Redevelopment plan chosen for Ventura neighborhood, but will it get built? | September 24, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2021

Redevelopment plan chosen for Ventura neighborhood, but will it get built?

City Council favors least aggressive coordinated-area plan and rejects proposal for new commercial development

by Gennady Sheyner

After more than two years of planning for change in the dynamic but underserved Ventura neighborhood, Palo Alto officials struggled on Monday to reconcile the community's vision for the planning area with the wishes of the two biggest property owners.

The Sobrato Organization, which owns the campus on Portage Avenue that until recently housed Fry's Electronics, and Jay Paul Company, owner of the commercial property at 395 Page Mill Road that houses Cloudera, both submitted to the city last week their own proposals for their respective properties, which in both cases include a combination of residential and commercial use.

Sobrato is proposing to preserve and rehabilitate a major portion of the historic cannery building at 340 Portage Ave. that formerly housed Fry's Electronics and to retain commercial space in the building, which occupies the largest parcel in the 60-acre area that is the focus of the city's North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan (NVCAP). Sobrato is also advancing a plan to build 91 townhouses at 200 Portage Ave., next to the Fry's site.

Tim Steele, Sobrato's senior vice president for real estate, emphasized Monday that its plan shares some characteristics with the proposals that were developed over the past two years by city staff, consultants and a working group of neighborhood residents and other stakeholders. This includes housing, a path along Matadero Creek and no new office space beyond what's already there.

"Sobrato, much like the city, takes a long-term view in our real estate ownership and investment," Steele told the council. "We also share the desire for projects to be of high quality and successful in their execution and long-term viability."

Jay Paul's proposal, which the city received last week, aims even higher when it comes to office space — literally. The developer has proposed building an eight-story office development with 200,000 square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill, as well as two residential buildings with a total of 508 residences between them. All three buildings would occupy a block bounded by Page Mill Road, Olive Avenue, Park Boulevard and Ash Street, which would also include a small neighborhood park.

The proposal for office space is based on Jay Paul's calculations of how much it would cost to build 508 housing units, create a park and shift 95% of the site's parking underground, said Maia Harris, director of special projects at Jay Paul. Architect Tom Gilman, representing Jay Paul, told the council on Monday that under the company's proposed concept, 60% of the site at 395 Page Mill Road would consist of open space — compared to 25% today.

"We believe this plan really embodies a lot of the features and can achieve a number of the elements that the vision of the NVCAP seems to have," Gilman said.

But while council members lauded some elements of the Sobrato plan — namely, the proposed improvements to the preserved cannery building — they roundly rejected Jay Paul's concept.

The biggest dispute is over office space. When the council embarked on the Ventura planning process in 2018, it adopted a list of project goals that included elements such as housing, a connected street grid and new amenities for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. It conspicuously did not mention office growth, a trend that the city has been actively trying to discourage over the past decade through creation of an annual cap on new office space and a reduction in the citywide limit on nonresidential development.

Citing the original goals of the planning exercise, Vice Mayor Pat Burt called Jay Paul's proposal for an office tower and residential complex "nonstarters."

"They don't get to first base in my mind," Burt said. "It's completely out of the ballpark and, really, I'm kind of mystified why the owners of that property would come forward with something like that after hopefully paying attention to our city's zoning rules and this process throughout."

Mayor Tom DuBois concurred and suggested that the idea of adding a significant office component to the planning area is "way off from what the community really wants."

DuBois championed a more cautious approach on redeveloping Ventura and advocated for the least intense of the three redevelopment alternatives that staff and consultants presented to the council. Known as Alternative 1, the alternative calls for gradually phasing out office space and creating about 500 new housing units.

The other two options would add a "realistic capacity" of 1,170 and 1,490 housing units, respectively. The most ambitious of the three, known as Alternative 3B, also acknowledges the challenging economics of constructing affordable housing and, as an incentive to property owners, includes 126,000 square feet of new office space.

With DuBois leading the way, the council identified Alternative 1 as its preferred option and directed staff to explore other zoning incentives — most notably a reduction in parking requirements — to encourage new retail. The direction, which advanced by a 6-1 vote, also calls for the amortization of some office uses and retention of the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments, with the sole exception of affordable housing projects, which would be subject to various bonuses and exemptions.

