Palo Alto tries to put California Avenue project back on track
After being rebuffed by a Superior Court ruling, city resumes its plan to cut lanes on commercial street
When Palo Alto officials meet next Monday to approve a plan to cut lanes and add streetscape improvements to California Avenue, the discussion will have a familiar feel.
The plan, which the City Council green-lighted in February, will have to go through another round of approvals because of a recent court decision in which a Superior Court judge concluded that the city made a sequencing error in its environmental analysis for the project. The ruling followed a lawsuit from a small opposition group whose members claim the lane-cutting proposal would create congestion at the prominent commercial district.
In her ruling, Judge Patricia Lucas wrote that the city's decision to cut lanes on California Avenue — as described in the city's December 2010 application for a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) — was made before the city approved its environmental analysis of the lane reduction in February. As such, the application essentially committed the city to the lane reduction before the analysis had been completed.
Though the city's traffic study indicated that the lane reduction would create no significant impacts, the study was conducted concurrently with the grant application — a sequence that Lucas found problematic.
To correct the problem and get the project back on track, the council will once again approve the environmental review of the project and authorize a Capital Improvement Program to pay for the design costs of the California Avenue streetscape project. The council will also once again authorize a grant application to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — an application that would be administered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
City officials are hopeful that these steps will comply with Lucas' decree and allow it to proceed with the project, which has the support of the entire City Council and the vast majority of the speakers who addressed the council on the topic in February. Supporters of the plan say the new design will make California Avenue safer and more attractive for pedestrian and bicyclists. It would also create 17 new parking spaces in the artsy commercial strip, raising the total number of spots to 128.
Jaime Rodriguez, the city's chief transportation officer, noted in a report that "California Avenue experiences a very low level of vehicular traffic.
"The plan proposes a lane reduction to improve the pedestrian/bicycle experience along the street and the connection between the existing land uses and the enhanced streetscape," Rodriguez wrote.
Critics, including the plaintiffs in the recent suit, contend that the lane reduction would create traffic backup, particularly for eastbound traffic flowing in from El Camino Real toward the Caltrain station. Terry Shuchat, owner of the California Avenue camera store Keeble & Shuchat, told the Weekly that while he supports most of the streetscape plan and hopes the city will make improvements to the neighborhood, he believes cutting lanes will doom California Avenue to the type of traffic congestion currently experienced along University Avenue.
Shuchat is one of four plaintiffs in the suit against the city. Resident Joy Ogawa, former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, whose accounting practice is a block from California Avenue, and Antonio's Nuthouse, a California Avenue bar, are also plaintiffs in the suit.
Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said staff believes the city's actions next week will be enough to comply with the court order and convince the MTC to release the $1.2 million grant for construction (the city is contributing another $550,000 for the design work). The agency has already listed the California Avenue project on its list of approved proposals but has been waiting for settlement of the litigation before it releases the money, Williams said.
Meanwhile, the city is proceeding with design work for the project, Williams said. In a recent discussion of the project, the council directed staff to further refine the project and to consider new elements such as a central plaza between Ash and Birch streets and parallel parking on both sides of the street.
Planning staff will hold a community meeting Tuesday night (Nov. 29) to discuss various design options and solicit suggestions. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Escondido School, 890 Escondido Road, Stanford.
Williams told the Weekly that staff is still talking to merchants about the proposed lane reductions and is considering a possible trial in which lanes are reduced for a block or two. So far, however, staff has not found a way to design a trial without making the street unattractive, he said.
Williams said staff has also held discussions with the merchants about bringing in another traffic consultant to evaluate the impacts of the lane reduction. But the city has not backed off its plan to reduce lanes — a change that city officials consider a key component of the streetscape plan.
"At this point, we're certainly not intending to look at an option of having two lanes going in each way," Williams said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.