Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 13, 2012

California Avenue redesign evolves; opposition persists

City looks to reduce lanes, add plaza, benches and trees to commercial strip

by Gennady Sheyner

Wider sidewalks, new plazas and a scattering of benches, trees and other streetscape amenities are the latest components in Palo Alto's ambitious and controversial proposal to transform the California Avenue business district into a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare.

The plan, which the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed and approved by a 4-0 vote Wednesday night, July 11, has undergone a series of changes since the city first began exploring it almost two years ago. The most significant and contentious part of the proposal is the reduction of driving lanes from four to two — an idea that continues to stir opposition from dozens of merchants.

Though the proposed lane reduction featured prominently in Wednesday's hearing, with about a dozen California Avenue business owners attending to reassert their opposition, the commission's decision centered on the latest design proposals, including a bench-filled plaza at the east end of California Avenue with bollards, new trees and a "green screen" of hedge blocking the view of the Caltrain tracks.

David Gates, a consultant who is working with the city on the designs, presented a "preferred plan" that includes wider sidewalks, sand-colored paving, bollards that can be used to temporarily remove parking spots, and a plaza between Ash and Birch streets that could be used for farmers markets, music events and other public functions.

The street would be reconfigured to consist of two 15-foot-wide lanes and a 3-foot-wide "street band" separating travel lanes from parked cars. The plan also calls for a well-lighted plaza at Park Boulevard featuring a fountain, a grassy area and bike parking.

"In all cases, we're gaining vitality, we're getting better pedestrian character, we're getting more usability," Gates said, noting that the addition of greenery and vegetation would both calm traffic and create more shade.

The commission had a few concerns but found plenty to like about the new designs. The four members present (Chair Eduardo Martinez was absent and Commissioner Samir Tuma recused himself) voted to recommend that the City Council approve the latest design changes.

Palo Alto expects to fund the project through a $1.2 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and from $700,000 in funds from Valley Transportation Authority's vehicle-registration fees. The city would also contribute about $500,000 for the project, which officials hope to break ground on by fall 2013.

Vice Chair Susan Fineberg called the proposed Park Boulevard plaza "absolutely lovely compared to what is there now" and lauded the proposed plan for plucking the best streetscape elements from the various concept plans staff had considered before settling on the preferred alternative. But like her colleagues, she had major qualms about the level of opposition from merchants.

"We're not revisiting that decision tonight, but I think we're still left with the impact of the public that doesn't believe what we're saying," Fineberg said, referring to the decision to shift the street to two lanes. "That's not a good position for the city to be in, and I think we have to work to resolve that."

Commissioner Arthur Keller shared her concerns about the merchants, 55 of whom signed a petition opposing the lane reduction. The commission, under Keller's direction, asked staff to solicit from the merchants a proposal for a lane-reduction trial period. Planning officials would then consider whether the proposed trial could be implemented.

"The issue for me isn't so much to change the decision but the fact that there is a significant amount of the community that is up in arms and feels that they haven't been adequately heard," Keller said. "I'd feel the investment of doing that would be worthwhile to prove either that it does work and that the impacts are minimal or to avoid spending millions on a plan that's a disaster."

A trial, however, could be problematic, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said. Though lanes could be temporarily reduced, the city would have a hard time replicating on a trial basis many of the aesthetic enhancements in the plan, including new paving and wider sidewalks — elements that are crucial to the city's vision. There's also the problem of measuring success, Rodriguez said, because "everyone will have a different opinion."

So far, the city's traffic analysis showed that the lane reduction would not impact traffic levels, he said.

"The traffic studies we've done do a good job demonstrating that the impacts from the lane reduction aren't there," he said. "There is no impact."

Many disagreed. Robert Davidson, who launched one of two lawsuits to stop the project (the court dismissed the suit because Davidson didn't exhaust his "administrative remedies" before filing the suit), argued that the lane reduction doesn't make sense and that city officials are only pursuing it in order to get the VTA grant. The street, he said, fills up in the morning with young students on bicycles and with buses and shuttle vans picking up passengers from the Caltrain stations.

"It seems like we can get that free money, which is never free, and that the only way we can get the money is to have a lane reduction," said Davidson, owner of California Paint Company.

Terry Shuchat, who also sued the city over its environmental analysis (the court found in favor of the city, but the litigation forced Palo Alto to forgo its $1.2 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission last year — money city officials expect to receive in the next grant round), made a similar point. Shuchat, owner of Keeble & Shuchat Photography, praised most of the elements of the plan, including the new landscape improvements but urged the council not to reduce lanes.

"I think it's a great-looking plan," Shuchat said. "I think it's phenomenal on paper. I don't think it's really practical to put into use."

Others said the streetscape plan, including the lane reductions, is exactly what the neighborhood needs. Todd Burke, who lives close to the California Avenue train station, disputed the assertion that the street is too busy to accommodate a reduction in lanes.

"I can go there in the middle of the day and cook a pork chop on a hibachi and probably not get hit by a car," Burke said.

He characterized some of the opposition from merchants as "hyperbole." The project, he said, would be great for his neighbors and for all businesses on California Avenue.

Ronna Devincenzi, a former board member at the California Avenue Area Development Association, called the streetscape plan "excellent" and lauded the city for collaborating with merchants and making everyone aware of the changes to come. The association, she said, has been discussing streetscape improvements for California Avenue with the city for many years.

"This is exciting because it's like the Rolls Royce version of the streetscape that always seemed out of reach," Devincenzi said. "This design just oozes city excitement."

The planning commission added a list of stipulations to its approval, including recommendations that staff consider such elements as raised crosswalks and parklets (planted strips). The commission also directed staff to pay attention to loading zones in the new design, a particular concern of area merchants.

Even though the commission's approval calls for exploration of a trial period, members stressed the need to keep the project going without delay.

"I think it's important to move this forward and to move relatively quickly," Commissioner Greg Tanaka said. "If anyone has walked down California Avenue, you can see that a lot of tender loving care is needed on that street."

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