When Palo Alto officials unanimously approved in 2011 a controversial plan to reduce lanes and make a host of streetscape improvements to a commercial strip of California Avenue, they heralded the $1.7 million project as one that would transform the area into a new University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street.
Since then, the plan itself has undergone some hefty transformations -- including wider sidewalks, new plazas and more outdoor seating -- and its price tag has transformed proportionately. The latest proposal from staff to replace streetlights on the California Avenue stretch between the Caltrain station and El Camino Real would add another $1 million to the cost, bringing it to more than $4 million.
The city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed the proposed lighting improvements and the status of the city's most contentious and dramatic streetscape project Wednesday night. And while members agreed with the city's planning staff that the time is ripe for replacing streetlights and making the street brighter and safer, some commissioners had deep concerns about escalating costs and the fact that this element of the plan is just not coming to the forefront.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck lamented the fact that no one was discussing the new lighting (and, accordingly, the new budget) at the time the council approved the project. He called that "a failure of the planning department." In February 2011, when the council initially approved the streetscape project, officials planned to fund it through a $1.2 million grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and with about $500,000 in local funds.
Since then, the council had directed staff to make further improvements, including new plazas near Park Avenue and between Ash and Birch streets and wider sidewalks. These components would push the price tag to about $3.5 million. The change to streetlight could add another $1 million.
"If we're talking about a $6 million streetscape improvement or a $3 million (one) those are decisions that the City Council has to make," Alcheck said. "How is it possible that this project has gotten this far along without the discussion of street lighting?"
Despite his reservations about the process, Alcheck joined the rest of the commission in supporting the plan to brighten the streets and sidewalks in the city's second-most prominent commercial strip. Shahla Yazdy, the city's transportation engineer, said existing lights are 40 years old and "don't provide adequate lighting for the sidewalks and the pedestrians."
Staff expects the streetlight component of the project to cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million, depending on whether the council opts to keep existing streetlights and add pedestrian lights (the cheapest option) or install new lights. The most expensive option includes installing new lights and spacing them closer together -- 75 feet instead of the current level 100 feet -- to achieve better lighting. Staff had recommended the $1 million option -- replacing all the streetlights with new fixtures that would illuminate both the roads and the sidewalks without shortening the distance between these fixtures.
"We've been hearing form the community, and this is something that we feel would be good to include as part of the current project that we're proposing," Yazdy said of the streetlights plan.
Terry Shuchat, owner of Keeble & Shuchat Photography, a business on California Avenue, urged the commission to go along with this improvement. Shuchat, a strident opponent of the lane-reduction plan and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city over the project, sided with city planners for a change on Wednesday.
"Even though we have hundreds of people who oppose it (the California streetscape project as whole), I know of no one who opposes changing the lighting," Shuchat said. "It looks old; it's way too high; and it seems that since the city has the great plans to redo the streets, making the street look beautiful, it only makes sense to change the lighting also -- to bring the lighting down and make the sidewalk safer."
Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog, disagreed and said the funds would be better spent on other infrastructure items of more critical importance to the city, such as renovation of two obsolete fire stations. Moss said he is bothered by the way the project "keeps on escalating and the cost is going up and up and up."
"Taking money away from the capital-improvement pot to do additional decoration on California Avenue strikes me as an unwise use of city funds."
While some commissioners shared Moss' concerns, they all agreed that the lighting replacement is well worth pursuing given that the city will already be tearing up the streets to make the more substantive street improvements. The commission didn't take any votes on the staff recommendation.
"The project makes sense. The option you're recommending makes sense," Commissioner Alex Panelli said. "The frustration you heard here, and I echo it, is the cost overruns."
Panelli, who has recently served on the citizen commission charged with tallying up the city's infrastructure backlog, said he is concerned about taking $1 million from the city's pool of capital-improvement funds.
"I get very, very concerned because I know this million is coming from somewhere else. I just don't know what's not getting done to make this project happen," he said.