Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 28, 2012

Top projects of 2012

California dreamin'

Palo Alto's effort to reinvigorate the charming but neglected commercial strip of California Avenue sped ahead this year despite speed bumps of opposition from area merchants. Opponents' top concern remains the city's plan to reduce lanes on California Avenue, giving it the configuration (and, officials hope, the character) of downtown's University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street. This year, the city made the already dramatic streetscape project even more so when it agreed to expand sidewalks and create flexible plazas near the Caltrain station and on the block between Ash and Birch streets. With the design work largely completed, the city is looking to begin construction in fall 2013.

A new gateway

The idea of building dense, tall developments near transit stations has long been a central tenet of New Urbanism. This year, Palo Alto officials doubled down on the idea of "transit-oriented developments" when they approved Lytton Gateway. The four-story project will occupy the prominent intersection of Lytton Avenue and Alma Street, a stone's throw from the downtown Caltrain station. The council approved the proposed project after intense negotiations with developer Boyd Smith and his group and after a wave of concern from Downtown North residents about the project's impact on parking. As part of the compromise, the City Council asked the developers to reduce the number of stories from five to four and to fund a study that will assess downtown's complex parking situation.

Plugging in Caltrain

In the four years since California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond to build the nation's first high-speed-rail system, the project has quickly transformed in the eyes of local officials from the great progressive hope to a $68 billion lemon. This year, however, legislators were able to squeeze some lemonade out of the mammoth endeavor. When the State Senate approved in July funding for the first segment of construction in Central Valley, the approval included a gift for the Peninsula — about $750 million for the long-awaited electrification of Caltrain. The electrification project, which Caltrain has been coveting for more than a decade, is still years away, but with the state funding secured, there is finally hope that the popular but cash-strapped commuter service will soon reach its goals of modern trains and financial soundness.

Calming the creek

Fourteen years ago, water from the San Francisquito Creek spilled over local bridges, causing millions of dollars in flood damage to Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. After more than a decade with virtually no progress, officials from the three cities this year approved a major flood-control effort aimed at protecting the particularly vulnerable area downstream of the fickle creek, between U.S. Highway 101 and the San Francisco Bay. But the project — which includes rebuilt levees, an upgraded bridge, a widened channel, and a completely reconfigured Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course — does much more than just offer flood protection from the creek. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which is spearheading this effort, is also using the opportunity to protect the area from possible sea-level rise related to climate change.

The new chapter

Construction of Palo Alto's new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center didn't exactly proceed by the book. The most conspicuous and expensive project in the $76 million bond that Palo Alto voters approved in 2008 suffered a series of setbacks — from missing details in architectural plans to construction delays in waterproofing the building — driving up costs and pushing the target date forward by a year. Even so, by the end of 2012 most of the work on the new buildings has already been completed, giving residents in south Palo Alto much to look forward to in spring of 2013, when the buildings are scheduled to open.

— Gennady Sheyner

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