Editorial: Bridging the flood control debate | January 11, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 11, 2013

Editorial: Bridging the flood control debate

As other flood control measures move forward east of 101, Newell Road bridge replacement controversy deserves calm exploration of options

It has taken more than a decade, but finally work is set to begin that ultimately will protect Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto from floods similar to the one that inundated hundreds of homes in 1998.

With work scheduled to begin later this year, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency made up of the local cities and counties through which the creek flows, will move forward on the first in a series of projects to alleviate the current flood dangers that force residents to pay millions of dollars annually in expensive flood insurance.

Last month's intense rain storm, in which Palo Alto was largely spared from damage but which led to a breach in a levee in East Palo Alto that resulted in localized flooding and the evacuation of some residents for several days, was a timely reminder of the importance of moving forward with these planned projects.

The December storm pushed water under the Chaucer Street bridge at the third highest rate since records have been kept, dating back to 1930. Water rose to flood stage at both the Chaucer and Newell street bridges, which both create dangerous blockages of creek waters and can cause flooding even though the creek itself can handle the flow.

The San Francisquito Creek authority has adopted a plan to begin improvements at the tidelands and work its way upstream, ultimately replacing both the Chaucer and Newell street crossings. The first phase will include constructing more than 2,000 feet of floodwall east of Highway 101, including adjacent to the Palo Alto golf course.

But the city of Palo Alto's plan to replace the 101-year old substandard Newell Road bridge with a modern, two-lane bridge has run into a buzz saw of concern among nearby residents in both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.

A public outreach meeting at the Children's Theatre Tuesday night attracted an overflow audience and a wide range of opinion, including a vocal group advocating that the bridge be taken down and not replaced.

City officials have wisely decided to step back and take time to conduct environmental and traffic studies and to explore several options, including a full replacement, no replacement, and replacement with only a pedestrian/bike bridge.

The issue is sensitive for many reasons. The current narrow bridge, barely wide enough to permit two cars to pass at once, was not designed as an arterial, but has increasingly been used as a way to avoid traffic back-ups on University Avenue. This traffic, and the potential of more traffic if the bridge were widened, justifiably concerns the residents living on both sides. Neighborhood streets on the East Palo Alto side especially are not capable of handling additional traffic.

Because the bridge connects Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, neither community can justifiably act unilaterally, regardless of the fact that Palo Alto constructed the original bridge in 1911. Both cities have plenty of incentive to solve the flood hazard created by the bridge, and both have reason to limit, not expand or encourage, increases in the number of cars (currently about 3,000 trips a day) utilizing the bridge.

But the small East Palo Alto neighborhood located between San Francisquito Creek and 101 is already extremely constricted and the Newell bridge is an important access route for those residents to reach their jobs, schools and shopping destinations.

Prior to the organizing efforts of Palo Alto residents living in the area, the city of Palo Alto's plan was to use grant funds to replace the current bridge with a much wider and longer structure that would not require supporting abutments in the creek's waterway, and which would provide for safer passage for cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Pretty much everyone agrees on the need to remove the current bridge as an essential flood control measure. Similarly, we think it is also pretty obvious that at least a pedestrian and bike bridge must replace it, so that the neighborhood east of the creek is not further isolated.

So the real question is whether a new bridge should accommodate cars, and if so, what design and/or traffic measures can be utilized to prevent an increase in traffic from what exists today.

We are concerned that a bridge closed to traffic will result in debilitating shifted traffic impacts to University Avenue, but that can only be determined through traffic studies that will soon be conducted.

As the planned studies proceed, however, it is important that the public debate not lose sight of the urgent flood control needs, nor be polluted by the few who want to discuss closing off an access point to Palo Alto in order to keep criminals out.

There is a great opportunity for residents on both sides of this bridge to work together to explore solutions acceptable to each. If they can do that, we are confident that both city councils will be happy to endorse their consensus.


Posted by choices, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2013 at 1:48 pm

If they can't agree to the requested update to the bridge they should just leave the bridge as it is today. Folks can choose either flooding and continued flood insurance costs or they can have an updated bridge. Their choice.
This idea that there is a third option of turning their area into a moated community is a non-starter. Downtown North tried it, it cost the city millions and it was all resolved with a few "no turn" signs.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:11 pm

choices - leaving the bridge as-is is not an option, it contributes to the flooding problems. Something will happen to it, just a question of what.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Of course a new bridge needs to accommodate cars. When (not if) there is an emergency such as the flood of 1998, we need as much access as possible for emergency vehicles & evacuations, no matter which side of the creek one resides. I say this based on my experience in 1998 of Newll Bridge NOT flooding & being the route my neighbors used to evacuate, that emergency vehicles used & that I used to go help friends in Palo Alto who would've otherwise been stranded - all of their cars were inoperable due to flooding.

