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Palo Alto mulls further changes to California Avenue

Original post made on Mar 4, 2013

Palo Alto's latest plans to renovate California Avenue, including a proposal to add pedestrian streetlights to the commercial thoroughfare, will be weighed and potentially approved by the City Council tonight (Monday).

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, March 4, 2013, 9:42 AM

Comments (36)

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 4, 2013 at 10:02 am

Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, the only "major initiative" you and the council should be working on is figuring out how to balance the city budget, and pay for our vital and essential infrastructure needs without another tax increase. This project is neither vital nor essential. Not even close. Do you even realize how ridiculous you all look when you push this type of frivolous spending in light of the significant fiscal challenges we face?

Out of touch. No financial plan. No fiscal priorities. Incapable of saying no to the special interests and niche groups. Symbolism and fluff over substance. Pathetic.

Posted by Castro Street lover, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2013 at 10:21 am

I love shopping and dining on Castro Street because of the wide diversity of merchants. Can that happen to California Ave or will the high rents limit the types of stores and restaurants that can do business in Palo Alto?

Posted by restless, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 4, 2013 at 10:41 am

"California Avenue will rival Castro Street when it is completed,"
A one percent chance! Perhaps less than that..

Posted by ibelieve, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

Beyond having faith in the Mayor, I really do believe in the potential for California Avenue to rival Castro! Hope the new lights can really transform the character. Now if only some of those older building owners will step it up and build new buildings to liven things up even further.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 4, 2013 at 11:28 am

ibelieve, so what of the ongoing budget deficit and unfunded infrastructure needs?

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 11:59 am

> I really do believe in the potential for
> California Avenue to rival Castro!

How in the world could anyone make a statement like this one and expect to be believed?

What metrics can you use, other than long lines of traffic/waits at every table for over an hour vs empty streets and empty restaurants--to come to any conclusion about the success of any business district.

The merchants are not going to reveal their sales, and it's almost impossible to get detailed sales tax information from the State. So--all you can do is render an opinion--which is hardly a fact.

The California Ave. Business District is three blocks long, and dead-ended. There number of business, and the diversity of businesses on Castro can not be rivaled by California Avenue.

There is simply no way to make a meaningful comparison--other than wrongly.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm


You're a bit of a one-note pennywhistle. What's "vital and essential" in your mind? Infrastructure is backed up? Didn't know you considered a new city services lot such an urgent priority. What have you done lately to get the police station approved and financed? Paving feeder roads in neighborhoods? Each one benefits just a few drivers, and arguably makes neighborhoods more dangerous by encouraging speeding.

California Street is a great opportunity to build a new retail district that's a bit more community-focused than downtown. Is that a bad thing? If you want to make a difference, get off your "symbolism and fluff" hobby horse, roll up your sleeves and participate! There are vacancies on many boards and commissions, opportunities to speak and contribute in public meetings, and even the potential to run for council yourself.

Posted by Dan, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 4, 2013 at 12:23 pm

So we voted for an increase in car registration fees to fund mass transit (VTA) and now the money is being used for beautification of California Avenue because it happens to be near a Caltrain station?

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm

And who is to say that I'm not involved Anonymous. Regardless, who are you to decide who is qualified or not to render an opinion on a forum such as this. This is precisely what this forum is all about. As long as the commentary follows the rules of this forum, no one's opinion is more virtuous than anyone else, nor should they be discouraged or expected to run for public office before they can offer an opinion. At the very least I have lived in Palo Alto my entire life, vote in every local election, have done extensive volunteer work, and pay my local taxes. I believe that qualifies me to express an opinion just as anonymously as you. I respect your right to express yourself, and would never discourage you even though we may disagree.

To answer your question, our vital infrastructure and public safety needs would involve street repair, sidewalk repair, sewage and storm drain improvements, and flood control. The city council has projected the initial public expense to cover these improvements would exceed 60 million dollars. Our public safety needs, also a vital part of our base infrastructure, could match or even exceed that amount.

I see our city leaders and elected officials spending millions of dollars on non-essential projects such as a business district upgrades, community center make-overs, bike bridges, playgrounds, golf course remodeling, and park improvements. I have a problem with that when we've had an ongoing budget deficit for many years running. I have a problem with that when the reason we're in this mess is due to poor planning and not having any financial priorities. I have a bigger problem when the only solution our city leaders have suggested is another tax increase.