The council also favored "adaptive reuse" — rather than demolition — of the Fry's building, which was constructed by Thomas Foon Chew in the 1920s and which served as a cannery until 1949.

In choosing the most modest path, the council rejected arguments from housing advocates and some residents who supported Alternative 3B, which according to an analysis from staff and consultants is the only option on the table that actually has a chance of coming to fruition. But while economically feasible, the option is also relatively unpopular among members of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group. Gail Price, board president of the pro-housing nonprofit Palo Alto Forward and a former council member, was the only working group member who supported Alternative 3B.

Having an aspirational vision without funding sources will not result in construction of new homes, she told the council Monday.

"It is time to be more proactive to meet our new and changing needs," Price said.

Council member Alison Cormack, the lone dissenter in the council vote, similarly suggested that the alternative favored by the council majority falls well off the mark and does not provide the wide range of housing options that the community needs.

"My fear is we're going to spend a lot more money and a fair amount more time and we're going to have a plan that isn't going to get implemented," Cormack said. "And it's going to leave a bad taste in the community's mouth."

Most members of the working group, including those who live in Ventura, soundly rejected the office-heavy proposals submitted by Sobrato and Jay Paul. Kirsten Flynn, who served on the working group, argued that the two proposals, if implemented, would make it nearly impossible to return the creek to a more natural state or add any other neighborhood amenities. She called the planning process a "once in a lifetime effort" and urged the council to include parks in its plans for Ventura.

"Developers are in the business of making money, so they want office space because in the past it's been terribly profitable," Flynn said. "Citizens have the role of asking for amenities — that's our job — that improve the quality of life.

"We want parks. We want access to nature, schools, housing for our community."

The council's vote on Monday creates a path forward for a planning process that has been stuck in limbo since the three alternatives were released more than a year ago. Where the path leads, however, remains uncertain. Council member Greg Tanaka, who supported the council majority's directions on adding housing, voted against the elements of the motion that pertained to limiting office use. He also suggested that a plan that seeks to eliminate office space and that, as such, is opposed by the two largest property owners in the area, is unlikely to succeed.

"Inherently, what we're trying to do is we're trying to merge the desire of the community with the desire of the property owner," Tanaka said. "If we're doing one and not the other, or vice versa, nothing is really going to happen. We're all going to have to work together somehow."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2021 at 7:19 am

felix is a registered user.

It’s good to know that the the Council dog wagged the tail of developers on this, rather than allowing developers and their allies to be tails that did the wagging of the dog.

The decision allows a whole lot of housing but not so much as to overwhelm the neighborhood with unmitigated impacts.

Local paid Yimby staff and adherents insist
new housing not all be crammed together in an area but dispersed through town - you got it! Celebrate!

I was happy to hear three statements from Council (I paraphrase):
First - It’s not the job of Council to maximize the profit of developers.
Second - Staff using 350 square feet per employee was highly questionable, so were asked to rework it using perhaps a more realistic 150 SF.
Third - Good for the pass on J. Paul’s fantasy project. I assume it was a strategic move so his next offering, which likely will also exceed limits, will seem more reasonable in contrast. Eye-roll.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 21, 2021 at 9:34 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

Relocate the cannery bldg to Cubberly for city use there. Plant good, safe well incorporated affordable housing where cannery was. Use the relocated cannery for pickle ball courts and such at Cubbetey . Ridiculous is as ridiculous does. Shame on city for not supporting housing for all ages, incomes, abilities and yes, all people of color . It’ll be a mostly white highest income area .

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 21, 2021 at 11:52 am

Chris is a registered user.

Did the city implement some kind of racist policy in your eyes? I guess we should destroy the environment and live in cancerous concrete skyscrapers
Relocating a building? That's ridiculous

Posted by Paul Brophy
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 21, 2021 at 2:11 pm

Paul Brophy is a registered user.