One of the men I pulled out of the flood, the roommate of a friend, was a psychiatrist who ended up being helpful to the 2 cancer patients I helped. All told, I ferried over a dozen people in Palo Alto during that flood & some were able to stay w/my neighbor & I since at that point, trying to get to any of the emergency shelters was out of the question.

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:45 pm

It's been said that a proposed Newell Bridge will be "twice as long" . This is misleading. The length of road of any new bridge will not be very different from the current bridge.

The current bridge has abutments that are inside the creek and are not included in the current bridge measurement. Any new bridge will be a "clear span bridge" with no bridge supports inside the creek. So, the measurement of the bridge is longer, but the actual length of road pavement will not change very much. (The exact length will depend on chosen alignment).

So, everyone, including reporters, please stop saying that the new bridge will be "twice as long".

Posted by attended the Newell Bridge Meeting, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Good editorial. I think the thing to do is to find solution that works for everyone. It's residential on both sides of the bridge, so it makes sense that we all want flood control, we all want connection, and we all want to ensure safe and minimal traffic. A walking ped bridge that was wide enough to enable emergency vehicles is an interesting idea that i heard at the meeting. I grew up in Englad and we had these kinds of bridges all the time. There is something in the way the bridge was constructed that allowed emergency vehicles cross when other cars could not.

Another idea is to just replace the bridge with the same size as it is now, focusing on the flood improvements and leaving the width and line up between Newell the same. The traffic expert told us that this was an excellent design for "traffic management" and personally, I like that idea.

Posted by Truedy, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2013 at 11:24 am

How cruel to cut off the East Palo Alto neighborhood by demolishing the bridge. Why not rebuild a safe bridge (for flooding, cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists) and use traffic-calming strategies to help keep the streets safe for all? I know there are students (PAUSD and Stanford) who use that bridge to bike to school and it is not safe to redirect them to University or Embarcadero along Woodland and the frontage road. There are a number of neighborhoods in Palo Alto that have had to deal with cut-through traffic, why not learn from those areas to control automobile traffic? People should think a little more globally on this issue and consider what is best for the most people, not the richest.

Posted by Still Waiting, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Been waiting nearly fifteen years for the city to do this, as they promised in 1998. What took so long to get started on something so emergent???

Posted by choices, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm

"A walking ped bridge that was wide enough to enable emergency vehicles is an interesting idea that i heard at the meeting. I grew up in Englad and we had these kinds of bridges all the time. There is something in the way the bridge was constructed that allowed emergency vehicles cross when other cars could not."

Brilliant idea! So good, that we should do it a at Chaucer as well. This would stop all the Menlo Park residents parking their cars in Palo Alto overnight, a complete blight on the city. If they can't park their cars in Menlo Park overnight, they shouldn't be able to park them in Palo Alto.
It needs to be done at University to stop all those non-Palo Alto residents coming into Palo Alto. Now we just need a way of cutting off Middlefield, Sandhill and El Camino and we'll have a perfect city.


Posted by taxpayer, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2013 at 11:53 am

Yes to pedestrian and bicycle only.

Yes to emergency vehicle access.

No to cars from either direction.

Yes to the removal of the Flood Insurance designation that mortgage owners living all along 101 have to endure.

BTW, the E.Palo neighborhood in question is hardly cut off without this bridge. There is access directly from University Ave, and speedy travel along West Bayshore to Oregon/Embarca.

Posted by Crescent Park Mom, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2013 at 11:53 am

We must solve the flooding problems as soon as possible but I like that the city is reconsidering the design of the so called "Superbridge". A bridge that large will ruin the neighborhood with increased cars and increased speeding. Newell Road is the designated route for our children to school. We don't need more cars or more speeding along that road.

I wish the city could come up with a way to allow our neighbors on the other side of the bridge to come and go but eliminate the many cars coming from the 101 trying to cut over because they are late for work and speeding. These are the problem cars NOT our EPA neighbors.

Posted by concerned about safety, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I live in the Community Center neighborhood and feel strongly that the city work to make the bridge the right size for the neighborhoods it serves. It was never built as a cut through or traffic reliever and shouldn't be expanded to become one.

My 4 children travel across and down Newell to school on bikes and foot. The cut through cars are already driving unsafely. It would be irresponsible for the city to build a bigger bridge that would encourage more traffic.

I feel it is also important to respond to a few of the themes out and statements made by members of the various communities:

1. To those who said we knew about Newell when we bought our houses near it, my view is that we knew about Newell as it is now, but now in it's proposed expanded design.

2. To those who say the traffic will spill over to other streets, that is a valid question, but an unbiased traffic study should be done to verify the future traffic based on many scenarios....a number of different bridge options, and development happening on the East Palo Alto side of the bridge.

