Uploaded: Wed, Jul 11, 2012, 10:09 pm
California Avenue redesign evolves; opposition remains
City looks to reduce lanes, add plaza, benches and trees to commercial strip
Wider sidewalks, new plazas and a scattering of benches, trees and other streetscape amenities are the latest components in Palo Alto's ambitious and controversial proposal to transform California Avenue into a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare.
The plan, which the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed and approved by a 4-0 vote Wednesday night, has undergone a series of changes since the city first began exploring it almost two years ago. The most significant and contentious part of the proposal is the reduction of driving lanes from four to two -- an idea that has been opposed by dozens of area merchants.
Though the proposed lane reduction featured prominently in Wednesday's hearing, with about a dozen California Avenue business owners attending to reassert their opposition, the commission's decision centered on the latest design proposals, including a bench-filled plaza at the east end of California Avenue with bollards, new trees and a "green screen" of hedge blocking the view of the Caltrain tracks.
David Gates, a consultant who is working with the city on the designs, presented a "preferred plan" that includes wider sidewalks, sand-colored paving, bollards that can be used to temporarily remove parking spots, and a plaza between Ash and Birch streets that could be used for farmers markets, music events and other public functions.
The street would be reconfigured to consist of two 15-foot-wide lanes with "Share the Road" markings and a 3-foot-wide "street band" separating travel lanes from parked cars. The plan also calls for a well-lighted plaza at Park Boulevard featuring a fountain, a grassy area and bike parking.
"In all cases, we're gaining vitality, we're getting better pedestrian character, we're getting more usability," Gates said, noting that the addition of greenery and vegetation would both calm traffic and create more shade.
The commission had a few concerns but found plenty to like about the new designs. The four members present (Chair Eduardo Martinez was absent and Commissioner Samir Tuma recused himself) voted to recommend that the City Council approve the latest design changes.
Palo Alto expects to fund the project through a $1.2 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and from $700,000 in funds from VTA's vehicle-registration fees. The city would also contribute about $500,000 in local funds for the project, which officials hope to break ground on by fall 2013.
Vice Chair Susan Fineberg called the proposed Park Boulevard plaza "absolutely lovely compared to what is there now" and lauded the proposed plan for plucking the best streetscape elements from the various concept plans staff had considering before settling on the preferred alternative. But like her colleagues, she had major qualms about the level of opposition from area merchants.
"We're not revisiting that decision tonight but I think we're still left with the impact of the public that doesn't believe what we're saying," Fineberg said, referring to the decision to shift the street to two lanes. "That's not a good position for the city to be in and I think we have to work to resolve that."
Commissioner Arthur Keller shared her concerns about the merchants, 55 of whom signed a petition opposing the lane reduction. The commission, under Keller's direction, asked staff to solicit from the merchants a proposal for a lane-reduction trial period. Planning officials would then consider whether the proposed trial could be implemented.
"The issue for me isn't so much to change the decision but the fact that there is a significant amount of the community that is up in arms and feels that they haven't been adequately heard," Keller said. "I'd feel the investment of doing that would be worthwhile to prove either that it does work and that the impacts are minimal or to avoid spending millions on a plan that's a disaster."
A trial, however, could be problematic, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said. Though lanes could be temporarily reduced, the city would have a hard time replicating on a trial basis many of the aesthetic enhancements in the plan, including new paving and wider sidewalks elements that are crucial to the city's vision. There's also the problem of measuring success, Rodriguez said, because "everyone will have a different opinion."
So far, the city's traffic analysis showed that the lane reduction would not impact traffic levels, Rodriguez said.
"The traffic studies we've done do a good job demonstrating that the impacts from the lane reduction aren't there," he said. "There is no impact."
Many disagreed. Robert Davidson, who launched one of two lawsuits to stop the project (the court dismissed the suit because Davidson didn't exhaust his "administrative remedies" before filing the suit), argued that the lane reduction doesn't make sense and that city officials are only pursuing it in order to get the VTA grant. The street, he said, fills up in the morning with young students on bicycles and with buses and shuttle vans picking up passengers from the Caltrain stations.
"It seems like we can get that free money, which is never free, and that the only way we can get the money is to have a lane reduction," said Davidson, owner of California Paint Company.
Terry Shuchat, who also sued the city over its environmental analysis (the court found in favor of the city, but the litigation forced Palo Alto to forgo its $1.2 million grant from the MTC last year -- money city officials expect to receive in the next grant round), made a similar point. Shuchat, owner of Keeble & Shuchat Photography, praised most of the elements of the plan, including the new landscape improvements but urged the council not to reduce lanes.
"I think it's a great-looking plan," Shuchat said. "I think it's phenomenal on paper. I don't think it's really practical to put into use."
Others said the streetscape plan, including the lane reductions, is exactly what the neighborhood needs. Todd Burke, who lives close to the California Avenue train station, disputed the assertion that the street is too busy to accommodate a reduction in lanes.
