News

Plan to widen El Camino sidewalks suffers setback

Palo Alto proposal to have bigger building setbacks fails to win support of Planning and Transportation Commission

With pressure mounting against Palo Alto's effort to widen sidewalks on El Camino Real, the city's planning commissioners took a stand Wednesday against a staff proposal to require new developments to be built farther back from the curb.

In rejecting the proposed sidewalk ordinance by a 3-1 vote, with Chair Mark Michael absent and Vice Chair Arthur Keller dissenting, the Planning and Transportation Commission suggested instead to include the sidewalk changes in Our Palo Alto, the broader city initiative meant to encourage community conversation about the city's future. The two-year effort aims to engage the public in building a long-term vision for the city, concurrent with the ongoing upgrade of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.

The sidewalk ordinance was drafted in response to the City Council, which in recent years has been fielding criticism from residents upset about dense and massive new buildings going up close to the city's curbs. Commonly cited examples include the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino and the former Miki's Farm Fresh Market on Alma Street (a space now occupied by Grocery Outlet).

Last April, council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid issued a memo complaining about developments that have "generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close the buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way due to inadequate setbacks and building articulation and openings to reduce the building mass."

The ordinance drafted by staff would increase the sidewalk requirement on El Camino Real from the current level to 12 feet, though it would fall short of the 18 feet envisioned in the regional Grand Boulevard Initiative. The proposal would maintain a 12-foot minimum while also requiring an average building setback of 15 to 18 feet. It would only apply to new developments, a point that staff emphasized Wednesday but did little to alleviate the angst of the property owners in attendance.

Chief Planning Official Amy French said the ordinance would be the first step in a broader effort to revise building regulations on major thoroughfares. The second phase would consider thoroughfares beyond El Camino and look at other factors such as building heights. She stressed that the new rules would introduce more flexibility into the review process. They would, for instance, allow a property owner to build columns or arcades 9 feet away from the curb, a design that would allow upper floors of a building to be closer to the curb than the ground floor.

The proposed ordinance would also modify the "build to line" requirement that forces buildings to be 12 feet from the curb unless the developer receives an exemption from the city. The ordinance would eliminate this requirement for all streets except El Camino and specify that on El Camino the requirement could apply to upper floors if the ground floor is set back further from the curb. The ordinance would also empower the Architectural Review Board to modify this requirement on a project-by-project basis, based on context.

"The focus of the ordinance is to allow for flexibility in the review of buildings coming forward along El Camino," French said.

Staff had also proposed reducing the allowed density at 33 properties on El Camino that under state law will now be allowed to raise the number of housing units per acre from 15 to 20. The council suggested reducing the allowed floor-area ratio (total development footage) to ensure that the new units are small.

Though the architectural board approved most of the proposed changes on March 20 (with the notable exception of the density reduction), the sidewalk ordinance ran into a wall of resistance at Wednesday's planning commission meeting. Some property owners derided the regional vision of El Camino as a "grand boulevard," while others argued that the new ordinance would limit their ability to redevelop their properties.

Tracy May, who owns the property at 2080 El Camino, was in both camps.

"People in Palo Alto don't want to walk or eat along a busy state highway because there are much nicer places in town for these activities," May said.

She called the proposed ordinance a "death sentence" for owners of small properties, who cannot afford to lose land to new setback requirements.

"Some businesses are so small that if they had to rebuild they'd have nothing left to build upon," May said. "Past and future restrictions have and will make it impossible for people to build on their properties."

Simon Cintz, whose family owns numerous properties on El Camino, made a similar point. The proposed ordinance, he said, would have a particularly big impact on "mom and pop" stores.

"The sorts of things you're proposing here are hurting the small businesses and hurting the small business owners," Cintz said. "And they really have nowhere else to go."

The four commissioners in attendance (Chair Michael was absent and the other two seats are currently vacant) offered a range of opinions on the ordinance, with Vice Chair Arthur Keller proposing moving it forward with some minor modifications and Commissioner Michael Alcheck vehemently opposing it, offering his own vision for El Camino.

Alcheck lauded the regional vision of turning El Camino into a "grand boulevard" but soundly rejected the proposal to reduce floor-area-ratio on El Camino properties. To the contrary, the city should encourage more density and redevelopment along the strip, along with greater heights, he said.

