Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 14, 2011

Businesses worried over California Avenue plan

Commission recommends reducing number of lanes from four to two in Palo Alto retail district

by Sue Dremann

A controversial street plan that's prompted one California Avenue anchor-store owner to warn he might close up shop was endorsed Wednesday night by the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.

The California Avenue Streetscape Project would narrow the business district's main street from four to two lanes. The commission unanimously recommended approval of an environmental "negative declaration," required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The declaration allows the city to move the project forward without a cumbersome and expensive environmental review.

If the City Council agrees with the commission, the project would receive a $1,175,200 Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority grant for transit-corridor improvements, including pedestrian and bicycle access. Palo Alto would add $550,000 in matching funds.

But some business owners fear fewer lanes could hurt business and force small shops to close. The plan does not consider the negative impact of construction and lane reductions on their livelihoods, they said.

California Avenue could lose anchor store Mollie Stone's Market, one of its owners, David Bennett, warned in a petition opposing the proposed lane reductions and signed by 30 residents and businesses.

The reduction to one lane each direction "would put the market in a difficult position with reduced access. Fortunately for Mollie Stone's, we are the owners of the property and are not subject to any third-party lease if our business goes below the point of necessity. Our plans would be to develop the property to a different use than a supermarket," he wrote.

Earlier on Wednesday, before the commission hearing, Tony Montooth, owner of Antonio's Nut House, said his biggest concern is parking. Parking is already at capacity during lunch hour and many businesses don't have rear entrances for deliveries, he said.

"Traffic will stop in the middle of the street. It's going to stop dead," he said.

But Jaime Rodriguez, the city's chief transportation official, said loading zones have been figured into the plan, and alleys off California are also to be used for deliveries.

The traffic study determined that street could be used by 560 vehicles per hour — down from the current maximum 1,360 — with traffic slowing by about two to three seconds per vehicle if the number of lanes is reduced. But Rodriguez said even with that reduction, the amount of traffic that would use California Avenue would still be well below the capacity the street could handle without congestion.

Montooth and others said construction is another major concern.

"I have mixed emotions. I'd love to beautify California Avenue, but at what expense? During construction, it would really hurt, especially in this economy."

Jessica Roth, whose family has owned the European Cobblery for four generations, is worried.

"When they were redoing the sewer lines it was really hard on our business. It's been episode after episode (of construction).

"Six months of construction is going to just kill my business — just kill my business," she said.

Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, said staff would work out a plan to limit construction impacts on businesses, such as phasing the work and making sure entrances remain clear.

Roth said she worries that lane reductions would cause backups and that would turn off people traveling up El Camino who might intend to shop on California.

"People going by will have a bad thought in their heads: 'That street is a mess.' I want people to come to my street. It just does not make sense to me," she said.

But a few business owners said they just want the street to look better.

"I don't see why changing from two lanes to one will make a traffic problem, especially if there is more parking. I don't see that many cars," Josephine Montoya, owner of Montoya Jewelers, said. "What they're saying is fine with me — to make the street more attractive."

Despite businesses' fears, Commissioner Samir Tuma said he "did not see any data that supports traffic congestion or hazards to bicycles."

Vice Chair Lee Lippert said street improvements in Menlo Park enticed several Stanford Shopping Center businesses to move to Santa Cruz Avenue.

He also did not agree that narrowing the lanes would clog California with traffic from cars looking for parking spots, buses or delivery trucks. A traffic study found that California has about one third or less the traffic volume of other area retail districts. (5,280 vehicles per day compared to 18,700 for University Avenue and 15,445 for Santa Cruz).

Tommy Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager, said the plan would add parking and create a sense of place, making the area more attractive and improving business. Seventeen additional diagonal parking spaces would be added and 75 or more bicycle parking spaces would be added, according to Rodriguez.

Residents on Wednesday night said they support the changes and dismissed the four-lane road as a throwback to the 1950s.

Roger Carpenter and Ted Black, residents of the adjacent Evergreen Park neighborhood, pointed to retail districts where lane reductions have taken place, such as Castro Street in Mountain View and Santa Cruz Avenue. They are "great places and highly trafficked. It will be great for business," Black said.

The commissioners are concurrently reviewing the broader California Avenue Area Plan, and they wanted to know if the traffic study included any impacts of those eventual developments, which could include high-density housing.

Julie Caporgno, chief planning and transportation official, said staff doesn't anticipate that any future development would have a significant impact on traffic. Any residences that go in there would be transit-oriented," she said.

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

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