"I can go there in the middle of the day and cook a pork chop on a hibachi and probably not get hit by a car," Burke said.
He characterized some of the opposition from merchants as "hyperbole." The project, he said, would be great for his neighbors and for all businesses on California Avenue.
Ronna Devincenzi, a former board member at the California Avenue Area Development Association, called the streetscape plan "excellent" and lauded the city for collaborating with merchants and making everyone aware of the changes to come. The association, she said, has been discussing streetscape improvements for California Avenue with the city for many years.
"This is exciting because it's like the Rolls Royce version of the streetscape that always seemed out of reach," Devincenzi said. "This design just oozes city excitement."
The planning commission added a list of stipulations to its approval, including recommendations that staff consider such elements as raised crosswalks and parklets. The commission also directed staff to pay attention to loading zones in the new design, a particular concern of area merchants.
Even though the commission's approval calls for exploration of a trial period, members stressed the need to keep the project going without delay.
"I think it's important to move this forward and to move relatively quickly," Commissioner Greg Tanaka said. "If anyone has walked down California Avenue, you can see that a lot of tender loving care is needed on that street."
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Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm
To C. M. Long - I'm glad you are enjoying the Farmer's Market. It was a big hit, from Day One. The Streetscape was designed to *incorporate* the market, not to reduce or eliminate it. The idea of the Streetscape was to address pedestrian safety making the street more walker-friendly, 24/7, including at the market.
Two lanes was the plan since 2006, when the design "in concept", was finished. I'll include details for you below since you're new, and you do not know the story. The Weekly knows what I'm sharing, but they're not reporting it. I agree w/ Doug Moran's comment where he suggested they research and wrote, "Hint, hint, hint…"
I think when someone asks a question as you did, it should be answered, so this post is just to you, and anyone else that's interested. It's OLD news to many.
BTW, the Market was brought to the community by two citizen volunteers:
Sanford Forte, who lived in Evergreen & was a CAADA director then (California Avenue Area Development Association, an organization that represented district businesses from 1957-2010) found the producer and got the ball rolling with the city and CAADA, seeing that the market was held on Sunday, an otherwise sleepy time for California Ave, as most businesses were closed. There was always strong objection by a few merchants about closing the street at any day or time of the year. Sunday was a good fit for most.
The other volunteer responsible for the market is me, another CAADA director then. When Sanford and the market producer hit roadblocks threatening the market from being held (bureaucracy, red tape & high city fees), I stepped in & ironed it out, negotiating with the city and the producer.
While that was long ago, the public has no idea the market almost did not take place. It was NOT like the city-funded City Hall market. We had to jump through hoops. Thankfully, everything was negotiated successfully, after much work. Everyone loves the market, and I'm glad you do too.
Details on "The Streetscape":
The Project was first discussed in the fall of 2004, and from 2005-2009, in earnest. The street was always to be repaved, and other STANDARD work done, planned for years, such as utility work & tree replacement. The Streetscape was an enhancement of what would have been standard maintenance to a street that had gone years without attention.
The city was *always* aware of the weekly activities happening on the street, as well as seasonal activities, like the annual Children's Trick or Treat event on Halloween, and the Jewish To Life! Street Festival (held for 10 years, from 2001-2010).
The City was *always* intending to work around everything, preserving the activities that were there. So the market should be *enhanced* by the 2-lane configuration, as it was designed with that in mind.
For some reason, Weekly reporters overlook HOW the Streetscape came about, reporting the city came up with this idea just two years ago, and the city is not keeping merchants in the loop, trying to push 2 lanes on everyone. That is NOT true.
The 2-lane design was brought to the whole CAADA board as the recommended plan from a self-appointed, 2-person "CAADA Streetscape Committee" (Terry Shuchat, chairman/Elizabeth "Feeta" Bishop, member, both CAADA Board members) that WANTED to design the street, by themselves. Early on, another Board member worked with them, but he left prior to the "Concept Plan" being brought to the CAADA Board and to council in 2006.
Before the "Streetscape Committee" took over, I planned a charette for everyone to attend (merchants, residents, city, and anyone interested) to weigh in their opinions.
It was to be led by Architects Judith Wasserman and Tony Carasco. But I cancelled it, when Terry and Feeta (multi-property owners) *insisted* on designing the Concept Plan themselves, in collaboration with the City.
Terry, Feeta and the City visited other business communities. They did a great deal of work, thinking about how to create a safer and prettier street for everyone.
They worked hard in 2005 creating a "Concept Plan" with the city (a public/private collaboration) reporting back to the CAADA Board (and the City Manager's office, Frank Benest, then) regularly. What they created was unanimously accepted by the whole CAADA Board. TERRY AND FEETA DID AN EXCELLENT JOB.
After it was finalized, including the lane reduction, the design just sat there from 2006-2009, until the last of the utility work was done. Work was to begin Sept. 2009, starting with the tree replacement. The ONLY thing *not* ironed out until July 2009 was HOW the trees were to be replaced: a clear-cut, or a phased approach.
