Just about everyone agrees that the stretch of Park Boulevard just south of Oregon Expressway may be ripe for change, even if there's little consensus on what exactly it should become.
Most members of the Palo Alto City Council and many residents see the commercial strip near the California Avenue Caltrain station as a promising site for future housing. A developer who owns two of the seven developments in the area says the neighborhood is perfectly suited for a wider variety of office uses. As it is, the stretch is one of only two clusters in the city — along with the area around San Antonio Road and Fabian Way — that is zoned for "general manufacturing," which allows for research-and-development companies as well as trade schools, equipment yards and animal care.
Such tenants, however, apparently aren't clamoring for prime Palo Alto real estate. Jay Paul, a major property owner in the area, finished constructing a building at 3045 Park Blvd. in the fall of 2019 and has not, however, been able to find a tenant, company representatives told the council Monday night. Janette D'Elia, the company's chief operating officer, said the building is the only one in the company's portfolio where a prolonged vacancy has been an issue.
"We don't often end up in situations where we're unable to lease," D'Elia said. "That has been an anomaly for us."
To address the problem, Jay Paul has requested that the city create a new office overlay district along Park Boulevard, a zone change that would allow properties zoned for research and development to accommodate a wider range of office-based businesses, including financial services, architecture practices and law firms.
The zone change proposed by Jay Paul would extend beyond the two properties that the developer owns along Park Boulevard: the building at 2747 Park Blvd., which is occupied by Tencent, and 3045 Park Blvd. It would also apply to five other commercial properties: the law office of Hopkins & Carley at 200 Page Mill Road; Park Plaza, the mixed-use development at 195 Page Mill Road that includes 84 apartments; the WeWork office at 3101 Park Blvd.; the office of Vance Brown Builder at 3197 Park Blvd.; and a vacant building at 3241 Park Blvd.
Maia Harris, project manager with Jay Paul, said most of the companies that have expressed interest in leasing 3045 Park Blvd. were general office uses.
Harris suggested that the proximity of the buildings in the proposed overlay district to both the California Avenue business district and the Caltrain station make it an ideal site for adding employees, who would take transit, use the Park Boulevard bike path and patronize local businesses.
"We see our users going out to lunch or going out for a drink or dinner after work," Harris said.
That proposal, however, failed to gain traction during Monday's "prescreening" session, which was designed to allow the council to offer early feedback on the proposed zone change. While the council didn't take any formal action, members showed little appetite for making any zone changes at this time, particularly ones that would allow more offices.
Several pointed at the fact that the city is now in the final stages of completing the North Ventura Area Coordinated Area Plan, a vision document for a broader 60-acre portion of Ventura that includes a segment of Park Boulevard along its northeastern edge.
Many of those who support a zone change on Park Boulevard see housing as the preferred goal. Keith Reckdahl, who serves on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, a committee that is helping to craft the new Ventura vision, said most members of the working group believe that the best long-term option for the properties is the conversion of office space to housing.
"Our city has too many offices and not enough housing, so this conversion from office to housing would help the jobs-housing imbalance doubly, on both ends of the equation," Reckdahl said.
Reckdahl also noted that adding housing to this area would give north Ventura a critical mass of residents to attract neighborhood-serving businesses. And because housing generally generates less traffic than commercial sites, it would also limit traffic impacts to Park Boulevard.
Council member Eric Filseth suggested that approving Jay Paul's proposed zone change for the portion of Park Boulevard would undermine two council goals: encouraging more housing and creating a holistic land-use vision for Ventura.
"Locking in the proposed use at this time would tend to act in contrast with both of those things," Filseth said.
Council member Alison Cormack similarly cautioned against moving too quickly and rezoning the site without understanding it in the context of the area plan. Council member Lydia Kou said the city needs to be "planning comprehensively" and making sure the uses benefit the entire community. And council member Greer Stone said he was concerned about the council using its zoning powers to interfere with the free market.
"I am concerned about the precedent this sets for allowing developers to be able to purchase and develop properties in a zoned district and then turn around and request the city to change zoning to better suit their needs," Stone said. "I think it's important that we have consistency in our zoning code in the laws, to make sure we're not having this kind of problem continue to come up."
D'Elia acknowledged the council's desire to increase its housing stock and noted that Jay Paul has been participating in discussions with the city about adding housing at another site that it owns in the North Ventura plan area, at 395 Page Mill Road. But both she and city staff underscored that it would be unrealistic for the council to expect housing at 3045 Park Blvd., a building that was just constructed and that is unlikely to be replaced any time soon. The site, D'Elia said, is perfectly suitable for either tech workers or any other type of office employees, she said.
Mayor Tom DuBois challenged that notion and called Jay Paul's request to expand allowed office uses at 3045 Park Blvd. an "uphill proposal." He also rejected the idea of rezoning the other six other properties along Park until the broader Ventura plan is adopted.
"I'd like to have the NVCAP process complete and really see what the long-term plan for this area plan is," DuBois said.