Staff from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and Santa Clara Valley Water District fielded questions from an impassioned crowd that filled the East Palo Alto Academy gym, just blocks from the bridge. The meeting was pegged as an opportunity to gather early community input on four possible options for rebuilding the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge but took place before an Environmental Impact Report has been completed, leaving many questions still unanswered.
"How can we make a decision if we don't understand what the facts are?" one woman asked staff, to loud applause from others in the packed gym.
The four options presented for the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge — which of all the bridges crossing the San Francisquito Creek between Palo Alto and Menlo Park allows the least amount of water to flow underneath — are to leave the existing bridge as is, to take it out but not replace it, to build a raised bridge that allows for greater water flow or construct an at-grade bridge with minimal changes to roadway elevations.
Wednesday's meeting focused on the designs and impacts of the latter two options, which also include differing plans for longer term flood-protection projects.
The raised-bridge alternative, referred to as the baseline project, would raise the roadway at the bridge and along portions of Palo Alto Avenue and Woodland Avenue. The design calls for 4-foot-tall retaining walls at the four corner properties surrounding the bridge. The bridge railing would be a standard height of 3 feet. There would be no floodwalls immediately built — an element of contention with residents — and this design would protect the area from a large, once-in-50-years flood.
The raised bridge would allow more water to flow freely and is more convenient for maintenance, said Kevin Sibley, associate civil engineer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. This construction would be mainly funded by the water district, with most of the money coming from Measure B, a bond voters passed in 2012.
The raised bridge design also lays the groundwork for a potential 100-year-flood-protection project, which when built would mean the bridge would be able to withstand a massive flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. The designs includes three possible placements for underground bypass culverts, which allow water to flow under roads. One alignment would run from Middlefield Road out to the San Francisco Bay, another from the creek under Hamilton Avenue and a third along the creek under Woodland Avenue.
For the 100-year project, the raised bridge design would also add 3- to 6-foot-tall floodwalls, extending up to 600 feet upstream and 100 feet downstream. (The height varies due to road alignment.)
Menlo Park resident Brielle Johnck took the microphone at the meeting to ask water district staff about the first community meeting, held Jan. 15, at which she said Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said, "Floodwalls are a nonstarter."
"We all just sat there and said, 'Well, this is the best piece of news we've gotten,'" Johnck said, expressing opposition to the construction of unsightly floodwalls. "So my question tonight is, is Kirsten on solid ground there? Can we honestly say there will be no floodwalls on either of these alternatives? Because I keep hearing the word 'floodwalls' over and over again."
"Floodwalls are one alternative," said Kevin Murray, project manager at the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority. "At this point in time, your input and Kirsten Keith's input obviously carries a lot of weight, so a future decision will be made."
The second design, for an at-grade bridge, requires no retaining walls at the four corner properties, no floodwalls and minimal changes to road elevations. It would also build a standard 3-foot-tall bridge railing.
The at-grade bridge "maintains the aesthetic of the current bridge without impacting the four corner properties," Sibley said.
It would also accommodate a potential 100-year-flood-protection project in the future, but with higher floodwalls — up to 7 feet — that extend much further upstream — 1,800 feet — and 100 feet downstream.
"There's some serious negative with that floodwall issue, and I can appreciate that," Sibley conceded but said that the floodwall would not actually be 7 feet tall the whole way but rather taper off as it moves farther away from the bridge.
Sibley said maintenance is much more difficult with the at-grade bridge than the raised one.
Residents have also taken issue with the potential removal of trees along the bridge, starting a website called "Save the Oaks." The raised-bridge alternative would remove 25 to 35 riparian trees, or trees that grow between land and a creek or river, and up to 31 landscape trees (due to removal of landscape strips at the four corner properties). The at-grade option would remove the same amount of creek-side trees, but no landscape trees.
Many audience members also continually asked staff why no Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has been completed yet. Staff said they're currently working on it, and one is due out this summer.
"I guess I'm just asking for a lot more information than you're giving to us. If the EIR isn't until summer, then maybe we should postpone these discussions until then," one audience member said, to a round of applause.