"I think we have to articulate an ordinance that considers increasing floor-area ratio," Alcheck said. "Not keeping it the same -- dramatically increasing it. I refuse to support any initiative where we increase sidewalk space and we reduce the developable square footage on these sites without dramatically increasing height."

The road should be a "canyon," rather than a stretch of one- and two-story buildings, Alcheck said.

"Our goal is to increase the walkable livability of that place," Alcheck said. "I think we do it with dramatic increases in density."

While French suggested that the city consider the issue of heights at a later time, Alcheck said the issues should all be considered together. He urged his colleagues not to support the approval of the new sidewalk ordinance, which the City Council is scheduled to consider later this month.

Other commissioners were less gung-ho about growth on El Camino and based their reluctance to support the ordinance on a lack of information about its impacts on property owners. Commissioner Carl King defended the proposed vision for El Camino – pedestrian-friendly nodes interspersed along car-oriented corridors. King said he understands the views of property owners that El Camino is not a place where people like to walk. But that doesn't mean that the city shouldn't try to change that, he said.

"An overarching goal is to make it so people would want to walk El Camino Real," King said. "There's a chicken and egg thing."

Commission Greg Tanaka agreed.

"Just because it's not walkable today, doesn't mean it's not good for it to be walkable," Tanaka said.

However, both Tanaka and King said they cannot move forward with the proposal without further analysis of its impacts.

"I think there are some implications that are involved in this and I think there are important elements that need to be considered to make this complete," Tanaka said.

Only Keller was prepared to go ahead with the proposed ordinance, which he said would not in itself adversely impact property owners (especially if the commission, like the architectural board, scraps the proposal for density reduction).

"It would give more flexibility to property owners and also more flexibility to the ARB in terms of exactly how much setback they would be allowed to have," Keller.

With no one else willing to recommend advancing the proposal, the commission voted 3-1 to incorporate the sidewalk discussion into the Our Palo Alto initiative and concluded its discussion to a round of applause from relieved property owners.

Comments

Posted by entitled pedestrians, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2014 at 12:14 am

All those self-entitled pedestrians want to walk safely in Palo Alto? Get real. A wider sidewalk is not going to stop a distracted driver from running you down. If you want to be safe in Palo Alto, get a car and drive.


Posted by Another victory for developers, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 10, 2014 at 8:30 am

You can't have it both ways. Increased density with the vision of a walkable city and then build so close to the sidewalk that residents don't want to walk around. This is a win for developers and a big loss to quality of life in Palo Alto.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2014 at 8:45 am

I don't think the width of the sidewalks is the big problem. The big problem is that instead of putting parking lots in front of buildings they are now being put at the back and the backs of buildings are now right up beside the sidewalks. This makes the streets feel like a tunnel and whether you are walking or driving it is unpleasant. Let's go back to putting the fronts of buildings facing the street with parking in front.


Posted by Alcheck for Mayor (NOT), a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 10, 2014 at 9:11 am

Unbelieveable! This deserves to be posted around town - no wonder we can't get anyone on PTC... with developer ideologues like this poisoning the conversation. Alcheck's attitude is so far at odds with the will of the voters, he should be removed from the Commission immediately. We need both the setbacks AND the FAR reduction.

Alcheck lauded the regional vision of turning El Camino into a "grand boulevard" but soundly rejected proposal to reduce floor-area-ratio on El Camino properties. To the contrary, the city should encourage more density and more redevelopment along the strip, along with greater heights.

"I think we have to articulate an ordinance that considers increasing floor-area ratio," Alcheck said. "Not keeping it the same -- dramatically increasing it. I refuse to support any initiative where we increase sidewalk space and we reduce the developable square footage on these sites without dramatically increasing height."


Posted by Real estate interests, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:15 am

Michael Alcheck's real estate connections are huge. He and his family are deeply invested in real estate. His votes reflect their interests.
Maybe that's why Council members Burt, Espinosa, Klein, Price, Scharff, Shepherd voted for his appointment to the Planning Commission in July 2013.


Posted by Alchedk for Mayor (NOT), a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:36 am

The PTC is clearly not currently a functional body. Perhaps it should be disbanded until after the election to stop wasting people's time. Might save staff some time and enable them to eliminate some consulting dollars too.


Posted by Alchedk for Mayor (NOT), a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:36 am

The PTC is clearly not currently a functional body. Perhaps it should be disbanded until after the election to stop wasting people's time. Might save staff some time and enable them to eliminate some consulting dollars too.


