News

Plan to widen El Camino sidewalks falters

With opposition mounting, Palo Alto council opts to defer decision on sidewalk ordinance

Faced with an uprising from property owners, conflicting recommendations from its advisory boards and deep ambivalence within its own ranks, the City Council on Monday night backed away from a staff proposal to revise the sidewalk rules on Palo Alto's congested and eclectic stretch of El Camino Real.

The proposal on the table would have given the Architectural Review Board the flexibility to determine building setbacks based on context. Rather than having a strict 12-foot "build-to" line (which effectively requires buildings to be 12 feet from the curb) the change would require that the ground floor of a building be placed 12 to 18 feet from the curb, with width depending on such factors as land use and setting. The ordinance would also allow upper floors to be placed at zero setback, provided that the ground floor is positioned further back to provide pedestrians with walking space.

The goal of these changes was to encourage a more pedestrian-friendly environment on the car-heavy, north-south thoroughfare and to further the goal of the regional Grand Boulevard Initiative, which aims to create vibrant "nodes" of pedestrian activity along El Camino. The revisions also aimed to encourage better urban design along El Camino and Alma Street, where recent developments such as 801 Alma St. and Alma Village have been widely criticized for being too massive and standing too close to the street. In an April 2013 memo, Councilwomen Karen Holman and Gail Price and Councilmen Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid cited "consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close these new buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way."

But staff's effort to address this wave of community criticism has only sparked it anew. Dozens of property owners have come out against the proposed ordinance, which would empower the architecture panel to require sidewalk widths of up to 18 feet if its criteria for context is met (currently, the width is generally 12 feet). Many argued at Monday's meeting and at prior hearings that this is tantamount to the city seizing private property. Andrew Pierce, an attorney representing a group of El Camino property owners, told the council Monday that by requiring more space for pedestrians on El Camino, the city is basically taking land from private owners and putting itself at a legal risk.

"I'd urge the city to think very carefully about what amounts to taking a right of way without paying for it," Pierce said "Because I don't think the courts are going to be very friendly to the city if that happens."

Others made similar arguments and claimed that the new rule will make it hard or impossible for property owners to redevelop their properties. They noted that many properties on El Camino are small and shallow and that they already face numerous restrictions relating to density, height and parking requirements. The fact that the ordinance would apply only to new developments brought little solace, as one property owner after another argued that the new rules would make redevelopment difficult, if not impossible, on their properties.

"The city wants to take a sizable portion of land from miles of privately owned properties for the purpose of widening sidewalks," said Tracy May, owner of 2080 El Camino Real. "The city has taken other portions for alley use and with ... significant building and land ratio restrictions, most property owners will have little useable property left and in some cases, no usable properties."

Simon Cintz, whose family owns two properties on El Camino, cautioned that creating larger sidewalks and adding landscaping would make businesses along the strip less visible to vehicular traffic. This, he said, would threaten their existence.

"These stores will virtually disappear and not be visible to most of the people who drive along El Camino," Cintz said.

It's not just the property owners who are urging caution. In April, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission declined to endorse the proposed rule change. Instead, it directed staff to integrate this discussion into the broad community conversation over Palo Alto's future, an effort known as "Our Palo Alto."

The Architectural Review Board, meanwhile, recommended a slightly different version of the ordinance, one that would allow 9-foot setbacks on certain small lots with ground-floor retail. The board vehemently rejected, however, a separate staff proposal that would have reduced the allowed building density for residential developments in El Camino's "neighborhood commercial" zones.

Even Holman, a leading proponent of revising El Camino rules, was visibly underwhelmed by the proposal in front of her and called its focus on sidewalks "frustrating." The April 2013 memo, she said, was about much broader issues concerning the design of buildings on El Camino and Alma.

"It was never about just sidewalks," Holman said. "I don't know how it got understood this way."

She also criticized the wording in the proposed ordinance for being too vague.

