Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 19, 2013

Palo Alto officials: City needs wider sidewalks

City Council votes unanimously to beef up requirements for sidewalks and buildings setbacks

by Gennady Sheyner

In discussing Palo Alto's sidewalk dilemma, Councilwoman Karen Holman borrowed a line from writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who famously said that "architecture is frozen music."

Recent developments, she said, suggest that Palo Alto is "out of tune."

Holman was one of four authors of a colleagues memo urging that the city review its requirements for how wide sidewalks should be and how far buildings are set back from the street — a recommendation that the council unanimously and enthusiastically approved Monday night, April 15.

Narrow sidewalks have been a topic of consternation among residents and land-use watchdogs for years, with the Arbor Real townhouse development on El Camino Real and Charleston Road and the new Alma Village on Alma Street as the two recent developments often cited as being built too close to the street. Many residents blamed the uninviting configuration of Alma for the failure of Miki's Farm Fresh Market, a grocery store that closed this month after less than six months of operation.

Holman said that while the city has made great achievements on environmental and technological issues, its buildings "have been underachieving." The proposal by her, Mayor Greg Scharff and Council members Gail Price and Greg Schmid seeks to address that, she said.

The council's vote directs staff to review the city's sidewalk regulations and make them more consistent with the vision of the El Camino Real Guidelines and the Grand Boulevard Initiative, which recommends a minimum sidewalk width of 18 feet. The city's current sidewalk regulations call for 12-foot-wide sidewalks, which includes a 4-foot-wide planting strip.

The Grand Boulevard Initiative is a strategic document created by planning agencies from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that urges a better pedestrian experience for the major thoroughfare.

The council memo argues that recent new developments, particularly along El Camino Real and Alma, "address the street in ways that are inconsistent with the intent and the vision of the El Camino Real Design Guidelines and the Grand Boulevard Plan."

"This has generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to ... how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way," the memo states. "New Urbanism principles and/or use of the PC (planned-community zoning) have often incorrectly been identified as the reason for these buildings being characterized as unfriendly and overwhelming."

Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog and a leading critic of the recent developments (most notably, Arbor Real and Alma Village), lauded the council for addressing sidewalks. The problem isn't New Urbanism, he said, referring to a philosophy that encourages dense development near transit hubs, but what he called "New Uglyism."

"People who talk about losing Miki's don't just talk about Miki's going out of business; they talk abut what an ugly, oppressive building it is," Moss said.

Penny Ellson, a longtime advocate for bicycling improvements in school corridors, also praised the memo and argued that sidewalks are critical components of city life. Sidewalks, she said, "are places where things happen."

"It's one the edge of where the cars run, the vehicles move, but it's also a really important place," Ellson said. "It's where kids play; it's where neighbors run into each other; it's where the life of the city really happens. And I think it's important that people of Palo Alto have that space."

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