Posted by Scott, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:49 am

Commissioner Alcheck thinks El Camino should be a canyon? Seriously? Who wants that, other than developers who stand to profit handsomely? At least he's not hiding his biases, but a "canyon" is not appropriate for Palo Alto. Sounds more like San Jose to me! How does that make for a "walkable" space? Not on this planet, anyway. Major cities have canyons, and people walk in them, but they don't have any other choice.


Posted by anon , a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:49 am

I agree with the comments that are critical of Alchecks performance and the PTC in general.

Mr. Alchecks job as a planning commissioner is not to push his own ideology, but rather to evaluate projects with regards to their compliance with the comp plan and zoning.

He does indeed have real estate interests as well.
Perhaps his appointment should be reconsidered by council, or at least he should be advised that his actions are improper.


Posted by Debby, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:12 am

Rather than the problem being the width of the sidewalks, I think it is the lack of building setback from the sidewalk particularly if the building is more than one floor. Instead of increasing the width of the sidewalk, we need to require GREEN SPACE between the sidewalk and the building.


Posted by Jon Parsons, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

All things old are new again. The late 50's return with a development mania that growth is good for business, what is good for business is good for growing government, and whatever is good for a growing government is good for its long-suffering silent citizenry. Council members let slip the mad dogs of development, so they can better wring their hands in mock dismay.


Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:24 am

@ Resident and Debby - EXACTLY! A set back should be required. The sidewalk should be lined with plants, trees, etc., just like it used to be before they started building right on the edge!
How hard is it to figure these thing out?!?
Our city council really sucks when it comes to common sense.
You would think that they are not only getting paid by our tax dollars, but by every contractor and investor that comes to PA with a crappy "plan".
It's simply amazing....*sigh*


Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

Thoroughfares, regardless of sidewalk width, are far more attraractively "walkable" when there are no curb-cut driveways for patrons of the roadside businesses. Each driveway or service alley I pass on my sidewalk stroll is a miniature cross street, where I have to watch for entering & exiting cars. Cars entering those driveways to park off-street are usually traveling close to the posted ECR speed limit and paying more attention to their rear-view mirrors than to a lone pedestrian sauntering toward the driveway. Parking access for ECR businesses is usually directly from ECR which is counter-intuitive to creating a safe pedestrian boulevard experience.

When I want to walk along a busy road, in this case also a State Highway, I hope to see more interesting storefronts than motel driveways, fast-food, mom & pop convenience stores, or auto repair establishments. I'll stroll University, Santa Cruz Ave, Broadway in Redwood City, Burlingame Ave, Main St in Los Altos, and before the tree savagery, California Avenue. There's really nothing I want to examine more closely along El Camino where I'd also get heavily dosed with auto & bus exhaust fumes. Wider sidewalks won't make it better.


Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

Since impasse, confusion and delay have arrived. Let's have a contest for design of a half mile segment of El Camino Real. On one side, have leading architects submit sketches of Grand Blvd. schemes. Some canyonized to 6 stories; other schemes moderated, withundulating heights, setbacks, etc.

On the other side of ECR, show how El Camino Real will evolve with current zoning during the next 20 years. Palo Altans could easily see the best, most practical features of these two schemes.


Posted by Brian, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:26 am

It's fitting the picture of the pedestrian on the side walk was near the Olive Garden restaurant. Every time I walk be there I am reminded of how poorly the sidewalk is designed. It is littered with sign posts, light post, fire hydrants and other stuff. It is nearly impossible to walk side by side or have a conversation while you are walking. What fun is that!


Posted by Longtime Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:26 am

I like Debby's suggestion. Why is it we never had all these issues before now? Large buildings were not built right next to the sidewalk. Everything was pleasant for everyone, the architecture, user-friendly for drivers, easy to negotiate for the few pedestrians that walked parts of this Highway that expands from San Jose to San Francisco. It is just common sense. How about Debby for Mayor? She seems to have her finger on the pulse of what most residents want to see, and her idea would be good for business too. Developers? Not so much.


Posted by 35 year resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:27 am

Struck by a bolt of common sense or fear of citizen outrage, the PTC did something sensible for a change. I bet it killed them to push this off to Our Palo Alto. Maybe they're finally getting the message.


Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:36 am

Can't they take part of the street and turn that into a wider sidewalk instead? It seems to me that parking on El Camino is mostly unnecessary given the amount of large parking lots near businesses in the area. Or maybe they can narrow each lane by an few inches, especially the far right lane and widen the sidewalks without taking land. The lanes really are wider than they need to be, especially given the speed at which you can actually drive on El Camino during rush hour.