Posted by Milagro, a resident of University South
on Mar 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Anonymous, you are correct in stating that California Avenue has great potential. Marrol is a one-note pennywhistle, but has hit the right note. Palo Alto city government has allowed the downtown area to decline greatly over the past few years. Are they capable of redeveloping California Avenue?

The town is so business unfriendly that many retailers are here today, gone tomorrow. Given the excessive taxes and fees they incur, is that any surprise? And you want the same spendthrift city government to meddle further in the California Avenue business district? Where is all that money supposed to come from? Out of thin air?

California Avenue could become the like downtown Mountain View. It could also become the next downtown Palo Alto if we are not careful. Let's give the merchants the tools they need to succeed. Decreasing their tax burden would be a good start, and would help offset the overly high Palo Alto rents. Allowing developers to build high rise office/retail space would also help. And please don't go chopping down any more trees.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm

@ Milagro - the core problem downtown is high rents, coupled with modern "common area" offices for creative types. Simple as that. $7 per foot rent is in the noise for new economy companies, and a deal-killer for restaurants and many shops. Apple store will do fine, but a bookstore doesn't generate enough revenue to pay a $7 rent. Restaurants need super high prices, liquor revenue, or lots of table turns. RWC has a better business climate for mid-priced fine dining. Not sure what taxes and fees you think are driving businesses out of town. You can still get your car fixed 2 blocks from downtown.

@Marrol - You're not a fan of amenities. Got it. Why live in a place that's known for its amenities, and whine about the amenities? Yes the late 90s/early 00s councils and city manager were very irresponsible about city headcount, salary and pensions. They are slowly digging their way out of the hole, but why whine about their positive steps? Fast enough? No, but they're moving in the right direction.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm

It will never rival Castro street. Castro street is longer, has more restaurants and is a great place to visit. California ave will remain mediocre even after all the money spent.
Another gennady special, BTW-- if Scharf is mentioned you can bet gennady is the writer

Posted by JM, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 4, 2013 at 2:10 pm

No one has mentioned the huge cost of pensions the city should be setting money aside for. If the city council doesn't put every cent they can then they are just as irresponsible as the city council and city manager who agreed to additional benefits without a plan for how to pay for them.

Now that California Avenue has a new zoning designation allowing higher buildings it is just a matter of time before most, if not all, of the one and two story buildings are torn down and replaced with taller buildings.

The high cost of new buildings will result in decimating the existing shops and restaurants, to be replaced with high end restaurants who can afford the rent.There will be none of the diversity of Castro Street. Our neighborhood shopping will no longer exist. I don't know why everyone can't figure this out.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm

You're wrong Anonymous, I enjoy amenities a great deal. I just believe that we should spend our public funds on amenities when we can afford it. See the difference? I also don't believe that our current city leaders should be let off the hook, and simply blame the policies and decisions made in the 90's as the cause of our fiscal crisis. Not when the current city leaders and elected officials continue to frivolously spend millions on non-essential projects. Not when they are incapable of outsourcing or eliminating certain city services that would save tax payer's millions of dollars. And not when they are seemingly incapable of saying no to the special interest and niche groups.

So yes, I disagree, they are not doing enough to move in the right direction as you claim. Nothing illustrates that notion more than these same city leaders suggesting another tax increase to pay for our basic infrastructure and public safety needs. How about we take take care of our essential civic needs first, and if there is anything left over we decide which amenities to pursue then. That is the responsible, logical, and sensible approach.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Marrol is right.

I like amenities as much as anyone else. But, I don't think that putting amenities first and raising money through a Bond to pay for basic infrastructure is right.

Use our taxes to do what they were meant to do and fix stuff that needs fixing. After that, ask us what we are prepared to increase taxes to pay for.

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 4, 2013 at 2:54 pm

@ Joe & @Not an issue - The main shopping area of Castro (Evelyn to California) is slightly shorter than the main section of California (Park to El Camino). That California is a dead end is a plus, because there is less through traffic.

I actually agree with Marrol that this is a misuse of dollars when there are financial issues and infrastructure projects that should be the priority. But at least it will end up being nice, and there is no reason it can't rival Castro or Santa Cruz Ave.

Posted by Unbelievable, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Fixing existing problems such as infrastructure and traffic bottlenecks are so much more important and urgent than CA Ave!

