Ventura neighborhood may get more housing; Council to review progress of planning effort tonight

The Ventura Community Center at 3990 Ventura Court was an elementary school until 1989 when it was closed due to declining enrollment in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The district is now considering whether ask the city to give back the former school. File photo.

Daily Post Correspondent

Palo Alto’s Ventura neighborhood could eventually have a greater variety of housing, taller buildings and more parks under an $888,000 plan that’s being developed for a 60-acre area.

The so-called North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan will cover the area bounded by Page Mill Road, El Camino Real, Lambert Avenue and the Caltrain tracks. The plan is intended to guide future development in the area, which is currently a mix of housing, offices and commercial uses. The area includes the site of Fry’s Electronics on Portage Avenue.

The City Council will hear a progress report on the plan during a special meeting tonight (March 11) at the Ventura Community Center, starting at 6 p.m.

The project “represents a rare opportunity within the city to plan proactively for a true transit-oriented mixed-use neighborhood,” City Manager Ed Shikada said in a report to the council.

‘Naturalizing’ Matadero Creek

Although the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan is still in the early stages of development, some of the ideas that have been floated so far include “naturalizing” Matadero Creek, which now runs through a culvert in the plan area. The naturalized creek could then be integrated into a park, some have proposed.

Allowing taller buildings, such as six stories high, would allow for more open space or greater density of affordable housing, some people said during meetings on the plan.

A 14-member working group appointed as an advisory panel on the North Ventura plan has met three times so far; in addition, a community workshop took place on Feb. 5.

One person attending the meetings proposed a museum to share the history of the Ventura neighborhood. Others would like to see more community meeting spaces, such as a library, bookstore or brew pub.

One of the city’s goals for the project is to increase the supply of multifamily housing, including market-rate, affordable, middle-income and senior housing. The city views the land where Fry’s now sits as one of its largest “housing opportunity sites.”

Representatives of the Sobrato Organization, which owns 15 acres within the plan area, including the Fry’s site, noted during a meeting with a city consultant that there would be some difficulty in replacing office space with housing. The consultant, Perkins+Will, was selected in June to work on the North Ventura plan.

Fry’s ‘not thriving’

“Office is doing well and housing would have to be significantly denser to be worth replacing,” according to a summary of the meeting included in the report to City Council.

Fry’s “is not thriving,” according to the summary of the Sobrato meeting, and other retail businesses might also struggle at that location.

Affordable housing advocates who met with the city’s consultant regarding the North Ventura plan also noted the economics of housing.

“Replacing existing office with housing needs to make financial sense — difficult because office has four times more revenue-generating potential,” a summary of the meeting says. Increasing height limits would be one way to increase affordability.

In addition, mixed-use projects in which housing is above offices has the potential to protect residents from a plume of groundwater contamination in the North Ventura area, participants in the affordable-housing meeting said.

In a meeting between the consultant and the Palo Alto Unified School District, participants said the plume could impact the ability to locate a school in the North Ventura plan area.

PAUSD doesn’t have a school in the Ventura neighborhood. Children in the neighborhood either cross the Caltrain tracks to get to El Carmelo Elementary or cross El Camino Real to go to Barron Park Elementary. El Carmelo is at full capacity, school officials said.

The area of the North Ventura plan is within what’s known as the California Olive Emerson regional plume. Volatile organic compounds associated with the plume have been found in soil and groundwater samples, as well as at low concentrations in vapor, according to the consultant’s report.

The plume originates from sites outside the North Ventura area, including Hewlett-Packard facilities at 395 and 640 Page Mill Road and the Varian Medical Systems facility at 601 California St., an environmental consultant said in a Nov. 30 letter to Perkins+Will.

“Additional environmental reports and design recommendations from the project’s environmental consultant will need to be performed prior to the commencement of design and construction,” the consultant said.

Final approval next year

Following the initial series of meetings, the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan project is now entering the next phase, which is development of plan options. The plan is expected to be mostly completed by the end of the year, with official approval in mid-2020.

The city received a $638,000 grant for the planning process from VTA. In addition, Sobrato Organization has provided $112,000 in matching funds for the grant and is contributing another $138,000 to pay for environmental analysis.