Updated: Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 8:59 am
Uploaded: Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 6:05 pm
Ruling paves the way for California Avenue renovation
Appeals court rejects arguments that city violated state law
Palo Alto's plan to shrink California Avenue from four lanes to two cleared its final legal hurdle Thursday when a California Court of Appeals judge dismissed a lawsuit from critics.
The four appellants -- attorney Joy Ogawa, Terry Shuchat of the California Avenue store Keeble and Shuchat, the owners of Antonio's Nuthouse and former Vice Mayor Jack Morton -- contended in their lawsuit that the city violated state law by providing insufficient notice about the project to the business owners in the commercial district; by failing to include proper mitigations; and by failing to accurately describe the project in its application for grant funds.
Plaintiffs had also argued that the city effectively locked itself into the controversial two-lane plan by describing the lane reduction in its application for $1.2 million in VTA funds. Dozens of merchants had argued over a series of heated public meetings that the lane reduction would bring traffic congestion and negatively affect customers and businesses. The council approved the lane reduction as part of a broad streetscape project despite the criticisms, arguing that it would create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and bring vitality to the city's "second downtown."
Officials hope to transform California Avenue into a busier and more dynamic thoroughfare, akin to University Avenue and Mountain View's Castro Street.
The streetscape project, which targets the business strip between the Caltrain station and El Camino Real, includes new street furniture, expanded sidewalks, new lighting fixtures and new public plazas. Its original price tag of $1.7 million gradually swelled to $4 million as the council added more amenities over the past two years.
The legal challenge had already delayed the streetscape project, which received unanimous City Council approval in February 2011. In November 2011, a trial court concurred with the plaintiffs' assertion that the city had prematurely committed to the two-lane street alignment in a grant application before analyzing other alternatives. The legal speedbump forced the council to void its prior approval of the project and to approve it again, in a different sequence.
The Superior Court subsequently agreed in February 2012 to drop the complaint and allow the project to go forward. Ogawa's group then appealed this decision in the Sixth Appellate District, arguing that the trial court "erred in discharging the writ" and letting the project proceed. They argued in the appeal that the city failed to comply with the noticing requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and that the city failed to analyze the project's consistency with the city's Comprehensive Plan, its guiding document concerning how land is used.
In a ruling released on Oct. 31, Associate Justice Miguel Marquez of the Sixth District Court of Appeals rejected these arguments and declared them "without merit." Marquez ruled that the city's actions in 2011 to remedy the sequencing violation were "entirely appropriate" in light of the trial court's order. He also wrote in his ruling that the "improperly omitted portion" of the project "had no direct physical impacts whatsoever" on the project as a whole.
Marquez also rejected the assertion that the city did not offer sufficient outreach to the public before approving the grant application and the environmental documents for the controversial streetscape project. He also found that analyzing economic impact is beyond the purview of the California Environmental Quality Act. He also cited the city's traffic study, which concluded that parking and traffic on California Avenue would "remain at acceptable levels even after the lane reduction," the ruling states.
"As to the economic effects, the city's review concluded the project was expected to generate economic benefits to the city and area businesses as a result of increased vehicle and bicycle parking, enhancing pedestrian-centered features, and overall aesthetic improvements in the environment," Marquez wrote. "To the extent appellants' claims challenge the factual basis for findings, appellants present no evidence to the contrary. Accordingly, we conclude that the city did not abuse its discretion in this matter."
The ruling paves the way for construction on California Avenue to begin in December or in January 2014, according to a press release from the city.
"The courts have confirmed again that the city complied with CEQA," City Attorney Molly Stump said in the press release. "This resolves litigation over the California Avenue Streetscape Project. The city can now begin improvements to this vital street without the threat of ongoing litigation."
Like this comment
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm
Nora: A new fountain is part of the Streetscape plan.
Alan Weller, an attorney with an office on Cal Ave for decades, who loved those trees and who worked passionately to get to the bottom of what happened, and who fought to maintain the soul of California Avenue in the replanting of January 2010 and in a second planting phase to be part of the streetscape design, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly three weeks ago.
