After two years of revisions, lawsuits and squabbles with area business owners, Palo Alto officials are now putting the finishing touches on their ambitious plan to transform California Avenue into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare, with construction set to begin next fall.
The project has been steadily evolving since February 2011, when the council unanimously approved it despite opposition from dozens of area merchants. The city's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez, who gave an update on the project at the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Business Advocacy and Public Policy Forum meeting Wednesday morning, said the streetscape design has just been finalized and is set to go to the Planning and Transportation Commission for approval in January before proceeding to the City Council in February.
If all goes according to plan, the reconstruction of the city's second-most prominent commercial strip would begin in the fall, he said.
The project has drawn heat from dozens of area merchants, many of whom criticized the proposed reduction of lanes from two to one in each direction. Some have disputed staff's preliminary traffic studies, which suggested that traffic impact would be negligible. While some remain opposed to the lane reduction, others now support the city's plan.
David Bennett, owner of Mollie Stone's Market, is in the latter camp. Bennett had originally opposed the road redesign but now says he believes the streetscape plan can benefit the business area. While he continues to have some concerns about the project's impact on access to the supermarket, he says the city has been receptive to his concerns and diligent in its outreach to his business and others in the area.
"I have to believe that this will be for the benefit of the city," Bennett told the Weekly.
Rodriguez said the city has continued to reach out to area businesses, hosting community meetings and workshops for merchants throughout the fall. The project has become more ambitious since its inception, with the council asking staff to widen sidewalks and create expansive new plazas at several locations on California Avenue. These would include a convertible plaza on the block between Ash and Birch Streets.
Rodriguez said that it would be up to the business community to come together and decide how they want to use this new plaza.
Other recent revisions are less dramatic. In the past few months, officials decided to add outdoor dining tables to area businesses, including Izzy's Bagels and Joanie's Café. They also decided to move a bus stop near the southeast corner of California Avenue and El Camino Real a bit further from the busy corner because of community concern about potential traffic disruptions. They have also reduced the number of proposed trees at certain locations to keep the area from becoming too cool.
Some questions still remain, Rodriguez said. Officials are still hashing out the design of the future street furniture and plan to bring their proposal to the Architectural Review Board early next year. They are also considering whether to replace the lighting structures along California Avenue, which would add $1.2 million to the project's cost.
The streetscape project, which now has a price tag of about $2.4 million, is expected to be funded largely through a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and through the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's vehicle-registration-fee program. The city is also contributing about $500,000 for the redesign of California Avenue, which they hope will soon resemble one-lane thoroughfares such as Mountain View's Castro Street and Menlo Park's Santa Cruz Avenue.