Envisioned by communities along the Peninsula as the "Grand Boulevard," with generous amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians, the prominent north-south corridor has gained notoriety locally for traffic jams and hulking developments that tower over narrow sidewalks. Arbor Real, a dense townhouse community at El Camino and Charleston Road, has become a poster child among local land-use critics for everything wrong with building design today.
Alma Street has also become a subject of derision, with residents complaining about imposing, in-your-face developments such as Alma Village near East Meadow Drive and the new affordable-housing development at 801 Alma, near Homer Avenue.
It's not just the gadflies who are irritated by what's happening. Some city officials are scratching their heads over the design of the latter building. Arthur Keller, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, compared 801 Alma on Wednesday to a fortress.
"Especially the little windows," Keller said. "They look like someone will shoot arrows, as in one of those fortresses that you find in Europe."
Now, the city is preparing to reverse this trend. In April, four council members released a memo calling for a re-examination of sidewalk widths and building designs on El Camino, Alma and other busy stretches that have small sidewalks and large buildings. In the memo, Mayor Greg Scharff and council members Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid pointed to a climate of "consternation in the community" and a "strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close these new buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way" due to their sheer massiveness. The buildings, the memo notes, are often characterized as "unfriendly and overwhelming."
On Wednesday night, the city's two main development-review boards met for their first discussion of the topic. Though members of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board expressed diverse and often divergent views about how to deal with the problems of narrow sidewalks and uninviting buildings, they all agreed the subject is critically important and will take many more meetings to come up with solutions.
"Eventually, it's going to ... lead us to some new El Camino Real design guidelines," said Lee Lippert, vice chair of the architecture board and former planning commissioner. "It's really a leading piece here to what we want El Camino Real to look like."
One thing most commissioners agreed on is that existing design rules could use an upgrade. Randy Popp, a member of the architecture board, advocated for incentives that would encourage developers to abide by new design guidelines.
"The goal here is to cause change and to create the space that we're dreaming about to get these wider sidewalks, to get a more robust canopy along El Camino, to make it safe and to make it a focal point of our community and really a destination that people seek out," Popp said.
These incentives could include allowing greater building heights on El Camino in exchange for larger setbacks to allow more generous sidewalks, Popp said. Keller rejected this idea and cautioned that larger buildings would negatively affect adjacent homes.
But everyone was open to at least exploring changes to design criteria, which include existing rules that force developers to build close to the road. Clare Malone Prichard, who chairs the architecture board, said the city should allow more flexibility in its design guidelines for El Camino. Under existing laws, buildings have the same setback requirements, whether they are retail strips, small motels or housing complexes with bedrooms on the ground floor. That should be changed, Malone Prichard said.
"I'd like to see some more flexibility in the rules that really appreciate the different uses," Malone Prichard said
She also agreed with Popp that the city should explore new incentives for developers to build farther from the road rather than rely strictly on new rules.
The discussion over rule changes and incentives is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. But commissioners and board members agreed on Wednesday that they should evaluate what other communities have done to create vibrant boulevards. Planning Commissioner Alex Panelli encouraged his colleagues to do some research.
"My concern is that we're sitting here sort of in our ivory towers pontificating on what we believe the right code provisions will be that will compel this change to occur," Panelli said. "I think that's perhaps a bit unlikely. I think the market will do what the market will do given whatever the rules are there."
The idea of taking a step back and evaluating other communities' work caught on, and the meeting adjourned with an understanding that staff will meet with chairs of both bodies, which will reconvene for another session within two months.
Much of the analysis about what should constitute the "Grand Boulevard" has already been done. A coalition of cities and counties from along the El Camino corridor have spent years working on the "Grand Boulevard Initiative," which aims to revitalize this critical thoroughfare between Daly City and San Jose. The initiative's vision statement is: "El Camino Real will achieve its full potential as a place for residents to work, live, shop and play, creating links between communities that promote walking and transit and an improved and meaningful quality of life."
Among its proposals is an 18-foot sidewalk, far larger than the 12-foot sidewalks in Palo Alto's stretch of El Camino.
But the effort to promote vibrancy by encouraging people to travel using alternatives to cars has run into some roadblocks. Each of the cities along the way has its own vision for the corridor, which creates a challenge for regional planners. A recent proposal by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to dedicate lanes on El Camino to buses fizzled last year after several cities, including Palo Alto, voiced concerns about possible traffic problems.
Keller warned on Wednesday that the city should tread cautiously when considering any plan that would reduce the number of lanes on El Camino. He pointed to Menlo Park, where a lane reduction causes bottleneck traffic during busy commute hours.
Others emphasized the need to make El Camino more bike friendly. Eduardo Martinez, who chairs the planning commission, argued that in Palo Alto, as in other cities, "the idea of the importance of the automobile is losing a little bit of its grip." Mark Michael, vice chair of the planning commission, agreed and said improving El Camino means making conditions safer for non-drivers.
"I think ultimately the quality of the experience on El Camino and other thoroughfares is going to be raised to the extent that we transition out of automobiles and to other modalities," Michael said.
TALK ABOUT IT
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