That's why the largest bridge that makes sense is just replacing the bridge with the same scale....not adding more traffic with a greatly expanded bridge.

3. To those who say we have the grant and have to build the bridge and be done with it, I say, let's not let the money drive our decision. We need the right type of bridge for our residential community, and that is not a cut through bridge that brings more traffic.

4. To those who say minimizing the bridge is a rich vs poor or a race issue, I say, residents on both sides of the bridge want a safe neighborhood and a walking pedestrian bridge (that allows for ambulances if fire trucks if appropriate) that prioritizes the communities and residents.....but maybe not the cut through commuters.

5. To those who say that citizens who want an appropriately scaled bridge are standing in the way of flood improvement progress, I know it is both frustrating and high risk to experience delay after delay for flood improvements. We all feel the frustration of large delays of solving this problem and it must have been a huge relief that the city could use money for an old bridge to solve our flood problems. But the Caltans money comes with constraints and I am not prepared to minimize our neighborhood's safety in exchange for an opportunistic funding source.

Please build a bridge that reflects the quiet and safe neighborhood feel that we want for our families and children.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 14, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I think a lot of these comments have been helpful to the discussion of what to do next right there at the creek. For instance, I didn't know there was a problem with people speeding through Crescent Park going over the current small bridge (as is stated above in a post), as they are late to work (but not EPA locals, apparently); I think this should be taken into consideration ALONG WITH -- and this is key -- the dire need for flood control SOONER rather than later.
Thank you. It's time for our local and non-local government entities to get going and solve this problem location.

Posted by EPA Resident, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:06 am

For the safety of everyone lets not talk this to death...
Lets get the bridge and the flood work done now!
The safety and access to both sides for emergency crews is important.
We can talk speed bumps and other solutions to the traffic issues later.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:26 am

EPA Resident - there is a lot of debate on the design of the bridge. The current proposal lengthens and widens the bridge and straightens the road. One of the great things about the current bridge is that the angle slows cars down.

Posted by Jim, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Many folks fought very hard against the Sand Hill road extension saying it would cause huge amount of traffic. When it was finally built after decades of arguments, the only problem was that it still had a constricted bottleneck. Once this final bottleneck was widened the traffic flow worked.

Now the artery works well. Constricting access always worsens traffic. Try driving around Berkeley where half the streets are closed to through traffic.

The solution to speeding or traffic on Newell can be handled by
1. Speed controls - like speed bumps
2. Restricted parking to residents only with other parked cars towed
3. Enforcement of stop sign and speed laws.
4. Zoning to restrict new housing starts in areas that would increase traffic.

Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm

"Yes to pedestrian and bicycle only. Yes to emergency vehicle access. No to cars from either direction. Yes to the removal of the Flood Insurance designation that mortgage owners living all along 101 have to endure."

+1. Spot on.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm

>> the number of cars (currently about 3,000 trips a day) utilizing the bridge.

The number that needs to be known is how many of those cars are during rush hour? How many of them would add to rush hour traffic on Embarcadero and University.

>>But the small East Palo Alto neighborhood located between San Francisquito Creek and 101 is already extremely constricted and the Newell bridge is an important access route for those residents to reach their jobs, schools and shopping destinations.

Many years ago in college I lived in the Tan Apartments on the EPA side of this bridge. Most of my trips were to get on 101 or to do downtown, the quickest way was to get either on University or Embarcadero. It does not make any sense to use Newell for anything other than certain trips to certain locations, and it just does not make any trip significantly shorter or faster - with the "possible" exception of an Emergency Responder in some circumstance ... a fire I imagine, but even that might just be on the order of a few seconds.

I would vote to remove the Newell St. Bridge and see what happens. We can always build it back. In the mean time, build a cheap bicycle/pedestrian bridge and get on to the Chaucer St. Bridge.

There is a big problem with any small group of people seeks to have a larger entity pay for its infrastructure ... it may be what is suggested, but is it right to charge the state to build a bridge that may not be necessary? Especially in times of budgetary crisis? It's not like there are not other more important projects to tend to.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm

@ Jim - but you fail to mention that SHRd terminates at ECR and you either have to turn left or right. So by default, the traffic mess stops at ECR and does not continue onto Alma and Downtown North.

On occasion I will have a meeting up on SHRd and, luckily, I am driving counter commute when going up the hill in the morning. The road is packed with people exiting 280 and heading into MP/PA/Stanford. Opposite is true for the evening commute back up to 280.

The key to the new bridge is to maintain/cap the traffic level as is, provide greater safety for peds/bikes and to eliminate the flood risks as best as possible. This can be done without adding stop signs, speed bumps, etc.

