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To preserve legacy of Chinese entrepreneur, resident seeks historical status for former Fry's building

If successful, application would complicate plans to redevelop 1918 cannery building and the rest of the Ventura site.
The commercial building at 340 Portage Avenue that originally functioned as a cannery would be partially demolished to make room for 74 townhomes under the current proposal.

As Palo Alto prepares to finally decide on the proposed redevelopment of the property that until 2019 was home to Fry's Electronics, a resident has filed an application requesting that the old cannery building be designated a historic structure.

The application from resident Terry Holzemer seeks to preserve the legacy of Thomas Foon Chew, a Chinese entrepreneur who built the fruit and vegetable cannery in 1918 and turned his company, Bayside Cannery, into the third largest cannery in the world.

By filing his application Thursday, Holzemer is hoping to stop the most contentious aspect of the redevelopment plan the building's partial demolition.

Thomas Foon Chew, center, stands with two cannery foremen in front of Chew's Alviso cannery, which predated Chew's Palo Alto cannery. . Courtesy Gloria Hom.

On Sept. 5, the City Council is scheduled to review of a proposed development agreement between the city and The Sobrato Organization, which owns the Portage Avenue site. The agreement has been vetted by the city's various land use boards in recent months.

If approved, the development agreement would represent the most significant project in the Ventura neighborhood in decades. Sobrato would be allowed to demolish about 40% of the cannery building and construct 74 townhomes in its place.

The rest of the building would be retained as commercial space and renovated. Small spaces would be created for the public to view the former cannery building's historic elements, such as monitor roofs.

In exchange, Sobrato would contribute 3.25 acres of land to the city to accommodate a future affordable housing project and a new park next to Matadero Creek. The city hopes to restore and naturalize the concrete channel as part of a long-term plan for the 14.65-acre site.

Holzemer, a teacher who lives in the Mayfield neighborhood, has argued throughout the planning process that the building should be preserved as a tribute to Foon Chew.

Holzemer argued in the letter that Palo Alto, California and the United States "still struggle with the consequences of centuries of mistreatment of minorities as well as discrimination that continues to this day."

"The significance of Thomas Foon Chew's extraordinary accomplishments in face of the enormous obstacles of his time cannot be overstated," he wrote. "For a city such as Palo Alto, which prides itself on equality for all, to lend its hand to the destruction of one of last surviving and most impressive monument to Chew's achievements is wrong, especially because it completely unnecessary.

"No legal nor financial obstacle exists to the preservation of this extraordinary building, 340 Portage. We should designate it as historic so that we and generations to come can truly honor Chew and his legacy."

In his application, he is calling for the city to designate the former cannery building a Category 1 or Category 2 historic resources the two highest levels in the local inventory.

Buildings that carry such designations faces strict regulations when it comes to demolition or renovation, including the need to conduct environmental reviews. Buildings listed as Category 3 or Category 4 historic resources don't carry such restrictions unless they are located in downtown or the Professorville neighborhood.

Debates over historical designations

The topic of historical designations has become increasingly contentious over the past two years, both because of the Sobrato project and because of a separate effort by the city to revisit and possibly expand its inventory of local properties that may qualify for historical listing.

Last month, the city's consulting firm, Page & Turnbull, released the results of its Reconnaissance Survey that looked at the list of 167 properties that had been previously identified by a 2001 study as potentially eligible for inclusion as a historical resource on local, state and national registers.

While some of these buildings have been demolished or significantly altered over the past two decades, the new survey concluded that 147 of them "retain their historic significance and integrity" and are thus eligible for listing in either the National Register or the California register.

Whether the city actually petitions to have these properties listed in the state and national registers will be up to the City Council. Under local law, the city can choose to list these properties whether or not the property owners support the designation.

Similarly, a resident who does not own the property in question can nevertheless request that this property be listed as historical resources, as Holzemer is doing with the Fry's building.

In his application, Holzemer suggests that the city and Sobrato study "restoration and adaptive reuse" of the former cannery.

"Destroying an important historic resource that gave hope to thousands of local migrants and impacted the lives of everyone in the Bay Area in the 20th century should not be considered nor tolerated," the letter states.

The former Fry's building has two monitor roofs, which would be preserved under Sobrato's plan to redevelop the site and demolish a portion of the building at 340 Portage Ave. . Rendering courtesy city of Palo Alto.

The building's historical status has been a source of contention throughout the planning process.

The Environmental Impact Report for the Sobrato project identified the loss of a historical resource the cannery building as the project's only "significant and unavoidable" impact, a finding that requires the City Council to approve a statement of overriding consideration to advance the project. And even though the Historic Resources Board, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission had all reviewed and recommended approval of the development agreement, members of each reviewing body criticized Sobrato's plan to demolish a portion of the building. Numerous residents, including former Mayor Karen Holman and land-use watchdog Jeff Levinsky, have also publicly lobbied the city to preserve the former cannery building.

During the architecture board's June review, Chair Peter Baltay called on Sobrato to provide more public access to the building and its defining elements namely, the monitor roofs and called the existing design a "travesty."

"That's the real shame that our town cannot somehow find a way to preserve this use," Baltay said.

The historic board also struggled with the project during its May review, with board member Margaret Wimmer and others lamenting their limited purview over modifying the development agreement and ensuring preservation.

"The historical process and how we review things, how we classify things as historic, is troubled because our ordinance is not protective enough. There will be a significant and unavoidable impact to a historical resource with this project," she said at the May 25 meeting.


About the Author: Gennady Sheyner

Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before that he covered news and politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut.
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