Palo Alto Weekly
News - July 27, 2012
California Avenue changes OK'd, no test of two-lane plan
City Council unanimously backs streetscaping plan; merchants continue to blast lane reductions
by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto's contentious drive to make California Avenue more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists zipped past heated opposition from dozens of area merchants Monday, July 23, when the City Council opted to eliminate two of the street's four lanes without first implementing a test run.
The council unanimously approved city staff's latest streetscape proposal, which includes wider sidewalks, new street art and a tree-lined plaza next to the Caltrain station. At the same time, it affirmed an earlier commitment to reduce the number of lanes. The only disagreement on the council was over whether the city should stage a trial period of the lane reduction to ease merchants' concerns that the change would create congestion and threaten businesses.
The Planning and Transportation Commission earlier this month recommended that the city allow merchants to propose a trial project. Staff, however, had major reservations.
Some on the council reasoned Monday night that a trial is a reasonable price to pay for improving the city's relationship with California Avenue merchants, many of whom still have fresh in their minds the 2009 incident in which the city unexpectedly cut down all the trees on the avenue. Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid said they were willing to support a trial. But the rest of the council declined after hearing staff's reservations.
Planning Director Curtis Williams said it would be impossible to implement the trial without making major changes to the street, and even if these changes were made, the project that would be in place wouldn't fairly represent the permanent streetscape plan. And if the city were to repave and restripe the street to make the trial possible, it would be difficult to come up with criteria for judging whether the trial is a success or not, Williams said.
"It's very difficult in a trial process to really replicate the safety and aesthetic benefits of the project," Williams said. "We feel like the trial itself would be a visually unattractive thing to do."
The lane-reduction plan is a central component of the streetscape project, which the council had initially approved in February 2011 but has continued to evolve since then. Monday night's vote pertained to the latest changes, particularly wider sidewalks, flexible public-plaza space between Ash and Birch streets and a more intricate plaza at Park Boulevard, featuring public art, trees and benches.
The council has consistently and unanimously supported reducing lanes, with the hope of turning California Avenue into a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly thoroughfare, akin to University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street. The idea has met fierce resistance from area merchants, 55 of whom signed a petition voicing opposition to the lane reduction. The project has also been the subject of two lawsuits, one of which (filed by Terry Shuchat and Joy Ogawa) succeeded in delaying the release of grant funds for the project. The other suit, filed by Robert Davidson of California Paint Company, was thrown out.
Former Vice Mayor Jack Morton (whose accounting practice is a block away from California Avenue), Terry Shuchat of Keeble and Shuchat Photography and Dave Bennett, owner of Mollie Stone's Market all spoke out against the project Monday night, claiming that the lane reduction would hurt business. Bennett cited a number of challenges Mollie Stone's is facing, including the city's recent approval of new supermarkets at the redeveloped Alma and Edgewood plazas and the food trucks in the neighborhood. The project would reduce access to the supermarket, creating what Bennett called a "very challenging situation."
"We really feel our supermarket here is in jeopardy," Bennett said. "If this goes through, we really feel the possibility of losing the neighborhood supermarket."
City officials, however, maintained throughout the process that the lane reduction would have no impact on California Avenue traffic. Councilman Pat Burt noted that the four-lane California Avenue was built many decades ago when the street crossed the railroad tracks and served as a major artery across town. These days, the street hits a dead end at the Caltrain station.
Staff also pointed at traffic data that indicated relatively low ridership on California Avenue, when compared with major downtown streets. The data showed that average daytime traffic volume on California Avenue is three times lower than at other commercial boulevards in the immediate area. California Avenue has about 5,280 average daytime trips, while University Avenue has 18,700 trips and Castro Street in Mountain View has 20,000. Both of the latter streets have two lanes while California Avenue has four.
Some area residents supported this data with personal observations and urged the council to get the project going.
"California Avenue is supposed to be a pedestrian-centered place where people can come and enjoy the businesses and to really get out of the car," said Christopher Bush, an area resident.
He compared the merchants' opposition to a game of Whac-a-Mole — as soon as one effort at opposition fails, they find another.
Michael Eager, who lives several blocks from California Avenue, also disputed the assertion from merchants that the street is congested. The project, he argued, has been delayed enough. The street, he said, is not attractive and the plaza currently in place is "downright ugly." A trial would make the area even more ugly, he said.