We can't impose our will onto EPA housing development. And given the PA history on residential parking permits, not in our lifetime will you see a Crescent Park parking permit program.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 2:00 pm

BTW - Beyond minimizing the flood risk, my personal preference is a ped/bike bridge with (great idea) emergency vehicle access (typically a big hump in the middle of the road that only large trucks/vans can traverse).

But I'm also realistic about what will work politically. So short of what I'd like to see, the next best thing in my mind is to replace the current bridge and configuration (no direct route, narrow) with a new bridge that minimizes flood risk and also provides an upgrade in ped/bike safety.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Crescent Park Dad - if you're reading this, I wonder if it might help for you all to bombard Equity Residential w/nice phone calls re the cars in your 'hood. Even though the parking is legal, it's never been an issue *UNTIL Equity started charging for parking spots. It's not, therefore, a City of EPA issue, so there's no official help available from our town. I wonder if the landlords might be pressured into doing something about this parking problem, which affects both sides of the creek?

PS - it's not all that bad on your side, since the majority of folks there have decent sized driveways & garages. But as you & many PA residents were so supportive f Equity buying all of the properties here on the west side, maybe you all can convince them to do something about this problem that they've created.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Isn't part of the problem that EPA made Woodland Ave a no parking zone near the Newell when in the past it was available for parking? Can't the city get them to reverse that decision? Why did they make it no parking?

And this is one Palo Alto resident who was appalled when Equity Residential bought all the apartments. I thought it would have been much better if the properties had been broken up and sold to multiple owners, as EPA was hoping. However, I don't know of any way that EPA could have prevented Wells Fargo from selling to anyone they wanted. All they can do is to enforce their zoning and housing ordinances so that tenants are treated fairly. Equity Residential has a really bad reputation as a landlord, with little or no regard for tenants and surrounding communities. Initiating a charge for parking, with no regard for the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods is just one more example.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Marie - Where did this stupid rumor about no parking on Newell did get started? All you have to do is drive down it & see it's not true.

"Can't the city get them to reverse that decision?" What does that even mean? It doesn't make sense. Who are the they that you refer to?

No, EPA couldn't interfere w/the sale of the portfolio to EQR. They did try to talk Wells out of it, to no avail. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by resident on Hamilton in Palo Alto, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2013 at 12:55 am

Although this editorial is about the bridge, I have to weigh in about the parking. There really is no point arguing about parking There is either not enough of it in the neighborhood across the bridge or something is preventing the current residents from using what is available. In either case, I did not move to my home in Palo Alto 10 years ago thinking that the entire street in front of my house would become a parking lot for renters in another town and county. I certainly did not move here expecting that the additional parkers would bring crime, noise and trash.

The EPA property owner needs to provide sufficient parking. If rates have gone up recently, the renters and property owners will have to figure that out between them. If there is not enough parking given the density of the community, the city of EPA will have to deal with that and make accommodations. If there is sufficient parking and renters don't like the price or can't afford the price or prefer not to park in the parking that is available in or near their buildings, it certainly isn't the residential property owners in Palo Alto who should have to be responsible for these issues.

The city of Palo Alto also should step up and help it's own residents with this problem and return our neighborhood back to it's residential state instead of it's current informally designated parking lot. One way to solve this is to prevent overnight parking in the streets near the bridge on the Palo Alto side.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2013 at 10:20 am

Editor - for the sake of coherence, can you move all of our comments re parking to your editorial about parking?

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2013 at 11:01 am

The parking editorial is for registered users... which usually means people stop posting. The Marin Independent Journal ran an article about the parking issue (why is Marin is interesting in our parking???) and in the middle of it is a comment on how EPA banned parking on much of Woodland 6 months ago and how Equity is charging $100 a month for parking (which is a lot in my opinion!) Web Link

Too many Palo Alto neighborhoods are being used as parking lots. At least this part of Palo Alto has wide streets and generally lots of room in driveways for parking (unlike downtown, Professorville, etc.) The City Council should really address parking issues throughout the City. While street parking is public, the people of Palo Alto want a solution to parking problems. I suspect most people just want some parking available near their homes, free from trash, crime, overnight "guests" in the vehicles, etc.

Public transportation and encouraging biking will not solve any of these problems.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Parking on Woodland is NOT banned. I've said it numerous times - in fact, there are no parking restrictions even enforced for street sweeping (idiotic) & stupid people park their cars in red zones along the creek side of Woodland where it's not allowed & they don't always get ticketed. Just drive down it & see for yourself. If you want to do something about it, call & pressure EQR - this was never such a problem until they bought all of the properties.

Just because the other thread is for registered users doesn't mean these comments shouldn't be moved. It takes a few minutes to register, no biggie.

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