Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 1, 2010

Palo Alto to ask for $1.5 million for California Avenue

Valley Transportation Authority grant could revitalize shopping district but would reduce street lanes to two

by Sue Dremann

A $1.5 million grant could transform California Avenue in Palo Alto into a European-style boulevard with two lanes, a park/plaza at the east end near the Caltrain station, additional landscaping, kiosks and a 20-seat mini-plaza near Ash Street.

The city plans to submit an application next Tuesday to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) for a Community Design for Transportation Grant, which is designed to help cities improve transit connections, calm traffic, promote bicycle and pedestrian uses and increase economic development.

The city would add $500,000 in matching funds. The city previously applied for VTA funding in June and was turned down.

The latest California Avenue streetscape plan — its eighth iteration— is based on feedback officials received during a Sept. 23 community meeting. The Palo Alto City Council will hear an informational presentation on the plan and grant application on Monday night.

The streetscape proposal adds "bulb outs" to extend the sidewalk in some places but does not uniformly widen the sidewalks. Shade trees could be added in places. An outdoor plaza with seating for up to 20 tables could be added west of Ash Street, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said Thursday.

The plan would redesign diagonal parking at a 60-degree angle; cars currently park at 45 degrees. A 3-foot buffer zone between the cars and traffic lane would be added. Parking spaces would increase to 135 (from 111) with two loading zones. Each 16-foot traffic lane would be marked as a shared bike lane, he said. Colored crosswalks and parking areas would alter the "sea of asphalt" look of the current roadway, he said.

He estimated the total cost would be $1.7 million. Three other improvements would require separate funding: street resurfacing costs $500,000 and is funded already to take place in the next two years; lighting costs $500,000.

A permeable-paving area for the diagonal parking that could reduce contaminated water from the street draining into the San Francisco Bay would cost $400,000, he said.

City officials are also considering additional parking structures on side streets, but that concept has not reached the costs or locations stage, he said.

Rodriguez said the council could direct staff to hold off on improvements, in which case the grant application would be withdrawn.

Some residents and business owners who turned out to a community meeting Sept. 23 gave the plan a yellow light and urged the city to slow down. Reducing the street from four lanes to two is a major sticking point, they said, expressing fears of traffic backups as cars attempt to pull in and out of the diagonal parking spaces.

The city has asserted that reducing the number of lanes would slow down traffic and make the area more pedestrian and bike friendly.

Some people last week also questioned the feasibility of trying to "brand" California Avenue as a destination-shopping district, similar to University Avenue. The mix of stores serve local residents and would attract few outside shoppers, they said.

"California Avenue is the last local downtown of Palo Alto. It would be nice to have something smaller scale and more personal," said William, a resident who asked not to be identified with his last name.

Other people felt the plan caters to vehicles, not pedestrians.

"I like the idea of getting parking off California Avenue — period. It's short-sighted to approach with a car-centric concept," Becky Fuson said. A more "long-lived idea" should be developed with "a more human scale," she said.

But others said the four-lane concept is outdated and they did not agree with fears that two lanes would jam up traffic or be any more dangerous to pedestrians.

James Cook said he liked the idea of beautifying the area.

"It has a tired look. The four lanes must be a remnant of another time. It's like a freeway look," he said.

Some residents of the adjacent Evergreen Park neighborhood said they welcome the changes and questioned some assertions that "if it isn't broken, you shouldn't fix it."

"We need a more pleasant place to visit. Beautifying the street has got to be a goal. We should be careful. We don't want to kill this thing. To say it's not broken — I would question that," a resident said.

But Terry Holzemer, of the Palo Alto Central Homeowners Association near the Caltrain station, said a survey of residents there found people did not want to change the four-lane configuration. Bikes sharing lanes with cars is "a recipe for disaster," he said.

Rodriguez said the Architectural Review Board, Planning and Transportation Commission and City Council still must review the concepts this fall and could modify the designs.

Other municipalities have converted shopping districts form four lanes to two, including Menlo Park, Los Altos and Mountain View. Those cities had greater retail sales afterward and were satisfied with traffic flows and pedestrian and bike safety, Palo Alto Chief Planning Official Julie Caporgno said.

Rodriguez said a thorough traffic analysis is expected next year.

Updated drawings of the plan will be posted this week on www.CityofPaloAlto.org by searching under "California Avenue."

The survey of other cities can be viewed on the same page by finding "General Public Meeting - September 9, 2010" and clicking on "economic survey data."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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