When it comes to planning for city growth, no area is more difficult to keep pace with than traffic. And within Palo Alto, California Avenue is a perfect illustration of that.
The eclectic collection of neighborhoods and business parks has been targeted for renewal since at least 2006, when the City Council decided to develop a "concept area plan" that would identify new or continuing uses -- commercial space, retail, housing -- for each subsection of the 115-acre area, which includes a business district and the Fry's Electronics property.
Several ambitious developments are planned for the area, from Harold Hohbach's recently approved "Park Plaza" at 195 Page Mill Road, which includes 82 apartments along with research-and-development space, to a 40-foot-tall office-and-retail building at 260 California Ave., where Illusions nightclub currently operates.
With each new development comes new traffic, even if the majority of tenants take nearby public transit, such as Caltrain or Valley Transportation Authority buses.
But when city staff in 2010 was considering a controversial plan to reduce the number of lanes from four to two on California Avenue, between El Camino Real and the Caltrain station, these pending developments weren't in the equation.
The plan, which is part of a broader streetscape revamp of the commercial strip, was adopted after a traffic analysis showed that reducing the number of lanes wouldn't result in any significant traffic problems, a finding that was disputed by area merchants.
For Pat Marriott and Dick Placone, vocal critics of Palo Alto's land-use policies, the traffic analysis had a major flaw: It assumed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that no significant new developments -- or their traffic -- would affect California Avenue.
To investigate the issue, the pair recently made a Public Records Act request to obtain emails between the city's planning staff and consultants working on the California Avenue streetscape project. The documents, which Marriott provided to the Weekly, confirmed a hunch: Palo Alto's transportation planners made a conscious decision not to include new developments in the streetscape analysis.
An exchange between Brett Walinski of the consulting firm Hexagon and city Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez focused on this very topic. In December 2010, Walinski asked Rodriguez about potential growth in the California Avenue area and wrote that he was "concerned that if we mention any potential growth, we will have to study it." He also noted that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which governs environmental review of new developments, "requires a cumulative scenario. ...
"If we are using this doc for CEQA purposes, and there is any opposition to this project, then we need to be careful about this."
Walinski proposed checking with an environmental consultant. In the absence of that, he wrote: "We may want to spend a bit more money and analyze a future growth."
Rodriguez replied that he had consulted with Chief Planning Official Julie Caporgno (who has since retired) and recommended analyzing only the "existing" and "project-only conditions." The report, he wrote, "should include a discussion that no planned projects are pending or foreseeable in the near future that would change traffic conditions beyond the current volumes."
After Walinkski responded to double-check the fact that there are "no approved or pending projects," Rodriguez wrote back: "Yes, let's focus on the no planned or active projects instead."
Fittingly, Hexagon's traffic study concluded that "there are no pending projects or planned projects in the foreseeable future. Therefore, traffic volumes on California Avenue between El Camino Real and Park Boulevard will remain unchanged with the current land uses."
The exchange struck Marriott and Placone as puzzling. Even though some significant projects -- including the offices at 260 California; a proposed four-story office building on the busy corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill, and Jay Paul Co.'s massive office proposal for 395 Page Mill -- still hadn't materialized in 2010, the city should have known that the area would see growth, and it should have included this growth in its traffic study, they figured.
Hohbach's proposal for 195 Page Mill, for example, was already crawling toward approval in 2010. The council had recently OK'd a smaller mixed-use development at 2650 Birch St. And plans were afoot to designate the California Avenue area the city's sole "planned development area," an acknowledgment that the neighborhood could accommodate more growth.
So if the city knew about these changes, why did officials proceed with the lane-reduction analysis on the assumption that there would be no projects "pending or foreseeable in the near future that would change traffic conditions beyond the current volumes?"
When Marriott and Placone brought this question to City Manager James Keene, he replied with a detailed explanation of the staff's decision, which he said is fully compliant with state law. The city is only required to analyze "pending or foreseeable" projects, and the only ones that would have fit this category in 2010 were 195 Page Mill, which was in litigation at the time, and the Birch Street project, which was so small that it wouldn't generate any major traffic problems.
This explanation didn't entirely satisfy Marriott and Placone. Even if the city and Rodriguez operated within the law, he and the city knew that the California Avenue district would see a great deal of growth in the future, Marriott wrote in a memo to the Weekly.
"Isn't it his (Rodriguez's) responsibility -- as well as Keene's and the Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council's -- to do the right thing for residents and businesses?" she asked. "As chief transportation official, shouldn't he ensure that traffic flows smoothly throughout the city?"
In a recent interview, Rodriguez told the Weekly that staff had considered the projects Marriott and Placone cited and determined that they would not have a big impact on California Avenue, despite their proximity to the commercial strip. The portion of California Avenue where the lanes will be reduced to two dead-ends at the Caltrain station, and tenants of 195 Page Mill and 260 Birch are unlikely to use those blocks for commuting.
But Rodriguez also acknowledged that the traffic model used for the analysis was not built to consider the major changes along and near California Avenue. That's one of the things the city is looking to change as it completes its Comprehensive Plan Amendment, Rodriguez said. In one of its final actions before the July break, the City Council approved a $290,000 addition to its work on the Comprehensive Plan to overhaul the existing traffic model and come up with one that does a better job looking at cumulative effects of various different projects.
"The old model didn't have a good analysis for the future. It didn't add in every project that was approved," Rodriguez said.
The subject of cumulative traffic has become a hot topic well beyond California Avenue. Downtown residents have long been up in arms about the city's approval of new office buildings, some of whose tenants have collectively eaten up all the parking spaces in the neighborhoods. And residents of the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods have blasted the city's recent traffic analysis for an approved development at 567 Maybell Ave., which includes 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. On June 17, just before the council approved the project, Councilman Greg Schmid made the point that current traffic measures aren't sufficient.
"There are cumulative impacts that are impacting the neighborhoods that are not being measured by 'Let's count the incremental change,'" Schmid said. "People look at incremental changes, none of which make a major impact, and then see traffic in their community go up on the order of 60 to 70 percent."
The existing traffic model was created in 1995 and updated several times, most recently in 2008, when the Stanford University Medical Center was going through with its major expansion.
The new model, which uses the methodology of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, will be updated with the latest and projected land-use developments. It will consider recent and future changes around California Avenue and the East Meadow Circle area, which are subject of the city's "concept area plans."
Rodriguez said it will include possible future projects such as John Arrillaga's proposed office-and-theater development at 27 University Ave. and Jay Paul Co.'s proposed complexes at 395 Page Mill. It will also include the potential housing sites listed in the Comp Plan's Housing Element, which the city approved last month after years of delays. It will also consider big developments in neighboring jurisdictions, including Menlo Park, Mountain View