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."