Terry, Feeta, another director, Margot, all voted to clear-cut, and that was the city's recommendation. Only I objected to a clear-cut, for two reasons:
1) I had vague memories of a clear-cut disaster of 30 years ago, and was reminded of it by a CAADA Businessman that remembered it vividly (but he never came to CAADA meetings). At meetings, other directors told me I was wrong. When I asked them to speak with the member that voiced concerns to me, they chose not to.
2) Sanford Forte, who was no longer on the CAADA Board at the time, had been *passionate* about phasing. I felt a need to respect his 'voice', as he often spoke for the opinion of many people. But I was out-voted. The vote to clear-cut prevailed, and trees were cut on Sept. 14th 2009 (if memory serves).
Days before the trees were cut down (Sept. 9th, 2009) Public Works asked me to "notify everyone" about the commencement of the Streetcape. Up until that time, I had only kept 80+ ground floor retail merchants in the loop. (Many disregarded emails. What they do with information after I send it is out of my hands. There were complaints that I was "too detailed" like now! - they chose not to read it.)
On Sept. 10th, I notified the whole city: press releases, residents… What I did not know then, was that 6 weeks before, on July 31, 2009, when I was told by PW that everyone within 500 feet was to be notified properly, by the city, it never happened.
Some merchants got a hand-delivered city post card, just before work began, and "everyone" got an email, from me. Since commencement of work came as a surprise to most residents and to those CAADA businesses that had not been getting updates, (mostly offices) the "The Project" was halted. Everything was second-guessed, including the street work (the second half of Phase One.)
The Weekly reports that the Streetscape has only been discussed for "two years". But this project, *including the 2-lane configuration*, has been waiting to be *implemented*, since Thanksgiving 2009. Prior to that, there was THREE years of discussion going back to the 2006 "Concept Plan" (also see City of Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan, California Avenue Stakeholder's finalized meeting in 2009 - residents as far as Barron Park were there, as well as anyone else interested. Doug Moran attended, per the finalized meeting notes. Terry Shuchat represented CAADA. You can see the 2 lane configuration was discussed repeatedly.)
Two lanes was NEVER the result of grant money, although, in order to get the grant money, two lanes are, from what I was told, required. The successful grant is the FOURTH try for outside money. Three earlier grants were not approved 2 large, 1 small.
In mid 2009, Public Works brought the "Concept Plan" (part of the "Comprehensive Plan") to Council. But when trees were cut, council was "surprised" about the trees.
Yet the San Jose Mercury reporter in Palo Alto asked a good question then, writing: "How can there be tree replacement if the old trees are not removed?" Pointing out that council WAS aware of "tree replacement". Her question was never answered.
It WAS Public Work's recommendation at the July CAADA meeting to clear cut, and staff describes the scope of jobs to council. All of that is documented in city records. (But it is NOT in "The Executive Summary" of the Project, if I remember correctly.)
One important factor that would have eliminated the issue of the tree clear cut surprise to (almost) everyone, and the halting of the project is that city council assigns representatives to attend meetings, like the ones CAADA held from 1957-2010. These people are "liaisons" that are to report back to other council members.
In the twenty years I served as President, a liaison was in attendance at most, if not all, CAADA meetings, beginning with Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher, 20+ years ago. Other council liaisons to CAADA were Vic Ojakian, Jim Burch, among others; all came to every CAADA meeting, right up to Yoriko Kishimoto.
But during the time the CAADA Streetscape was being designed, neither of the two council liasions to CAADA attended meetings. So they were not able to report back to council. Those four years were of critical importance, 2006-2007 & 2008-2009. Designated council reps have to *request* the assignment. The fountain was an issue in 2008; the Streetscape in 2009.
It's a matter of city record, if you want to know who they are. It's not my intention to cast stones. But their absence was discussed by directors at CAADA meetings (before and after the tree clear-cut), and the Economic Development official at that time came to almost all our meetings she was in Planning, could do nothing about it. Public Works attended most CAADA meetings in the latter half of 2008 & through 2009, so one would think the council and other departments WERE being informed.
We should learn from our mistakes, and the public has a right to know having answers to questions, such as the one you asked about what impact, if any, two lanes would have on the Farmer's Market.
Had the process been handled correctly, the Streetscape (including the two lanes) would have been completed, by Thanksgiving 2009, and the benches, bike racks, etc. finished in early 2010. Instead, for three years, everything has been on hold. It's sad for Market-goers, such as you, C. M., to have to walk on streets that are cracked and filled with potholes, and bad for merchants, for whom this process seems endless. Many merchants do want 2 lanes, by the way. They just want the work to be done with as little impact to them as possible. While it was mentioned that 55 businesses oppose the lane configuration, I had over 250 businesses recorded in the business directory that I produced in 1994, and there must be over 500 businesses, if all the office buildings are included. Further, the residents would benefit, by having the street completed.
On this Phase of the Project, and since 2009, the City has done an excellent job of being collaborative and transparent, and getting the grant is amazing! The street will look terrific!