Councilman Larry Klein agreed that a trial is unnecessary and said he's not willing to pay for one just for "political expediency."
"I don't think that's how our citizens want us to spend the money," Klein said.
Other council members said they were concerned about the outpouring of criticism from area merchants. Councilman Sid Espinosa said the opposition from a large segment of the community has given him pause, though he disputed the assertion from critics that the city hasn't listened to their concerns. Staff, he said, has tried hard to respond to concerns from the business community.
"I really take issue with this constant chime of people saying they haven't been heard," Espinosa said.
Burt, who had served on the planning commission before joining the council, attributed the high level of opposition to "misinformation" put out by merchants.
"I really don't think I've ever encountered a project where there's been so much misrepresentation disseminated — where people hear things that are claims and they tend to think there is some truth to it," Burt said.
The elements of the project that the council approved Monday added about $700,000 to the project's cost, raising the price tag to more than $2.1 million. The city expects to get a $1.2 million grant for the project from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and spend $550,000 of its own money for the project. The balance of the funds would come from a vehicle-registration-fees program administrated by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Without the council's commitment to reduce the number of lanes from four to two, the city would have lost the opportunity to apply for grant funding for the streetscape project, according to staff.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere,
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 24, 2012 at 1:03 pm
Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.
(A small correction to Gennady's opening paragraph "heated opposition from dozens of area merchants Monday..." I counted 11 speakers for the project, 10 opposed, 4 I was unclear of their position. Of those, at least 10 wanted a trial, at least 5 didn't want a trial. So maybe a dozen spoke against, but not dozens, though he could be referring to the 55 who signed a petition against the 2-lane configuration.)
I bike and drive to Cal Ave nearly daily for coffee on my commute, and weekly to the Farmers Market and store shopping, and we frequently go for dinners, groceries, services. I support locally-owned businesses and think this project is going to be great for businesses there.
This is a dead-end, 3-block-long street, most people don't drive through, they drive and park and become pedestrians to shop. As pedestrians, they will have safer street crossings, and the wider sidewalks will provide more seating while clearing obstacles.
The traffic study is available at Web Link and it has vehicle counts starting on pdf page 21 (figure 4). Level Of Service (LOS) is explained in preceding pages.
Traffic volumes are really low, about 5280 vehicles per day (vpd) on busiest segment of El Camino Real to Ash, and the traffic lanes will be about 15' wide, with an additional 3' buffer between the lane and the parked cars. Compare to University at 18,700 vpd or Castro at 20,000 vpd both with 12' lanes. So despite the single lane, there will be plenty of room to avoid bikes. With painted 'Share the Road Arrows', bikes will know where to ride safely to avoid parked cars. Look at the report yourself, you'll see that concern about traffic is way overblown.
@'Mountain View Bike Rider', who wrote 'how much further is El Caminot going to back up with only 1 lane going into it?' ... Look at the traffic study. The busiest hour of the day has 314 cars entering Cal Ave from the ECR intersection (147 right turns + 108 Left turns + 59 straight from other side), that's 5 cars a minute, regulated by the traffic light. A single lane on Cal Ave is not going to cause backups on ECR. Less than 3 cars a minute turning right from ECR to Cal Ave.
@'Adrift-In-A-Sea-Of-Bozos', you should know what you speak of before casting aspersions. If you'd actually attended the meeting, or watched the webcast (Web Link, channel 26 [in a couple days or weeks the video will be posted at Web Link]), or listened to it on the radio (90.1FM), you'd have heard Pat Burt's detailed list of concerns which have been raised by opponents and addressed by staff or council. I'll paraphrase from memory, it was something like, "first they complained there was no parking, but the plan adds 4 parking spots. Then they complained that the sidewalks weren't getting widened, but the plan now has widened sidewalks. Then they complained that the traffic study was done in the summer, so the counts were redone when everyone should be back at school and work. Then they complained that there would be traffic snarls, but the repeated traffic studies clearly indicated this is a non issue. Now they want a trial, but there's no evidence that they will accept the results or that it is even feasible to effectively and accurately test the scenario." Something like that. I appreciate and respect Burt's bravely telling it like it is.
I can understand wanting to do a trial project if there was any realistic doubt that there would be traffic impacts to this plan, but there is zero evidence to support this fear. I could understand doing a study just to convince skeptical opponents, but it is expensive (quoted at $60K last night), it risks the grant funding worth $1.2M, and there is little evidence that the die-hard opponents would even accept the results.
