Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 1, 2013

News Digest

City racks up costs as street project evolves

When Palo Alto officials unanimously approved in 2011 a controversial plan to reduce the number of lanes on California Avenue and make a host of streetscape improvements, they heralded the $1.7 million project as one that would transform the commercial strip into a new University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street.

Since then, the plan itself has undergone some hefty transformations — including wider sidewalks, new plazas and more outdoor seating — and its price tag has transformed proportionately. The latest proposal from city staff to replace streetlights on California Avenue between the Caltrain station and El Camino Real would add another $1 million to the cost, bringing it to more than $4 million.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed the proposed lighting improvements and the status of the city's most contentious and dramatic streetscape project Wednesday night, Jan. 30. And while members agreed with the city's planning staff that the time is ripe for replacing streetlights and making the street brighter and safer, some commissioners had deep concerns about escalating costs and the fact that this element of the plan has not been widely discussed.

Commissioner Michael Alcheck lamented the fact that no one was discussing the new lighting (and, accordingly, the new budget) at the time the council approved the project. He called that "a failure of the planning department."

In February 2011, when the council initially approved the streetscape project, officials planned to fund it through a $1.2 million grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and with about $500,000 in local funds.

Since then, the council had directed staff to make further improvements, including new plazas near Park Avenue and between Ash and Birch streets and wider sidewalks. These components would push the price tag to about $3.5 million. The change to streetlight could add another $1 million.

"If we're talking about a $6 million streetscape improvement or a $3 million (one) — those are decisions that the City Council has to make," Alcheck said. "How is it possible that this project has gotten this far along without the discussion of street lighting?"

Stanford University sued over Searsville Dam

Two environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Stanford University for allegedly harming the threatened steelhead trout by maintaining Searsville Dam, the groups announced Tuesday, Jan. 29.

Our Children's Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights Foundation filed the suit, alleging Stanford is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Stanford acquired Searsville Reservoir and Dam in 1919.

The university receives about 20 percent of its water for irrigating the golf course, landscaping and athletic field and for backup fire protection from the reservoir. Steelhead, which have been listed as an endangered species since 1997, cannot scale the dam to swim upstream to spawn.

Other federally protected species, such as the California red legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake, have also been harmed and are decreasing in numbers because of the creek's altered habitat, the environmental groups said.

The suit claims that the primary causes of degraded habitat in the San Francisquito Creek watershed are the Searsville Dam and Stanford's diversion of excessive water from the watershed above the dam.

The diversion has reduced water flow in the creek dramatically, changing the amount of vegetation, which has degraded water quality, the groups state. Water in the shallower creek gets hotter, and warmer water temperatures reduce dissolved oxygen levels that are needed for life in the creek, environmentalists said.

Stanford spokeswoman Jean McCown said by email on Wednesday that the university has not seen the lawsuit but that it is unnecessary and that Stanford is already studying possible changes to the Searsville Dam and Reservoir.

Menlo Park names new police chief

Robert Jonsen, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, has been named the new police chief of Menlo Park, City Manager Alex McIntyre announced Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Jonsen succeeds Lee Violett, who has been interim chief since former Chief Bryan Roberts left last August. Jonsen is expected to start in mid-February after a required Peace Officer Standards and Training compliant background check is conducted.

For the past two years, the new chief has been captain of the Lancaster Sheriff's Station in Los Angeles County, overseeing 227 deputies in the city of about 157,000 residents. Prior to that, he headed an "anti-crime effort in Antelope Valley that helped reduce crime rates to their lowest in over a decade," according to the Menlo Park press release.

Jonsen holds a bachelor's degree from California State University, Long Beach, and a master's degree in organizational leadership from Woodbury University in Southern California.

— Palo Alto Weekly staff

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