Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 4, 2014

Plan to widen El Camino Real sidewalks meets resistance

Property owners criticize proposed ordinance as misguided, overly restrictive

by Gennady Sheyner

A regional drive to turn El Camino Real into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard clashed with thorny reality Tuesday night as property owners in Palo Alto lashed out at the city's effort to encourage wider sidewalks along the prominent commuter thoroughfare.

About 15 property owners attended a public hearing at Creekside Inn on Tuesday to hear city staff explain the city's proposed sidewalk ordinance and offer input. The ordinance, which was prompted by a memo from City Council members, seeks to expand the distance between curbs and buildings beyond the 12 feet that the zoning code currently calls for. It would maintain the 12-foot minimum width while also requiring an average building setback of 15 to 18 feet along El Camino.

The ordinance provides flexibility based on context, which includes such factors as "land use, adjacent properties' existing building setbacks, proposed or adjacent building design, and lot size." The city's Architectural Review Board, which issues recommendations on new developments, would consider these factors in issuing its decisions on particular projects.

In addition, the proposed ordinance would modify the existing "build to line" standard, which requires the front of the building to be 12 feet away from the curb. Under the new rules, the ground floor would be allowed to be set further back from the curb, to create more space for pedestrians, while the top floor could extend closer to the street. Features such as columns or arcades could also be brought closer to the sidewalk.

Chief Planning Official Amy French said developers currently have to request a "design enhancement exception" if they want to set their building back farther than 12 feet. The rule change would give them more flexibility in setting the buildings away from the sidewalk.

The movement to change rules along El Camino is rooted in both a regional effort to enliven the corridor and a local effort to reduce the mass of new developments. Recent developments on El Camino, including the Arbor Real townhouses near Charleston Road and the new hotel at the former Palo Alto Bowl site, have attracted criticism from residents about their large mass and proximity to the curb. In a memo last April, council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid argued that the new projects have "generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close the buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way due to inadequate setbacks and building articulation and openings to reduce the building mass."

The council members pointed to the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a regional effort that calls for a minimum sidewalk width of 18 feet, significantly larger than the city's existing 12-foot standard.

"The idea of El Camino improvements is to provide vitality along the street," French said.

In addition to adjusting sidewalk widths, the proposed ordinance would also reduce the building density allowed at the 32 properties on El Camino zoned "neighborhood commercial." This provision was drafted in response to a recent change in state law that allows these properties to increase density from 15 housing units per acre to 20 units. In response, the City Council directed staff to consider reducing the "floor area ratio," which would effectively ensure that the additional units are small.

"One of the goals is (to have) smaller units to meet that segment of the housing need," French said.

Though planning staff stressed Tuesday that the new rules would only apply to new projects and not existing buildings, the caveat did little to assuage the concerns of the property owners. Many argued that the sidewalk ordinance would further limit their abilities to redevelop. Others dismissed the regional vision of turning El Camino into a "grand boulevard" as deeply misguided, noting that the car-heavy thoroughfare more closely resembles a highway than a promenade. Joe Rizza, whose property is at the corner of El Camino and Fernando Avenue, was one of many to question whether the city really needs to encourage more pedestrian use on the thoroughfare. A pedestrian who tries to cross El Camino at the crosswalk near this property effectively takes his life in his hands, Rizza said.

"I don't see people sitting on El Camino, with buses going by, enjoying their coffee," Rizza said. "I don't see bicycles using El Camino."

"El Camino Real is not a great place to attract foot traffic," he later added. "It's dangerous. It's a highway."

His was one of many skeptical voices at Tuesday's meeting. Property owner Sal Giovanotto lashed out against the city's effort to imitate European boulevards and argued that the movement will accomplish nothing aside from restricting residents' rights.

"This thing is not helping anybody," Giovanotto said. "There is not a drop of advantage to anybody. No matter what you do, you have to pay a price."

Ken Weng, who also owns properties on El Camino, said the new adjustments would have a particularly negative impact on small properties, which already face heavy restrictions when it comes to redevelopment.

"We want to see a nice El Camino Real," Weng said. "The problem is, all the rules when you add them up together don't make sense with small properties."

Several speakers argued that if the city imposes new restrictions on properties, it should relax other rules, including height limits for buildings next to residential properties. Because they would no longer be allowed to be built close to the sidewalk, property owners should have the ability to build higher, they said.

Staff's response that the height issue could be considered separately but is not part of the current ordinance did little to assuage their concerns.

"You're taking something away, but you're not allowing some sort of modifications to compensate for that," said Ben Cintz, who owns property on El Camino and Stanford Avenue.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to discuss the rule changes on April 9.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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