Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 2, 2014

'Grand' vision for El Camino clashes with reality in Palo Alto

Regional initiative fuels city's drive for wider sidewalks, more density on thoroughfare

by Gennady Sheyner

Few local residents would use the word "grand" to describe Palo Alto's congested, eclectic and motel-dotted stretch of El Camino Real, a state highway that planning officials hope to turn into a vibrant chain of neighborhood centers.

This hope, residents like to point out, is very much divorced from reality, but that hasn't stopped officials from 19 cities from collaborating on what is known as the "Grand Boulevard Initiative," a movement to encourage the transformation of El Camino into a more attractive destination where drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians can safely intermingle.

On Wednesday, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission heard a presentation from Michael Garvey, who chairs the working committee for the Grand Boulevard Initiative and coordinates the regional effort, which includes the area between Daly City and San Jose. In his presentation, Garvey stressed that the goal of the initiative is to help cities along El Camino share information, coordinate planning efforts and pursue a shared vision of the thoroughfare as "a place for residents to work, live, shop and play," contributing to "an improved and meaningful quality of life."

"The idea is to take what has been a traditional state highway and convert it into a complete street," Garvey said.

The effort kicked off in 2006 and so far has consisted mostly of studies, Garvey said. Since its inception, the project has been spearheaded by Samtrans and Joint Venture Silicon Valley, though in recent years several other stakeholders added their names to the sponsors list. The movement has received $8.7 million in grants, mostly for research.

Palo Alto's planning commission has generally supported the vision for a safer and more vibrant El Camino, with Michael Alcheck saying he is "a big fan of the initiative" and Greg Tanaka calling the vision "noble." Yet members also acknowledged Wednesday that advancing it won't be easy.

Today, El Camino features narrow sidewalks, a wide range of land uses and a high number of small parcels, which makes it hard to foster redevelopment. Though Palo Alto's proposal for wider sidewalks would only apply to new developments, property owners have criticized the ordinance, which would widen sidewalks from 8 feet to 12 feet.

On March 20, property owners argued that the proposed rules would make it nearly impossible for them to redevelop their properties.

On Wednesday, several commissioners cited the political challenges of going along with the regional effort.

Commissioner Carl King cited the commonly heard community refrains — "I'd never walk there"; "It's such an unattractive place"; "You'll never make it attractive" — and wondered if any examples exist of the initiative being successfully implemented.

Garvey stressed that each community is approaching the initiative differently, based on its own conditions and ambitions. He pointed to recent projects that the city has undertaken that are consistent with the regional vision, including adding pedestrian amenities at the busy intersection of El Camino and Stanford Avenue and its design standards for new El Camino developments.

Other new city efforts also take inspiration from the Grand Boulevard Initiative, including staff's proposed ordinance encouraging wider sidewalks, which refers numerous times to the initiative.

But some remain skeptical about the vision. Land-use watchdog Bob Moss said Wednesday that it would be near impossible to implement a grand vision on a street where lots are so small and shallow. The fact that El Camino properties often back up against small single-family homes also make it difficult to build high and dense developments, he said.

Alcheck disagreed with Moss and said he's not concerned about the small lot sizes on El Camino. Opportunities will exist, he said, for small lots to be consolidated.

"I sense that some creative parcel accumulation by creative developers will alleviate that issue," Alcheck said.

Tanaka, who at a prior meeting called the initiative a "noble cause," nevertheless pointed to the challenges of furthering it in Palo Alto.

Pursuing this vision requires actions that are often unpopular and opposed by property owners, as with the sidewalk ordinance, which the planning commission voted against in early April and the City Council is scheduled to consider on June 5.

"How do you balance the two and try to make it possible?" Tanaka asked, referring to the disparities in the vision and actual application.

Read more about the Grand Boulevard Initiative at www.grandboulevard.net

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you support implementation of any parts of the Grand Boulevard Initiative in Palo Alto? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the community discussion forum on PaloAltoOnline.com.

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

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