The idea of turning a section of University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto into a pedestrian-only zone picked up some steam Monday night, when the City Council unanimously agreed to explore it.
The unexpected consensus came during the council's wide-ranging discussion of the city's new Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding land-use document. The decadelong update of the Comprehensive Plan is now in its final phase, with the council scheduled to approve the document later this month.
On Monday, the council dedicated its discussion to reviewing recommendations from the Planning and Transportation Commission, which discussed the document over the course of six meetings and which identified more than a dozen "priority" areas that it felt warrant revisions. These include a stronger emphasis on below-market-rate housing (including a quantifiable goal of housing units produced), a commitment to get local employers participating in the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (a nonprofit that aims to reduce traffic) and the inclusion in the plan of "community indicators" -- measures for gauging the city's progress in areas such as vehicle-miles traveled, greenhouse-gas emissions and the jobs-housing imbalance.
The council accepted the bulk of the commission's recommendations, including the addition of community indicators (the council will decide at its next meeting exactly which measures, exactly, should be included), stronger language on affordable housing (albeit, with no quantifiable goal) and new wording on enhancing community character.
On other issues, council members were more skeptical. They voted down, for instance, a recommendation that the Comprehensive Plan include a stronger policy on encouraging infill housing (only Councilman Cory Wolbach and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss supported the recommendation) and were split over whether the city should pursue a "coordinated area plan" for the downtown area -- a vision document put together with extensive community participation that would propose new land uses and amenities in the area.
Kniss and Councilman Adrian Fine both argued that a coordinated area plan for the downtown area is badly overdue. A policy for creating one is included in the existing Comprehensive Plan, though the city had never initiated the effort. Kniss pointed to the city's experience with the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) area plan, which the city completed in 2003 and served as the blueprint for the area's redevelopment in response to the relocation of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
"I don't know how we can get to a point to where we can look at dramatically changing downtown in some way without some type of area plan," Kniss said.
But while SOFA is widely considered a success story, the city's record with coordinated-area plans is, at best, mixed. Its last two efforts to put such plans together fizzled despite years of meetings, community workshops and consultant studies. The concept-area-plan for the East Meadow Circle/Fabian Way was officially approved by the council in 2012. Since then, however, it has been largely sitting on a shelf. None of its recommendations had been implemented, it did not undergo an environmental review and the council's politics have changed. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman acknowledged Monday night that the policies in the East Meadow plan are more growth-friendly than those favored by the current council.
The California Avenue concept plan fared even worse. After more than five years of work, it was approved by the Planning and Transportation Commission in February 2014, only to be tossed out later in the year by a council that felt it went too far in encouraging development.
Despite the recent setbacks with area plans, the Planning and Transportation Commission generally agreed during its review that the city should pursue one for downtown. Some members, particularly Eric Rosenblum, also favored a study of designating a portion of University Avenue a pedestrian-only zone.
Councilman Adrian Fine was among those who supported this recommendation. Working on a new vision for downtown, he said, would be a "nice way for the community to watch and participate, as the wheels really hit the road after we finalize the Comprehensive Plan.
"It's an opportunity for the community to come together, get some drawings on the wall and figure out what downtown looks like," Fine said,
Others showed less enthusiasm about moving ahead with another complex and time-consuming planning effort. Mayor Greg Scharff said he was surprised to learn that the policy for creating a downtown plan was already in the Comprehensive Plan and suggested that the council remove it (the council will consider this issue at its next meeting).
He was far more receptive, however, to the idea of a pedestrian-only University Avenue -- a concept that he said should be considered apart from the broader plan.
"I think a lot of people have said they'd like to see parts of downtown be pedestrian only," Scharff said. "I don't know if it's the right thing to do ... but we should look at it."
The council unanimously supported studying the issue, even as it reserved its judgment on the downtown concept plan. Councilwoman Lydia Kou said she was worried about the prospect of drivers switching to neighborhood streets to bypass the pedestrian-only zone, exacerbating traffic and parking problems in residential areas.
"If it's a study, I can go along with it, but I'm still greatly concerned about just making the problem worse and pushing it off to other places," Kou said.