Council made the right decision last night, and I'm glad this project can finally move forward again. There will still be opportunities for business and community to be engaged with this project, send staff an email to be added to their notification list, and watch cityofpaloalto.org/calave for updates.
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2012 at 12:06 pm
@Posted by Jimby, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, 2 hours ago: "Too bad the credibility of the city and city council has been erroded due to the decision to cut down the trees...thereby driving businesses nuts." ***********************************
Jimby- the PA Department of Public Works RECOMMENDED to the CAADA Board, an organization that represented the district from 1957-2010, and that collected dues, that the trees be clear-cut, in order to carry out the vision of the CAADA Streetscape Committee, that always wanted a "uniform canopy". Their vision was for the street to have 1) a uniform species, and 2) a uniform pattern of growth.
Chairperson for the CAADA Streetscape Committee was CAADA Board member Terry Shuchat. He worked with CAADA Board member Elizabeth "Feeta" Bishop, AND with Public Works to create the Concept Plan that was later included into the City Comprehensive Plan, each used to apply for 4 grant applications to do the project(only the most recent was successful).
Two lanes were ALWAYS a part of the project, and the Comprehensive Plan. Trees were ALWAYS going to be replaced. The question was HOW: clear-cut, or phasing.
While Public Works recommended a clear-cut, the CAADA Board vote was 3-1, approving their recommendation. I was the sole vote to phase.
(CAADA Board members Shuchat, Bishop, Goldberg voted to clear-cut.)
Any merchant at any time could have shown interest in the Streetscape Project from 2004, when discussions began, through 2005, when it was being designed (by Shuchat/Bishop/Public Works) and up to & including 2006, when the first grant was sought (not obtained).
By Spring 2009, the Cal Ave Streetscape Concept Plan was being included in the city Comprehensive Plan, but merchants that wanted to lend a voice to the Project STILL had right up until July 2009, to speak up with their opinion about what was at that point going to happen quickly (after FIVE years of planning). NOT ONE DID.
They were all too busy. The only time a few came to CAADA meetings was in 2009, but ONLY because Utilities were being discussed - restaurants needed gas and electricity, to stay open.
So people that showed up to CAADA meetings made the decisions. Regarding the tree clear-cut, 3 directors prevailed. I was the sole vote to phase.
To the person that wrote he/she doesn't plan to vote in council elections in the future - I'd rethink that, OR do not wait until the 11th hour, and then complain when circumstances do not happen as you would have liked them. The adage: "If you snooze, you lose" applies.
Annette is correct in applauding people for becoming involved. The only problem is when council takes to heart the OPINION of someone that is based on no facts, or twisted facts. Some people have an opinion about EVERYTHING, and on the two lane issue, a few people were just plain wrong.
Like the statement about there being another street plan. I once asked a blogger to prove that, and he did not answer me. My question to him stopped the blog. Why? He had no proof. It's like taking a wad of things out of your pocket and throwing it against the wall, and if something sticks, it becomes your reality.
When the project was brought to council in 2009, it was 100% consistent with what stakeholders had been asking for regarding the Cal Ave district from 2004-2009. That's five years. Research it - facts are everywhere.
So good for Pat Burt, for mentioning this on Monday night! Kudos to council for their leadership! I applaud them for believing in this project! Public Works deserves thanks for their work on this phase!
Public Works in 2009 dropped the ball regarding *notifications* about the project, trees Phase One. They told me on July 31 (6 weeks before work was to happen) that notices would be sent out to everyone w/in 500 feet of the Project, and it would be handled like the successful San Antonio Road project. But instead, they asked me to "notify everyone", and it was on Sept. 9, only days before the project started.
But ever since then, with the street phase, PW has been excellent!
I wonder how many people on this blog sharing opinions ever attended meetings about this, and I mean regularly. Not one or two.
How many ever came to a CAADA meeting? Board meetings were open to the public. There was even time for non-agenda items to be broached by anyone, at the beginning of each meeting. There were rarely any takers from the public or from merchants that were all "too busy".
Yet, experts abound - people sharing what they've read in newspapers. Thankfully, council is better informed, and they did their homework regarding this project. It will be lovely!
Regarding the grant money - if Cal Ave didn't get it (or anywhere in Palo Alto, for that matter) cities like Saratoga would grab it in a heartbeat, as they have tons of projects funded, courtesy of YOU.