Kudos to the Council for resisting the idea of allowing more office space in a community that has already imposed fiscal and transportation burdens elsewhere in the Bay Area by permitting far more jobs than housing units over the past couple of generations. At the same time, the Council wishes to impose conditions for the development of new housing that makes it totally unfeasible for that to ever occur.

City policies that guarantee that no major housing projects will ever be built include demands for restricted density, developer funded parks and other public amenities, preserving large parts of a 70 year old industrial building in the case of Fry's, and above all, the expectation that the builder of market rate housing must also fund affordable units. To give you an idea of what this entails, the affordable housing project at 801 Alma built in 2011 required subsidies equal to $600,000 per unit. At today's costs, we're talking north of $1 million. You don't need to be a whiz with spreadsheets to recognize that rents or sales prices of market rate homes have to be far higher just to cover this expense, one that is not caused by their project but rather to serve an existing community wide need.

I have no doubt that many residents are perfectly happy to have an outcome where new units are theoretically allowed but none built. However, large employers represented by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Bay Area Council are politically influential in Sacramento and they desperately want more housing built near jobs. Elected officials from East Bay cities are angry at the jobs/housing disparity continuing to get worse as more office buildings go up on our side of the Bay. If you think poorly thought through actions like SB 9 and 10 are bad, wait until you see what's coming down the road. If Palo Alto or any other city with a huge jobs/housing imbalance continues to make it impossible for an improvement in this condition, do not be surprised what follows.

Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 21, 2021 at 2:37 pm

chris is a registered user.

Cormack is going to have to work with Palo Alto Forward to put up a block against City Council until the Housing Element Committee is done. The city needs to figure out where the 6K housing units can be built before they waste so much space in Ventura on so few units.

I see a lot of law suits in the City's future.

Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 21, 2021 at 3:14 pm

tmp is a registered user.

Good for the city council to tell developers NO to more jobs. We are in the mess we are in now (city and state wide) from building too many jobs and no housing. Second we should not overwhelm this site with too many people. We live in the most polluted state, don't have good sources of water, and the environment is a mess. Why make it worse?

Just a reminder - the city owes the residents of this city 100s of acres of park space under the comprehensive plan of 4 acres per 1000 residents. They have added many thousands of people and virtually no park space. This spot is a prime area for a large community center and park. They are woefully underserved. We need a dedicated funding source to purchase park space for the community. It is not being adequately addressed by the council.

So cheers for keeping the density reasonable and not adding more jobs. Please work on parks/ open space and not overwhelming our city infrastructure and environment.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 22, 2021 at 2:02 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Unfortunately, within the last decade or two, Palo Alto's existing office space has doubled if not trebled the number of employees that occupy office space previously occupied by only one employee. An issue not foreseen when the city last revisited Palo Alto's land use designations decades ago.

It is past time for Palo Alto to revisit our zoning designations and redress our outdated imbalance of land use. Especially since the percentage of commercial vs residential property tax generated has dropped from approximately 50-50 at the time of Prop 13 to approximately 25-75, on a continuing downward trajectory due to loopholes for commercial properties. In addition, most office use does not generate sales tax revenue.

Time for Palo Alto to sunset commercial land use designations where it now makes more sense to now build housing and reduce the jobs-housing imbalance.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 23, 2021 at 4:59 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

We get demands from the SV groups for more housing. However they are not putting employees in their buildings. The employees are working from home. Reading the Real Estate pages in the papers a lot of our commecial properties are being bought up by out-of-state companies at bargain prices. Further - most of the companies are buying up property in other states and moving work to states that have better cost of living index. The Cost of living Index is government manufactured and is used in bidding for new jobs. You have to bid the location of where work will be performed and use that in your proposal pricing. Behind the hype the facts do not support the argument by SV companies. Cities need to do what makes sense for them within the avaiable resources which at this time are deminishing.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2021 at 11:48 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Council Member Tanaka, if you believe what you say, "what we're trying to do is we're trying to merge the desire of the community with the desire of the property together somehow...," what have you done to bring people together for problem-solving to make that happen? What have you done to lead toward this goal?

Posted by Tecsi
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 5, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Tecsi is a registered user.

CAYIMBY is not supporting more housing and fewer offices? Hmmm?

Don't more offices than housing make our housing situation worse?

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