About 130 people gathered at Emerson School -- fittingly just south of Oregon Expressway on West Bayshore Road -- to hear Santa Clara County's plan to make modifications to the road that has been Palo Alto's great divide since voters narrowly approved its construction in 1963.
That election, and the construction of the four-lane road, divided the city geographically and symbolically into a north-south split.
Business interests in what was then Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park) supported the road so employees would have an easier time driving through the city to work from U.S. Highway 101.
The vote over Oregon Expressway also helped polarize the City Council into two camps, the residentialists and the establishment, through the 1960s and early 1970s.
The north-south split is real. Over the last three decades, a great majority of City Council and school board members have come from the north.
On the evening of Oct. 17, 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake rolled through, then-council member Larry Klein was outside City Hall and quipped that while south Palo Alto was without power the lights were still shining in the north.
The county's plan, since it is a county road, is to try to improve safety and traffic flow on Oregon Expressway. That would include closing the crossings at Waverley Street and Ross Road, making Oregon even more a north-south dividing line than it already is.
Many of those who gathered last week at the Midtown Residents Association (MRA) meeting to hear about the plans were clearly uncomfortable with any proposed changes to the road and kept interrupting a county traffic engineer who was trying to explain them.
The meeting wasn't the county's idea, by the way.
County officials had proposed meeting with the MRA's steering committee but the group wanted a larger community meeting, MRA Vice Chairman Sheri Furman said.
Nothing is set in stone (or pavement) yet, the county officials emphasized. Another community meeting will be held in the coming months before plans are finalized and presented to the city in early 2009.
But a lot of people are uneasy over what may happen.
Gayle Likens, a longtime city planner, said last week's gathering was one of the largest community meetings she had ever seen in Palo Alto.
"We are not in a position right now to make any recommendations," she told the crowd.
City Council member Pat Burt said the intent to make Oregon Expressway more pedestrian-oriented is a move in the right direction. But people are still nervous about making the road even more of a divide between north and south Palo Alto for the benefit of the commuters driving back and forth between the research park and highway.
"Why are the cars of commuters privileged over pedestrians and bicyclists?" one resident asked, to cheers from the crowd.
But that caused one guy to mutter loudly, "It's an expressway, for Chrissakes!"
Or is it?
Furman said that Oregon is more of a boulevard than an expressway and is unlike any of the other seven Santa Clara County expressways that are limited-access roads.
Oregon may be misnamed as an expressway, but the county plan will make it more like one.
Burt was cautiously optimistic.
"It's a good mission statement," he said of the county goal of making Oregon "a multimodel, pedestrian-friendly arterial roadway with slower, smooth-flowing traffic."
"It was a phenomenal turnout," Burt said of the meeting. "It shows that people have an interest in what happens."
Anything that would make the road safer for kids to cross should be the priority. Everything else is haggling over stoplights, turning lanes and intersection wait-times.
County planners also said they realized that no proposal to make changes to Oregon Expressway may win the support of the community.
"It's not the end of the road on this thing, so to speak," Burt said.
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