With no clear path in sight, the council voted 9-0 to follow the planning commission's advice and fold the debate of sidewalk widths and building setbacks into the broader community discussion of the city's future. This conversation, which is meant to inform the update of the city's Comprehensive Plan, is set to stretch until the end of next year.

Councilman Larry Klein, who proposed deferring the decision, pointed at the complexity of setting a uniform rule in a part of the city with such a wide variety of land uses and property types.

"Trying to set one set of rules creates all sorts of problems, as we heard from a lot of individual land owners," Klein said, adding that it's "back to the drawing board."

The council vote also directs staff to bring back "as soon as reasonably possible" refined proposals to update the city's "build-to-line" rule, which many see as unnecessary or counter-productive.

Holman and Councilman Pat Burt argued that staff should also take actions in the coming months to beef up design requirements for El Camino. This includes creating new design standards for developments on El Camino (currently, development is subject to "design guidelines," which are little more than suggestions). The proposal passed 5-4, with Klein, Price, Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss dissenting.

Some council members also challenged the very idea of trying to turn El Camino into a more vibrant pedestrian strip. Klein said the Grand Boulevard vision doesn't really apply to Palo Alto's stretch of El Camino, which is known more for speeding cars than for pedestrian destinations. Kniss was even more blunt.

"I don't want to stroll on El Camino Real," she said. "The speed limit is still fast, the fumes are really unpleasant. Perhaps we're doing it more for the aesthetics than for actual usage."

While planning staff said the ordinance is legally defensible because setback requirements are common zoning tools, Kniss placed her sympathies with the property owners.

"It may not be a legal taking," Kniss said. "I wonder whether or not this is an ethical taking."

She also pointed to the high level of opposition to the new ordinance as a good reason not to proceed with the changes at this time.

"I wish one person had come forward and said, 'This is a fabulous idea. We totally support it. Go for it.'" she said. "But I didn't hear it from anyone tonight. As your representatives, we need to hear what you have to say."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2014 at 1:24 am

And yet, didn't some plan to build on Sherman get approved with a variance for an almost 3 feet incursion into a mere 5 foot setback? It's not like Sherman is such a wide street, either.

Now that I really understand this plan, it was a turkey to begin with. A zero setback on upper floors? For a Council that says yet to anyone who want a variance to build over the zoning? No thanks.

Can someone remind the Council that those of us who live here would like to be able to remember what the sky looks like?

Stop wasting our time debating these overdevelopment Trojan Horses. How about just respecting the existing zoning to start.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2014 at 1:25 am

Sorry, little typos. I meant:

Now that I really understand this plan, it was a turkey to begin with. A zero setback on upper floors? For a Council that says yes to anyone who want a variance to build over the zoning? No thanks.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2014 at 1:27 am

Instead, it directed staff to integrate this discussion into the broad community conversation over Palo Alto's future, an effort known as "Our Palo Alto."

Is that the royal "our"?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2014 at 6:01 am

This new planning director from Berkeley is underwhelming at best. First she ignores safety rules in approving the Stanford development in College Terrace, and now this. Something is wrong with the hiring process when you think about the Transportation guy (Jaime) they hired as well - both have their own agenda, won't listen, and give off airs of superiority over residents.

Since Keene has assistant managements, chief of this and chief of that, there is no excuse for him not to be paying close attention to what's going on and give the planning director & transportation manager very close supervision.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Janet Lafleur
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

"Klein said the Grand Boulevard vision doesn't really apply to Palo Alto's stretch of El Camino, which is known more for speeding cars than for pedestrian destinations. Kniss was even more blunt. 'I don't want to stroll on El Camino Real," she said. "The speed limit is still fast, the fumes are really unpleasant.'"

There's no reason why that stretch of El Camino cannot be part of the Grand Boulevard. It's lined with businesses just like the rest of El Camino on the Peninsula, and the speed limit is only 35 mph. Its issue is the same as the majority of El Camino. It's been designed to support higher speeds which makes it unsafe and unpleasant for anyone that's not inside a vehicle. And frankly, it's not that safe inside a vehicle either.

