In its effort to get city approval for a new office complex at 395 Page Mill, developer Jay Paul Company faces an uphill battle in convincing Palo Alto officials, residents and regional agencies that the project's traffic won't overwhelm the already congested area near El Camino Real.
While the traffic analysis for the project won't be released until next month, early efforts to quantify the effects of adding 311,000 square feet of development to the area have been met with skepticism by the agencies that reviewed them, particularly the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the state Department of Transportation.
Each agency found that the preliminary analysis by the project's transportation consultants greatly overstates the number of people who wouldn't drive their cars to work.
At a Wednesday community meeting organized by Jay Paul, the company's Executive Vice President Ray Paul claimed that one of the major objectives of the project is to get people out of their cars. He lauded the project's proximity to a Caltrain station as a key reason for planning such a large development.
"Our rationale was: It's close to transit. It's a way to get the density while minimizing the traffic for that amount of square footage," Ray Paul told an audience of more than 40 residents.
The company proposes a number of incentives to keep people from commuting to work by car, including a bus service, subsidized Caltrain passes and walkways to the office complex from the train station. An October 2012 memorandum from the transportation consultant, Fehr & Peers, estimates that with these measures, the project will add about 2,800 car trips to the area daily, including about 300 new trips each in the morning and in the evening peak hours. The numbers, however, assume that Jay Paul will succeed in reducing traffic from the 395 Page Mill site by 10 percent and that future incentives will reduce traffic trips from the new office complexes by 24.6 percent from where they would otherwise be.
Yet the memo from Fehr & Peers also notes that according to VTA guidelines, "a maximum 3 percent reduction in vehicle trips may be applied for projects near a Caltrain station and a maximum 5 percent reduction may be applied for projects offering financial incentives (e.g., subsidized transit passes) for tenants to use alternative modes of travel."
Jay Paul's project has far grander ambitions when it comes to minimizing traffic, memos from the transportation consultant indicate. An August 2012 memo cites surveys of buildings near Caltrain and BART stations (including a "confidential site" in Palo Alto and one in Menlo Park) that achieved a 10 to 15 percent reduction in car trips. The memo also notes that, according to the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association, for a site near a rail station "with a robust TDM (transportation demand management) program, an additional trip reduction of 2 to 6 percent is likely."
Jay Paul's list of proposed TDM programs include a carpool service, transit subsidies and various bicycle amenities. Its biggest strategy, its location near Caltrain, is expected to drive down the number of car trips by 10 to 15 percent.
In providing feedback on the traffic analysis, however, the VTA notes that Jay Paul's double-digit estimates for reducing traffic are heavily predicated on its location near Caltrain and the ability for people to walk from the station to 375 Page Mill. VTA points out, however, that there is an "existing gap in the sidewalk network along Sheridan Avenue and Page Mill Road between the project site and the California Avenue Caltrain station." The developer's analysis proposes various capital improvements for closing the gap but acknowledges the city "cannot be certain at this time that such improvements will be implemented and no other feasible mitigation measures have been identified."
The VTA urged the city in an August letter to work with the applicant "to strengthen the project's commitment to providing funds for the sidewalk improvements identified." If a path for pedestrians does not exist "along the shortest route" between Caltrain and the project, "the project either needs to create this continuous route or it is not eligible to take the trip reduction."
Caltrans voiced its own concerns about the analysis. In July, it urged the city and Jay Paul to do a study that tallies traffic volumes at all potentially impacted intersections around the site; considers the site's consistency with the city's Comprehensive Plan; and identifies ways to improve roadways that won't be able to handle project-related or future traffic.
Caltrans also cited the importance of easing traffic on El Camino Real, a state-owned road also known as Route 82.
"Given the scale of the proposed project, the traffic generated will have significant regional impacts to the already congested state highway system," Caltrans' District Branch Chief Erik Alm wrote in a letter to Jodie Gerhardt, Palo Alto's project manager for the Jay Paul project.
City staff noted that the traffic numbers are still being revised. Staff had initially hoped to release the draft analysis in September but delayed the release because of staff concerns about the report's assumptions. At their last discussion of 395 Page Mill, council members stressed the importance of the traffic study, with Councilman Larry Klein calling the study "a determining factor" in the decision on the development.
"We don't even get to a discussion of public benefits in my view until we decide that the traffic is something we can handle," Klein said at the Sept. 17 meeting.
Now, staff is expected to release the study either in December or early next year.
Paul Krupka, a transportation consultant charged with developing the TDM program for 395 Page Mill, cited Jay Paul's experience with TDM programs in other communities, including in Moffett Park in Sunnyvale, where the company built a light-rail station as part of a major commercial project. He noted at the Wednesday hearing that the developer's agreement with the city will include a stipulation mandating a substantial penalty for noncompliance with trip-reduction goals. The commuting trends of employees would be monitored and reported on an annual basis, he said.