Art by Alison Xiong

Housing project raises zoning concerns

Continuing a four-year struggle to determine the future of the neighborhood, Palo Alto City Council approved an alternative vision for North Ventura in a 5-2 vote at its Jan. 10 meeting. Councilmembers Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka casted the dissenting votes. 

The city plans call for North Ventura, roughly bounded by Page Mill Road, El Camino Real, Lambert Avenue and the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto, to become a transit-oriented, mixed-use neighborhood. 

In March 2018, Palo Alto City Council appointed the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group to make recommendations towards addressing the neighborhood’s housing challenges and community desires. The NVCAP Working Group consists of 11 appointed citizens along with representatives from various city planning commissions. 

The City of Palo Alto 2030 Comprehensive Plan set a vision for preserving the California Avenue business district, including surrounding areas such as North Ventura. 

“The (NVCAP) plan should describe a vision for the future of the North Ventura area as a walkable neighborhood with multifamily housing, ground floor retail, a public park, creek improvements and an interconnected street grid,” the plan reads. “It should guide the development of the California Avenue area as a well-designed mixed-use district with diverse land uses and a network of pedestrian-oriented streets.” 

However, the project, which was projected to be completed by the summer of 2020, has dragged on with debates over future housing density, zoning and funding. Rebecca Sanders, moderator for the Ventura Neighborhood Association, said she and other NVCAP Working Group members felt that the city was pushing for a plan that the group didn’t agree with. 

“Many members created their own (separate) proposals because there was a sense that the city was not reflecting the wishes of the Working Group,” Sanders said. 

One of the primary focuses of the Working Group has been to increase the amount of parks in the vicinity of North Ventura. 

“It’s been pretty unanimous from the Working Group that parks are a pretty top goal,” NVCAP Assistant Director Rachael Tanner said. 

However, the city has made limited efforts towards granting additional park space. Angela Dellaporta, a member of the NVCAP Working Group, said that the city is biased towards how much park space is in each neighborhood. 

“The city is planning to allocate 1.6 acres of park space per 1000 residents in Ventura, but the recommended amount in Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan is four acres per 1000 residents, so we would only be getting 30% to 35%,” Dellaporta said. “Why is that OK? It doesn’t feel equitable. It feels wrong to reduce the green park area in the least wealthy neighborhood in Palo Alto.” 

Another cause of concern to the Working Group is that the city is not doing enough to enforce zoning policies. Currently, the North Ventura neighborhood is zoned for a mixture of single-family and multiple-family residences, office buildings and service commercial space. However, the city has done little to act upon these zoning ordinances, allowing companies to continue building office space instead of residences. 

Keith Reckhahl, a member of the NVCAP Working Group as well as part of the Planning and Transportation Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission, said the city should do a better job implementing zoning requirements. 

“Considering the rule in planning is to zone for what you want to build, we should be changing the zoning to reflect the desires for this area,” Reckhahl said. “That includes a lot of housing, some parks and perhaps a school, but without proper zoning, these things are unlikely to occur.” 

To address housing concerns, the city considered some alternatives such as building various high rise condominiums, but the majority of the Working Group rejected such high-density plans. Dellaporta said the Working Group is aware of the housing crisis yet cautious towards preserving the current community spirit. 

“All of us are really concerned about the housing inequities in our area and how many people are homeless,” Dellaporta said. “It’s a housing crisis. And yet at the same time, we didn’t feel it would be right to change the whole feeling of the neighborhood by building these very tall buildings.” 

At the Jan 10. meeting, City Council voted to accept a proposal to construct hundreds of new housing units, 15% of which would be marked as affordable. Sanders said these new housing units will do little to address the housing crisis. 

“A family of three would need to earn at least $136,150 annually to qualify for this housing, so the proposal will do nothing to help graduate students, teachers and day care employees whom we want to live and stay in our community,” Sanders said. 

Although the city has cited concerns over budget as reasons for the inability to construct affordable housing and more parks, Dellaporta said that there are many potential solutions City Council can adopt. 

“It’s so frustrating because City Council could afford to buy the land for affordable housing and for park space if they just instituted a business tax,” Dellaporta said. 

As the NVCAP Working Group and City Council continue to deliberate the future of the North Ventura neighborhood, Reckhdahl recognizes that there will still be more conflicts. 

“The Working Group had high hopes for transforming this area into a cohesive livable neighborhood,” Reckhdahl said. “The council is working in the right direction, but meeting expectations still will be very challenging.”