When Palo Alto officials unanimously approved in 2011 a proposal to reduce lanes and add an assortment of street improvements to California Avenue, the project came with a $1.7-million price tag, much of which would be funded by transportation grants.
Since then, both the City Council's ambitions and the project's budget have undergone a dramatic expansion, as evidenced by the $7.1 million construction contract the council is scheduled to approve tonight for the long-awaited transformation of the eclectic commercial strip between El Camino Real and the Caltrain station.
The council is set to vote on a contract with Redgwick Construction Company totaling $6.2 million for the construction project and another $931,700 in contingency costs, bringing the total contract to $7.1 million. In addition to the lane reduction, landscape improvements and new street amenities (news racks, benches, bike-parking spots) that the project entailed in February 2011, it now also includes two new plazas, wider sidewalks, additional public art, new streetlights and replacement of water utilities.
The expanding scope of the California Avenue project isn't the only factor in the swelling price tag. According to staff, a hot construction climate may have also played a role. Though Redgwick's bid was the lowest of the four the city received, it is well above the city's pre-bid estimate of $4.9 million. Bids initially ranged from $5.7 million to $7.7 million, though Redgwick's lowest bid was later revised to $6.2 million to account for discrepancy in the company's construction schedule, according to a report from the city's planning department.
"The higher bids are indicative of a changing economic climate where many recent project starts locally and regionally are quickly driving up construction prices," the report states.
For the council, the goal is to make California Avenue more attractive to shoppers and more safe for pedestrians and bicyclists. In approving it more than three years ago, members talked about making California Avenue more like University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street. But the project proved to be a hard sell for local merchants, dozens of whom argued that the reduction of lanes from four to two would create traffic nightmares and hurt their business.
Owners of California Paint Company and Keeble & Shuchat Photography had also filed separate lawsuits against the city, challenging the environmental analysis for the project. Both of these suits were dismissed in 2012.
The staff recommendation also includes $30,000 to assist merchants and visitors who will have to deal with traffic and parking disruptions for most of the year. Efforts to mitigate the impact includes a noontime shuttle between Stanford Research Park ad California Avenue; a restriping of Birch Street to provide 32 additional two-hour-parking spaces; and "extensive signage to direct customers to stores and restaurants and drivers to parking lots," according to the report.
Funding for the California Avenue project includes $1.2 million in grants from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and another $800,000 from VTA's vehicle-registration fees.
Construction is set to begin next month and stretch until the end of the year, the report states.