Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 27, 2012

Editorial: A pair of strong City Council decisions

With purpose and decisiveness, Palo Alto council moves forward with major improvements for California Avenue and the golf course

It is infrequent when one can celebrate decisiveness in process-obsessed Palo Alto, but Monday night's City Council meeting demonstrated that the current council is ready and willing to leave some constituents unhappy in order to move forward with important projects after doing their homework.

It probably didn't hurt that the meeting was the last before the month-long summer break and was packed with decision items, requiring that discussions be focused and efficient.

And in the case of both improvements to California Avenue and the golf course, deadlines outside of the city's control created pressure to act.

Bold change is not easy for many Palo Altans, and both of these issues will bring major changes to two important areas of the community.

On California Avenue, the council stuck by its many earlier decisions and approved an exciting renovation plan that includes reducing the street to two lanes, widening sidewalks, improving public spaces and creating an environment that will benefit both businesses and shoppers.

Sadly, a combination of poor early city staff outreach, the disastrous tree-cutting and a great deal of fear among local merchants, fueled by misinformation, made this an unnecessarily controversial and contentious project. Lawsuits challenging the process achieved nothing but delay and fomented additional tensions between some business owners and the city.

In reality, the plan is consistent with and significantly better than what the leaders of the merchant opposition themselves had previously supported. The lane reduction from four to two lanes, contrary to what many merchants have been led to believe, has been part of the plan for years and was developed and endorsed by the area's association of merchants and property owners. It is grossly unfair and wrong for opponents to pretend this was prompted by grant funding being available, as has been repeatedly argued.

In the end, the merchants opposing the plan decided they liked everything but the lane reduction, which they feared would create congestion and drive away customers. They asked for a trial period of temporary markings to test the impact of only two lanes, but the council rejected that plan as unnecessary and of little value, believing a temporary re-striping would create confusion, not reflect any of the benefits of a permanent reconfiguration, and result in little or no useful data.

They were right to do so.

All traffic data and the experiences of other retail-oriented streets similar to California Avenue that have gone from four to two lanes point to this being an easy decision. In fact, no one has been able to find an example of where a lane reduction has hurt local merchants, and there are many cases where it has contributed to great retail revitalization.

The lesson learned from this issue is that a natural fear of change and a lack of trust and confidence in the government are strong motivators to action, even when the facts and data don't support it.

We are huge supporters of California Avenue businesses, especially since moving our offices to the district almost three years ago and experiencing on a daily basis the area's special qualities.

The plan approved this week by the council will support the district's continued evolution into a treasured community shopping and dining area and is long overdue.

The golf course project has generated less controversy, primarily because it surfaced indirectly as a result of a flood-control project undertaken by the multi-city agency charged with reducing the risk of San Francisquito Creek going over its banks.

With that agency offering Palo Alto $3.2 million to redesign and rebuild parts of the golf course that would be affected by the construction of new levees adjacent to the course, the city developed a range of options, from doing the minimum required to supplementing the funding and undertaking a major and long overdue overhaul of the course.

The council unanimously opted for the most ambitious plan, which will add $4.3 million in cost and result in a major course redesign and the construction of three new playing fields to the Baylands Athletic Center. In spite of some complaining from golfers about future higher green fees to pay for the project, this was clearly the best option and one that will rescue the tired and uninspired golf course and create needed new athletic fields in addition to reducing flood risks in north Palo Alto.

Both of these projects are great examples of long-term community investments that will pay for themselves many times over yet that so often are beaten back by the Palo Alto process and indecision. Especially in today's environment of operating budget constraints, the council is to be commended for moving forward with these important improvements.

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