Cities have the opportunity to bring vehicle speeds down to the speed limit on El Camino which would support the kind of business districts that encourage people to walk more, instead of scaring them back into cars.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2014 at 10:22 am

Here is my perspective. #1 The "sidewalk" issue is the direct result of Council direction, ie its Dear Colleague letter. Nothing is wrong with digging into the sidewalk/set back issue. Some of the recent projects on El Camino Real, Alma and Downtown Univ and Calif Avenues are just ugly and uninviting. City Staff, ARB and PTC need to do much more homework. Our city manager and planning director should not be blamed.

El Camino Real is really outdated and so 60ish. Is the status quo what we really want for the long term future? The Council touched upon the need for architectural sketches on what can be done with the known limitations of small parcels, traffic, parking, public transportation. Now the Planning Department and Council can come up with exciting, practical alternative visions for higher and better uses of basically very old properties. When Palo Altans see various alternatives, pnly then there can be construction debate. Last night was not progress.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2014 at 10:55 am

> Cities have the opportunity to bring vehicle speeds down
> to the speed limit on El Camino which would support
> the kind of business districts that encourage people
> to walk more, instead of scaring them back into cars.

Got to wonder what kind of a bubble people like this one live in? El Camino Real is a major artery running up and down the peninsula. It carries millions of vehicles a day. The idea that this flow of traffic could somehow be accommodated by a road way that has fewer lanes, and slower speeds, is beyond delusional.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2014 at 11:32 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Neilson Buchanan

I believe you've said you're not interested, but I wish you would run for city council. Your diligent documentation of the parking problems downtown was a model of citizen action. And your even comments on other issues on Town Square have evoked thought, not just emotion. Thanks for modeling a way to consider the challenges of redoing El Camino Real in South Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2014 at 11:54 am

Cars rule this city. Pedestrians are just collateral damage.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2014 at 11:58 am

> Our city manager and planning director should not be blamed.

Assuming that City Managers don't really know anything, then maybe not. But Planning Directors are supposed to be at the top of their game. Why shouldn't they be held accountable for bad, or questionable, work by the staff reporting to them?

> City Staff, ARB and PTC need to do much more homework.

OK, Staff really is the problem here. The ARB may be, for the most part, architectural professionals, but what do they know, as individuals, or a group, about City Planning or traffic engineer? The same is true for the Transportation and Planning Commission? How many of these people have degrees, or any professional expertise in transportation engineering or City Planning?

The basic issue of how did this idea become a project needs to be examined. Who authorized the Staff time to be spent on this proposal? Once we see the work flow within the Planning Department, then maybe we can talk about how Staff might become more accountable, and how to head off bad ideas sooner.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm

I love the cave idea, solves the homeless problem too.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Here is an idea, creating shopping precincts within the Grand Blvd scheme, trees, lighting and open space on or near El Camino Real would help. El Camino Real still functions for businesses and community serve businesses

Barron Park would have their own precinct, stores, businesses and services, housing can be built into the precinct. See shopkeeper units, or small number of rental units, even senior housing. Each project just be designed to create the precinct inside the Barron Park area. For College Terrace who another precinct can be designed to blend in.


shopping precinct

— n
a pedestrian area containing shops, restaurants, etc, forming a single architectural unit and usually providing car-parking facilities


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Maybe folks should relax a little and enjoy looking at our beat-up, waiting for our ship to come in, section of El Camino Real while it still has its quirks for a while longer as larger economic forces work themselves out. Once the tipping point arrives, the action will be fast.

Look at the pace of change now in Mountain View as property owners, investors and developers assess the impact of San Antonio Shopping Center's rebirth on ways of using El Camino property to make a profit. You see quite a bit of consolidation happening to take advantage of new conditions for denser housing and larger scale retail.

