of commercial amenities the neighborhood should strive to attract.
"I know we already invested a lot of time, but I think we need to wait to see what happens when we get on the other side of COVID to really be able to evaluate what we want this space to look like," Roohparvar said.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck took the opposite view and argued that many of the issues at the heart of the debate — including height and density of buildings — were contentious before the pandemic and will remain so after. He suggested that planners continue to think about crafting a blueprint for the neighborhood even as the pandemic stretches on and explore ways to add more housing.
Alcheck and most of the other commissioners agreed that the city should go big on housing but faced a larger question: How big? Staff presented on Wednesday three alternatives, which would add 386 units, 979 units, and 2,475 housing units to the site, respectively. Both Alcheck and Commissioner Barton Hechtman made the case for the two alternatives that go well beyond the Comprehensive Plan's vision, though he suggested that the city should proceed slowly and gradually, starting with five-story buildings and only moving to larger residential complexes once they become more palatable politically.
"It's pretty clear that Palo Alto … must become more dense in its housing — not over the entire city but in opportunity areas where we can become more dense," Hechtman said. "I think this area is a fantastic opportunity for us to be looking at these things."
Commissioner Doria Summa, who represents the commission on the working group, suggested that the plans remain too vague to warrant meaningful feedback. Though residents had a chance to weigh in on the planning effort at a February community meeting, members of the working group have not had an opportunity to fully discuss the proposed alternatives, she noted.
"I just think this needs a lot more work by staff and (the) working group before we can have a very valuable discussion about it," Summa said.
Some residents shared her view and pushed back against the proposals that were put together by staff and consultants from the firm Perkins&Will. While planners suggested that significant densification is needed to make housing developments economically feasible (the most ambitious of the three options calls for 100 units per acre), critics maintained that this goes far beyond what the residents had called for and what the city would allow in other neighborhoods.
Ken Joye, who lives in Ventura, suggested that city planners ensure that any new developments approved in the neighborhood "fully mitigate" their own impacts on traffic and parking.
"I'd suggest to you it is inappropriate to make policy decisions based upon whether a project pencils out for a commercial developer," Joye said. "Rather, we should zone for what we want in a community and not allow commercial developers to build something that is nonconforming."
Angela Dellaporta, a Ventura resident who serves on the North Ventura working group, said she and her neighbors are concerned about the construction that is already taking place in the neighborhood and urged the city to put a freeze on new development until the vision is formulated. Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, also asked for a moratorium on development. Sanders said that while she supports new housing, particularly at the Fry's site, the type of developments that the current plans call for are at odds with what residents had proposed.
"None of the proposals put forth by Perkins&Will really reflect the wishes of the people in Ventura and do not really reflect the will of the working group," Sanders said.
Others, however, argued that greater density is exactly what's needed. Housing advocate Kelsey Banes said Ventura represents an opportunity to serve many residents, both that live there today and that will be there in the future.
"If we care about affordable housing, if we want to prioritize it, it will require density," Banes told the commission. "The way you get a lot of affordable housing is with density."
Residents should have ample opportunity to weigh in over the coming months, as the alternatives continue to get refined and as the working group presents its own plans for the neighborhood. The plans will then return to the planning commission for further input before moving to the council for approval.