Below is a commentary he wrote in the Fall of 2009 about the "theme" of Cal Ave during the community response both outside and within the city process that immediately followed the loss of the canopy.
To the extent that the implementation of the streetscape plan is true to that vision as well as protective of the new trees planted in January, 2010, his spirit will continue to thrive on the avenue.
"Twice now I have seen the Public Works folks being grilled by board or commission members about "design". Apparently, both ARB and the Planning Commission members have some kind of design or architecture background and need to have the project explained to them in their terms.
The question that caught my attention at the Planning and Transportation meeting was one in which the questioner wanted to know what was the "theme" (or something like that) of the design for California Avenue trees. I believe the same fellow stated that he felt that there had been good engineering but no design.
That started me thinking. It is true we have had no real discussion about "design" or "theme".
It occurred to me that the reason for this absence of discussion about design and theme lies in how California Avenue is perceived by us and how Castro Street and University Ave are perceived by their municipalities.
Generic Downtown Look:
Basically, Castro and University are attempts by suburban city-towns to make an urban statement. Those streets are radically different from the adjoining residential neighborhoods. The orderly rows of identical trees on University Avenue are in stark contrast to the mixed nature of the mature tree canopy in the adjoining neighborhoods. It is a "downtown" theme.
Neither Castro nor University bear any resemblance to the municipality in which they are located. In fact, I think both are quite alien to the rest of their respective cities. This was not true of California Avenue.
Palo Alto Look:
There are a few places that I would recognize at a glance. I would be 90% sure I could recognize a scene from San Francisco, or Santa Fe, or Santa Barbara.
Similarly, I think Palo Alto neighborhoods are recognizable, with their mixed canopy of old and young trees, undulating sun dappled sidewalks, etc. There is a distinctive Palo Alto look which is unquestionably not represented by the University Avenue downtown look.
When California Avenue had its trees, it felt and looked like it was in Palo Alto, it had that look. Without the trees, the look is West Texas , Central Valley, or the like. The trees made a huge difference. I think the goal should be to restore the Palo Alto look.
Character of California Avenue:
It has never occurred to me that California Avenue is, can be, or should be a "downtown".
Although a business district, it is far more integral to the nearby neighborhoods. California Avenue's charm is its informality and small town nature, the opposite of "downtown". Where would you go for coffee on a warm weekend day in your sandals, shorts and t-shirt with your dog? Downtown Mountain View? University Ave? How about California Avenue? Definitely the latter.
Brent Barker [College Terrace Residents' Association Board member] wrote: "California Avenue is a throwback to an age of more organic growth -- small businesses, small town casualness, neighborliness -- that grew up without the need for imposing a tailored look. We could describe California Avenue as "organic, eclectic, casual, independent, neighborly, downscale, feisty,comfortable, charming" and as the historic heart of old Mayfield before Leland Stanford created prim and proper University Avenue to keep the kids from drinking in old rough and tough downscale Mayfield.
The buildings are not historic but the street still carries the spirit and casualness of the eclectic small town neighborhoods that surround it. It can still be a vital economic street without becoming another faux downtown designed to be a showpiece to draw regional business or to "reflect Palo Alto's upscale image". We want to retain California Avenue as it has grown up mirroring the independent housing of the neighborhoods surrounding it, not impose a theme borrowed from elsewhere. "
An Answer to the Question: The Theme is "Palo Alto Neighborhood"
The selected trees all have siblings, or at least close cousins, in the nearby neighborhoods. The "design" is to integrate the street as part of Palo Alto's distinctive neighborhood look. The planned gateway trees are all visual repetitions of what one would see when traveling through a Palo Alto neighborhood.
We want a Palo Alto look. We don't want the "theme" to be a faux "downtown".
Brent Barker wrote: "Palo Alto at its best is full of trees, green leafy streets with shaded walks, and with enough variety to make the trees stand out as individuals rather an orchard row".
When they ask the question, what is the "theme", why not answer by saying, "Palo Alto" and that "California Avenue is going to get a look derived from its surrounding neighborhoods and the eclectic mix of tress they have."
-- Alan Weller, Fall 2009