Set priorities, please! Avoiding them is setting us up for a disaster or two! Get real. Please! necessary stuff before the fun stuff!

Posted by Jean, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm

I hope the City Council approves the California Avenue renovations!

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm

> The main shopping area of Castro (Evelyn to California) is
> slightly shorter than the main section of California
> (Park to El Camino).

According to Google maps, the El Camino to Tracks distance for Castro is about 3900 feet, as opposed to about 1900 feet for California Avenue.

Moreover, in terms of traffic flow--Castro has California Avenue (with four lanes of traffic entering/exiting the downtown area, as well as Castro's being open-ended, and a large transit hub at one end.

There is just no rational way to compare these two business districts. Additionally, there is a business district that extends Castro to the east--up to Middlefield, that should be considered also.

Posted by barbara, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 4, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Having lived in Palo Alto more than 30 years and now on campus, California Avenue is a treasure I use, but not at week-day lunch times when the parking is horrible. Any plans for an additional parking garage?

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 4, 2013 at 6:38 pm

@Joe - The historic shopping area of Castro ends at California St, not El Camino. The area south of there is the civic center, and is mostly (though not entirely) offices, banks, Kaiser, the city hall, etc... Also California St is two lanes downtown MV, not 4.

And just like Castro, California Ave is also a transit hub. And just like Castro, there is a large adjacent business district (AOL, Disney, Groupon, etc...). The only area California compares unfavorably to Castro is the amount of parking.

One more thing, Castro was in MUCH MUCH worse shape before they fixed it up than California Ave. If it can rebound, so can California.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Why doesn't the city council take all the money they spend on these nice to have projects like California Ave, Bike Bridges, green energy cars, bike studies, and ask the voters to pass a bond to pay for them? They can use the tens of millions of dollars that they would have spent on the "nice to haves", and fund the infrastructure projects.

We all know why the city council won't do this - the bond won't pass. Instead, we see them using the same old tired tactic of "collective punishment" - they will cut the most painful items like infrastructure, police, etc. to make the voters give them money. What a bunch of thugs.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2013 at 7:51 pm

> The historic shopping area of Castro ends at
> California St, not El Camino.

To the west of California Ave happens to be MV City Hall, the MV Library and the Performance Art Center. There are/have been stores all the way up to El Camino. There is simply no way that you can claim that all of the people using these non-retail facilities can be segregated, nor this physical space, segregated, from the downtown MV area.

You are just cherry-picking data to try to support an unsupportable point.

Posted by JM, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Is it not wishful thinking that California Avenue will end up with the diversity of restaurants and shops that can afford Castro Street rents?

Doesn't the new "high density zoning" for California Avenue encourage property owners (many of which are owned by only two or three individuals) to tear down their existing buildings and replace them with two or three floors of office space above the first floor retail?

Why would building owners not want to maximize their profit, to which they are entitled with the new zoning?

Won't the owners want or need to charge retail and restaurants much higher rents for the much nicer new spaces?

I've lived here for forty years and watched the little stores on California Avenue slowly disappear. I love the current mix of restaurants and retail, but how will most of them afford the higher rents that are coming when they can only just make it now?

Surely California Avenue will slowly, or not so slowly, be transformed over the next five to ten years. A delightful place to be, at least for a cup of coffee at a sidewalk table if you can't afford the new restaurant prices. But will there be anything like the diversity of restaurants and shops on Castro Street? Seems unlikely.

Posted by bill g, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 4, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Merrol makes well-reasoned statements that are supported by others. I, too, want General Fund money spent on projects identified by the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission (IBRC) whose report was thoughtfull and well researched.

Using GF money for new projects and then asking for a bond issue to pay for the IBRC recommended programs is short sighted. Past Councils have done the same thing - catering to the project (flavor) of the month. Typical political thinking, and I thought we had concerned citizens on our City Council, not politicians seeking to be reelected.

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm

@ Joe - Depends what you are arguing. I am saying there is enough retail space on California Ave (more than Castro) to make a great shopping district. And there is far more commercial space walking distance to California Ave, so there is a good supply of customers.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm


Beautifully stated, common sense comments. I'd like to see you as Mayor, or on the City Council!

