California Avenue merchants and city officials haven't always seen eye to eye when it comes to the proposed revamp of the commercial strip, but this week they reached accord on one portion of the controversial project -- the need to install new streetlights all over the city's "second downtown."
Despite some concern about escalating costs of the much debated streetscape project, the City Council voted unanimously March 4 to add up to $1.2 million to the project's budget for installation of at least 37 streetlights along California Avenue, between El Camino Real and the Caltrain station. These would include both roadway lights and lower pedestrian-scale lights, with the types sharing existing poles. The number of new streetlights could be raised to 48 if staff decides to decrease spacing between the poles, an option that would add $200,000 to the $1 million project.
The council's approval is the latest addition to a project that has been steadily evolving since its inception in 2010. Originally envisioned as a $1.8 million lane-reduction project that would largely be funded by grants, the effort has morphed into a dramatic transformation of the commercial strip, which will now include wider sidewalks, two public plazas, new trees and street furniture and a budget of more than $4 million.
Staff attributed the escalating budget to a variety of factors, including rising construction costs, a reduction in grant funds that resulted from a recent lawsuit by California Avenue merchants and the council's decision to broaden the scope of the project by requiring widened sidewalks and other amenities that they hope will turn the commercial strip into a popular thoroughfare like Castro Street in Mountain View.
The council swiftly approved the latest addition to the streetscape project after several area merchants and residents, including those who have vehemently opposed the proposed lane reduction, urged the council to light up California Avenue. Jessica Roth, whose family owns European Cobblery and who argued against the lane reduction, asked the council Monday to install the new lights in new locations that would be consistent with the soon-to-be expanded sidewalks.
"Let's make it a complete beautification," Roth said. "We don't want to do it again in a few years."
Former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, one of the most outspoken critics of the lane reduction, told the council that calling the streetscape project "frustrating" for the merchants would be a "drastic understatement." But he agreed with the staff recommendation to replace California Avenue's existing streetlights, which were installed in the 1960s. He also urged the council to choose locations for the new poles that would align well with the new sidewalks.
"Leading the light pole in the middle of a widened sidewalk just sets up a handicap obstruction," Morton said.
Todd Burke, a California Avenue resident and a supporter of the streetscape project, agreed and said the new lights would make the street more aesthetically pleasing, pedestrian friendly and safe.
"Brighter lights will ultimately lead to a more safe environment," Burke said.
The council agreed and, after some discussion about the project's evolution, voted to increase the budget yet again. Councilman Pat Burt said he has "some concerns" about the rising costs but agreed with his colleagues that the latest addition makes sense.
"This has become a big commitment to a district," Burt said shortly before the vote. "It's a nice 50-year kind of a project and it's going to be an important decision."
Councilman Greg Schmid said that while the process has been a long one, it does get the city to its vision for California Avenue, "to make it an accessible, vibrant place that draws pedestrians in." The project, he said will help bring in more people, and the brighter lights will help.
"I think the lighting makes sure that it's not just a worktime place but it becomes an evening place as well," Schmid said. "The finances are challenging but I think we can meet them because this is a priority."