Posted by Anciana, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:40 am

I'm with Debby and KP. Something green between the sidewalk and the buildings would really be nice! What walker wants to look at a bunch of parked cars in front of every building?


Posted by musical, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:58 am

"parked cars in front of every building" sounds like Midtown. Haven't heard much complaining about design in that shopping area, except that everyone would drive faster than 25 mph if there weren't so many traffic lights.


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 10, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Gee, does that mean the idiotic Grand Boulevard concept is dead and we're not going to build a $25 million Eiffel Tower?


Posted by NotADeveloper, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 10, 2014 at 2:40 pm

@ another victory for developer,

Why are you assume they are "devlopers"? Are you a developer for your home?
If you were at the meeting, you will see that they were mostly local business and propterty owners. Do you think they would rather have a vibrant street or a dead one?
The problem is that the vision is not substantiated by a good study of reality and overall zoning to support both the vision and benefit to the business or owners.
Don't you think these business owners would rather see more people coming around to their shops?





Posted by Tracy May, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 10, 2014 at 2:40 pm

The EL Camino Real has little "mom and pop" businesses that don't have deep pockets, but, the city government wants to take over the free use of their land, to widen sidewalks that no one really wants to walk on in the first place! The city wants to make "canyons" of stacked residential. Who wants to live or walk on a 6 lane highway, breathing fumes? It is not just an El Camino Real property owners problem, the city document re. ECR sidewalk widening, dated 2/20/2014, bottom of pg. 9 states: "Consultant use anticipated for further study of increasing sidewalk width requirements throughout Palo Alto." The city government wants to have free use of everyone's land, for their sidewalks...residents are next!!!


Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on Apr 10, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

I agree with those who recommend more greenery. As we learned with the California Ave. tree debacle, trees--or lack thereof--make a remarkable difference. Without them we're left with a whole lotta ugly.


Posted by jayson barden, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2014 at 9:07 am

way to much traffic on elcamino real for a leisurely walk it,s a highway.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2014 at 9:36 am

Why not first clean up the clutter, standards for street signs,lighting and most sidewalk fixtures.

Not all of Europe is about wide Blvds, more human scale function. I think it should be property by property but maybe having parking where parking curbside when needed. Larger the lot, the sife can be widen towards the streets if they own a parking lot.

Buildings owners can also make store fronts more interesting,maybe sitting them back will create space for tables, displays or landscaping. Small designed urban spaces with tables, well lit and well placed.

El Camino Real is a.highway but a commercial strip for neighborhoods, and their visitors.


Posted by Hermia, a resident of Triple El
on Apr 11, 2014 at 11:02 am

I just don't get why the businessmen/developers have failed to do their homework,
Unless this is just knee-jerk anti regulation behavior.

I can't see the businesses that are flush to the street. I can see that there's an ugly block beside me as I drive, but it just forces my attention back to the corridor ahead. Only the businesses that are set back give your eye a chance to find them.
I've lived here 17 years and I've never gone into any of the shops that are flush with ECR. They just look like a whole lotta cheap. I go where it looks interesting, and that's always where the building is set back.


Posted by Hermia, a resident of Triple El
on Apr 11, 2014 at 11:05 am

I also think it's pretty disingenuous to claim that the city is "taking" and "forcing" small businesses to change when the regs only apply if you're changing the property up already. It's not like they're planning to bulldoze some little shop if the owner doesn't pick it up and move it back.

I hate it when they lie to manipulate people.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

Start with removing clutter and making standards for signs, poles and other street/sidewalk fixtures.

Maybe if the building has their own parking lot, widen the sidewal in front, if the building doesn't leave the parking in front. Why not allow building owners the option of placing their storefronts further back to create outside space

Signs on buildings, well designed lit signs.

12 foot is not that narrow but not every business will have tables, benches or other outdoor features.

Creative shop front design, see roll up garage doors or sliding glass walls


If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Acai bowls, headed to downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 4 comments | 2,548 views

How Bad Policy Happens
By Douglas Moran | 21 comments | 1,529 views

The life of Zarf
By Sally Torbey | 10 comments | 1,167 views

Freshman Blues Don't Mean Wrong College
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 2 comments | 1,093 views

Background and Ideas for the Comp Plan
By Steve Levy | 21 comments | 1,030 views