Maybe the city should encourage a full-scale redevelopment scheme that would benefit owners of small properties and established businesses as well as investors/developers by consolidating small parcels to make large projects feasible. In that context, the Grand Boulevard's expanded sidewalks would certainly play a part.

Just an idea. First time I saw it play out, in quite different circumstances, was in Singapore.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cars make it look like there are more people than there really are
a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2014 at 4:44 pm

The college terrace section of El Camino sees about 50,000 cars per day. That is about 1000 buses worth, or about 300 light rail cars. I admit there is a lot of traffic and congestion, but that's mostly because cars take up a lot of space.

When you have 32 cars (4 lanes of traffic, 8 cars deep) in one direction waiting at a red light, that's not even a bus load of people.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2014 at 6:46 pm

The reason Palo Alto gets incompetent city managers, planners, etc., is because the companies and cities these people worked for prior to being hired in Palo Alto, can't say negative things about the employee, because of legal issues.
If companies make disparaging remarks about their employees, present or past, they can get sued. As a result, it is difficult to accurately judge a potential applicant. And, if a company is anxious to get rid of a bad employee, they are more than willing to give that person a glowing report, in the hopes that another company/city will hire the person. That is why we keep getting incompetent employees.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2014 at 7:16 pm

All I can say is... THANK GOD! Lets hope the grand boulevard boondoggle meets the same fate.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by OldTimer
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2014 at 11:21 pm

I often find the comments rather disappointing, as they do not bring any more factual information to be of use... at least, to me.

I think we should have some good discussion on some key issues on Grand Boulevard initiatives.

One common assumption those in favor of Grand Boulevard make
is that local residents along El Camino Real are willing to walk along a stretch of 1.5+ miles of narrow strips of retail shops.

I would like all of you posting here to look up Champs Elysees, on google imange. You will find that it is full of high density buildings, with no visible parking spaces. The pedestrians are mostly international tourists, at least for those who have been there!

Southern El Camino Real does not have enough residential density nor tourists to support narrow strips of many retails stores. Many retails shops have come and gone because of lack of business. Haven't you all see for lease signs during the last 10 years?

Cafe Barrone is successful because it's on a large block with many stores, having a large underground parking, in a large area such as at the corners of Page Mill and El Camino Real.

As a side note, if I were to own a retail rental space on South El Camino Real, I would be worried about finding a solid tenant that can survive, as I may have to evict them after their failed business.

I believe that the El Camino Real properties remain as some of the less developed area, and we should plan to utilize them well rather than putting restrictions on them.

The city council is wise to vote down the changes, as they realize this is not a simple matter of just changing the sidewalks from 12ft to 18ft, or making it more flexible.








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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 4, 2014 at 7:15 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Thank you old timer for the clear descriptions of those European 'Grand models' the ECR as a Grand Boulevard dreamers are envisioning.
City centre
Density
Tourist destination

None of ECR in Palo Alto comes even close to being just one of those.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2014 at 10:24 am

Center on creating small neighborhood centers, instead of the Champ Elysees which to me is utter madness.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2014 at 11:49 am

Ok .. let's look at this boulevard as a model of what Palo Alto can do--

Web Link

The Champs-Elysées is almost two kilometers long and seventy meters wide.
----

If one looks at the city to the left and right of this roadway, one sees the very dense, urban landscape of tightly packed, multiple-story buildings. Presumably, the people who use the Champs Elysees live in these non-single family buildings. It would seem that this sort of density is needed to make a wide/grand boulevard work. So, Old Timer, is this what you want for Palo Alto?

Oh, and this Paris roadway isn't much longer than a mile and a half. Palo Alto, is longer than that, and having this sort of roadway from Redwood City to South San Jose would not seem to work. What makes you think that it would?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 4, 2014 at 12:11 pm

how about widening some wallets also? there once was a middle-class in palo alto. it would seem to be a small item to widen walkways or sidewalks. what has happened to the bay area? any sanity anywhere? how can this be done to the people who grew up in the bay area?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by OldTimer
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 4, 2014 at 1:17 pm

@Wondering, @randy,

Some correction is needed.
I am not advocating for GB initiative, and I just want to make sure everyone see it as what it is.