Posted by resident, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 4, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Thank you, Council members, for digesting the actual proposal before you tonight. Your unanimous support is amazing. Heartening that the uninformed potshots from this forum were given the credibility they deserve. Looking forward to a great streetscape serving all users!

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 5, 2013 at 10:04 am

And may I ask you resident of Evergreen Park, what of the ongoing budget deficit, severely unfunded vital infrastructure and public safety needs, and a looming tax increase in order to pay the bill. If you are so informed and bestowed with such wisdom, explain that. The only thing "amazing" as you put it is how our elected officials can ignore these very stark realities. If the proponents of fiscal responsibility are uninformed, then the supporters of a vanity project such as this one are completely out of touch with reality.

Posted by visitor, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Calif Ave looks very bleak now, compared to a couple of years ago. No trees. Bistro Elan was a favorite restaurant. The great Mexican place @ Cambridge & El Camino is gone. A couple of weeks ago I walked Calif. from Bank of the West to Mollie Stone - pretty dull.
Compared to Castro St, there's no buzz. At 9pm on a February weeknight, Castro restaurants & sidewalks were busy. EastWest Books had retail action & a workshop in session. It looked pretty with the fairy lights wrapping the trees.
Cal Ave really isn't a "transportation hub" since not all trains stop there. Castro is the true hub, with CalTrain & Light Rail stations & the ability to switch between the 2.
I've seen a lot of change on Cal Ave since moving here in the '70s. It looks & feels stale, especially with empty storefronts & tired window displays.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I know the lane reduction issue is settled and I assume happiness abounds amongst those who supported that change. I did not join the fracas b/c to do so would have been a waste of time and energy, but I am chiming in now to add to the "nay" vote tally. I think the lane reduction creates a dangerous condition of public property. I have been reminded of why multiple times in the last few days. Bikers in the right hand lane are at risk now, as are drivers trying to avoid them as well as cars backing out of spaces. How does this improve when there's less road to share? At least now a driver has some hope of moving over one lane. I hope all stores that can will open a back door. Better yet, move to a side street now.

Posted by Jo Ann, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Whenever I'm meeting friends for lunch, we avoid Cal Ave. because there's no parking. When running errands, I avoid Cal Ave. during "prime time" for the same reason which hurts the merchants.

Hurting the merchants is no problem because the city will keep raising utility rates to offset declining sales tax revenues. And they can hire more marketing managers to waste time and money creating our very own PA Utilities Crossword Puzzle! DUMB!

I can't tell you how much I'm eagerly awaiting the same type of traffic backups on Cal. Ave and El Camino that we now see around Town & Country and El Camino/Embarcadero.


Posted by onlyajoke, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Neither the traffic engineer nor transportation director aware of any backup coming to El Camino.. Perhaps we need to tell them besides bikes, we have cars using the road..

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Jo Ann you are always griping about T&C but you never have any positive input. How do you propose that the city "fix that mess" when 1) El Camino is out of their control 2) Paly is out of their control and 3) T&C circulation is out of their control?

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

@Annette, the situation for bikes will be safer with the change. You are correct that it is unsafe now, because there are two narrow lanes, bicyclists think they need to stay in the right lane, which puts them right behind all the diagonally parked cars, ready to be hit by one pulling out, or by a car in the left lane if the cyclist swerves left to avoid a car backing out.
With the lane count reduction, according to the streetscape plan in the staff report (page 9 of Web Link (9.6 MB PDF)) the single lane will be about 17' wide from the median line to the back of the parked cars, with the sharrows indicating to cyclists that they should ride about 10' from the back of the parked cars. So there will be much more room for the car to pull out before it threatens a bike, thus giving a bike more time to respond and the backing-out driver a better sight-line to on coming bikes and cars. Where there isn't diagonal parking, 17' is more than enough room for a bike to allow a car to safely pass.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Back-in diagonal parking would have been even safer, because at the time that a driver is still in the traffic lane and is getting ready to back-in to a stall, the driver can easily see and be seen by bikes and cars coming up in the traffic lane. The back-in parking maneuver is way easier than diagonal parking. On getting ready to pull forward out of the stall, the car is already pointing towards the traffic lane in the direction they need to start gong, and the driver can easily see to the left if there is on coming traffic. A good graphic of back-in angle parking: Web Link . Unfortunately, the community freaked out at the suggestion, with, IMHO, the usual fear and reaction to the unknown.

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