In the latest Around Town column, news about a warning for developers whose projects cost local trees, a longer than usual tunnel closure and a possible rule change to address concerns about city board and commission members.
SHADY BUSINESS ... For years, Palo Alto has encouraged developers to steer away from paved parking lots and toward underground parking garages. That trend comes at a cost to local trees, the Architectural Review Board warned last week. In a joint session with the City Council, board member Alexander Lew cited numerous instances where garages interfered with the root system of streetside trees, at times requiring the board to recommend revisions. That's because the basement level often extends beyond the footprint of the building, limiting how much space roots have to spread. This is particularly a problem with large multistory projects, board members said. Lew pointed to the new mixed-use development at 385 Sherman Ave., where trees next to the building had to rely on soil from the neighboring property to survive. "We really can't save any existing trees unless you work really hard to do that," Lew told the council. "You're losing mature trees when you really need them to screen a large building." The board also flagged the issue in its annual report to the council earlier this year. "While the reduction of surface parking is generally a positive change, less space is available on-site for large trees to grow and mature," the report states. The document also notes that the replacement of single-story buildings with multiple-story ones can "reduce the size of trees as canopies. ... We understand that multiple story buildings are a positive response to urban growth, but strive to also maintain a vibrant and robust urban street canopy." Lew suggested that it may be time to revisit the city's parking and landscaping guidelines to address conflicts — a recommendation that council generally supported.
WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE ... In what has long been an annual tradition in Palo Alto, the Benjamin Lefkowitz undercrossing at Adobe Creek shut down late last month for the rainy season. The tunnel typically reopens in April, but that won't happen this time around. With the council recently approving the construction contract for the city's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, city officials are expecting an "extended closure" for the underpass. A key goal of the bridge project is to make the underpass obsolete. Once the bridge is completed, it will give bicyclists and pedestrians a year-round route over U.S. Highway 101 and into the Baylands. According to the city's blog, construction of the $23.2-million bridge will begin in January 2020, with completion anticipated in June 2021. The new bridge will be prefabricated off-site and, once ready, hoisted over the highway overnight, according to the city.
ERRORS OF COMMISSION ... Palo Alto's elected leaders tend to be circumspect when confronted with cases in which their volunteer commissioners engage in questionable behavior. Even when shown evidence that a planning commissioner has benefited from a zone change that they participated in crafting, the response has been collective silence. Last week, resident Fred Balin reiterated his concerns about Planning and Transportation Commissioner Michael Alcheck's continued presence on the commission, despite his involvement in creating a policy on garage designs — a policy that helped him build garages on his own Duveneck-St. Francis properties despite the city's initial determination that these structures are illegal. Balin, who conducted his own investigation of Alcheck's actions and released a 112-page report earlier this year, has been calling for months for the City Council to remove Alcheck from the commission. The council's current procedures state that concerns about an individual board or commission member should be "pursued with tact." "If a Council member has concerns with a particular board or commission member fulfilling his or her roles and responsibilities and is comfortable in talking with that individual privately, the council member should do so," the rules state. On Monday, Dec. 9, the council will consider possible changes to its rules. According to a report from City Manager Ed Shikada, the council will consider topics such as the relationship between commissioners and the council and the role of council liaisons. One of the questions listed in Shikada's report is: "Should expectations of board/commission members be clarified, with definitions to elements such as qualifications, term limits, recusals and disclosures, attendance, conduct and a process for removal?"