In the new Housing Elements update, it talks about the widening disparity between income and housing cost.

It's an important issue that no one seem to have any handle on.
As an example of why housing has become very costly: $400/sq.ft project cost for a new development! This is the west bay area cost - not because the developers are greedy.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2014 at 6:48 pm

@Old-Timer: Thanks for the clarification, but I don't agree with your claim that the developers are greedy is the only variable on the table. Developers judge the market, and build what they believe that they can sell. Often, buyers contract to have homes/buildings built--so the builders are just doing what the buyers want.

There is a lot of money floating around, at the moment. Low-interst loans from Federal government sources, Chinese/Indian money looking for a place to park, and employee stock options worth hundreds of millions of dollars, also looking for a home. The money has to go somewhere.

Palo Alto is just too small for hundreds of thousands of people to live here--unless you want to see high rise buildings blotting out the sun.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by AlexT
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Instead of thinking El Camino Real could be like the Champs-Elysées (with its 68' wide sidewalks, 100' wide roadway), we should look closer, to the segment of Hwy-82 (El Camino) known as the Alameda, in San Jose.

The segment between Stockton and Shasta, has 21' sidewalks, mature trees providing shade, lining the street. The buildings, mainly with retail and services, have no setback and are usually 2 stories tall. I found the wider sidewalks to invite strolling and exploring along the few blocks, (.7 mi), which make up this segment. No part of Palo Alto's segement of El Camino would I think of just walking along to see what it offers. But San Jose seems to have plans to update the area with denser housing.

The segment between Shasta and I-880 has narrower sidewalks but with a wide plant median between the sidewalk and street. The office and apartment and other buildings which are along that segment, are greatly setback, maybe 30'+. With all the planting, it almost looks more residential than commercial.

Take a look using Google Streetview.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by OldTimer
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 4, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for pointing out the variety of characteristics of sections of El Camino.

It seems that most of El Camino are four lanes with street parking lane, while the section between North Palo Alto to Santa Clara are mostly six lanes with parking. The four lane sections definitely seem to have more walkable characteristics. It seems to be able to accomodate buildings of much larger mass when it has mixed sizes with a variety of setback - rather than a uniform large mass like some of the newer buildings we see lately.
The problem with the recently built building is that they are not properly stepped back at higher level, and the building has no variations at the sidewalk level. I think if the 3rd stories above are stepped back with appropriate patio/balcony, the feeling can be quite different.

With so many people reading P.A. online, maybe someone can point out more sections of El Camino that has "desirable attributes"...

Castro street revival succeeded because it was made into two lanes (one way each), and used the one lane area to improve the side walks. However, it was able to allow the spill over traffic to go to S. Shoreline. In Palo Alto, this strategy may have some difficulty?


The plan in the old days to make El Camino four lanes may have had that intent. However, the traffic volume seems to have surpassed that critical threshold. Keep in mind P.A. El Camino was widened from four lanes to six lanes some long time ago.

Also, I wonder what causes the congestions from Oregon exp. all the way down to Mathilda during the rush hours? This is another different subject...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Please Get Educated!
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 5, 2014 at 11:30 am

Please don't just listen to the misinformed/misguided hype in the newspaper and comments section. Get educated about what the Grand Boulevard Initiative is all about!:

Web Link

Grand Boulevard Initiative's 10 Guiding Principles:

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Please don't throw out the baby with the bath water
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm

I'd like to see the city look at segments of El Camino where they might implement elements of the boulevard concept. There are areas where I think it could work well. There are some small parcels on the street where I can understand why property owners might be concerned about restrictions, but I think maybe some customized planning is in order here. Perhaps it is premature to ditch this idea.

How about some incentives for lot combining?


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