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

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

Original post made on Jan 31, 2020

For housing advocates, new ideas for redeveloping the Ventura neighborhood in Palo Alto are a reasonable approach to addressing the city's housing crisis. For many neighbors, they are a cause of deep anxiety.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, January 31, 2020, 6:45 AM

Comments (31)

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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