El Camino Sidewalk Width and the "Grand Boulevard" Delusion | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

View all posts from Douglas Moran

El Camino Sidewalk Width and the "Grand Boulevard" Delusion

Uploaded: Mar 29, 2014
The City is once again talking about wanting to make El Camino more "pedestrian-friendly" (foot#1) and once again refusing to consider what the actual problems are. Sidewalk width is but one aspect of the least of the three major categories of what makes something pedestrian-friendly. First and foremost, it has to be somewhere pedestrians would want to go, either as a destination, or the route to such a destination. Second, pedestrians need to feel safe walking there. Third, it has to be physically amenable to walking.

This issue has a very long history, which is not apparent from the Staff Report. My experience with this issue goes back only 20 years, and 2.5 iterations. The first was during the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) process of the mid-1990s, when it already had enough history and interest for South El Camino to be designated a Special Study Area-- it was the subject of a series of workshops led by Urban Design consultants of international repute. The second iteration was the Caltrans/El Camino Redesign Study (2003-2006). The Mayor's ad hoc Committee on Retail (2006-2008) was a partial follow-on. I hope to make the current iteration more productive by passing on some of what I learned during those earlier ones. Interested people should also look at the comments to the PA Weekly articles (foot#1).

Desirable destination for pedestrians on El Camino would presumable be retail and retail-like services. There is a maxim "Retail loves retail", that is, that concentrations of retail are mutually supporting. (foot#2) The City has a history of failing to support this, except minimal measures in belated responses to crises.

Safety for pedestrians is a matter of perception: Recognize that what feels safe you may not feel safe to others. For example, who you are matters: a 6'4" 25 year-old athletic male vs. a 5'2" 80 year-old female using a cane. Also, recognize that there are lots of different intuitions about what is safe enough.

Safety from vehicles: One of the common suggestions from newbies is to remove curb-side parking and replace it with sidewalk. The professionals say that this is ineffective, because the parked cars provide a safety buffer between the traffic and pedestrians, both in terms of separation distance and substantial barriers. Streets similar to El Camino that don't have parking as this buffer tend to have things such as massive concrete planters (for trees) to provide this sense of protection.

Safety from other pedestrians: There are many factors in what makes a sidewalk feel safe. One is whether there are enough pedestrians present that the "herd" will deter most attackers and come to the aid of someone who is attacked. Another factor is escape routes, for example, being able to step into a store to avoid a situation on the sidewalk. Stretches where the sidewalk is between a busy street and a blank wall are uncomfortable for many pedestrians. The wall can be either a building itself or the wall surrounding a development.

Creating this perception of safety is one of the reasons is one of the factors in locating stores immediately next to the sidewalk, instead of having a parking lot between them: People visible in the store become part of the "herd" on the sidewalk (psychologically). Unfortunately, and expectedly, the Palo Alto government mindlessly applies this guideline even when it is contrary to the justification. First, it presumes that the front of the store or restaurant will be large windows. If you look along El Camino, you will find that this is often not true. To reduce the noise from the street, some buildings have solid walls. In others, the tenants have filled the window with sound-dampening panels (I worked in one of those buildings, and we not only had the panels, but lined that wall with tall storage cabinets). Second, it assumes that parking lots are the size of those at Stanford Shopping Center and that there is little foot traffic in the area nearest the sidewalk (periphery of the lot = employee parking).

When the Walgreens on El Camino at Maybell was built, a conscious exception was made to allow the parking lot to be in front: The building was going to have negligible windows, but it was going to have lots of foot traffic in its parking lot (from the nature of its business). The additional eyes on the sidewalk were going to come from the parking lot, not the store itself.

Small parking lots between the sidewalk and the business can have an advantageous tradeoff: They minimally decrease visibility between the two, but may provide enough separation that the building can have a front window rather than a wall.

Physically walking: One of the common complaints is that the sidewalks are cluttered, but this, of course, depends upon the size of your group, and whether you are walking at one of those rare times and locations where there currently is significant other pedestrian activity. Part of that clutter is newspaper boxes, but that is such a big topic that I am going to rule it out-of-bounds for here. A significant other part of the clutter is signage related to the businesses. During the Caltrans/El Camino Design Study, the City's Senior Planner running the study walked the length of El Camino talking to all the business owners/managers who were willing. One big complaint was that drivers had serious problems finding their stores, partly because the street trees obscured the signs, but also because signs on the buildings were inherently hard to read by a driver in typical traffic. One example stuck in my mind: One business owner had recently located to El Camino after being forced out elsewhere. He reported that his business had dropped off sharply despite having a large and loyal clientele--that customers were calling him saying that they couldn't find his store. Apparently providing cross-streets was not good enough--many of this customers needed visual confirmation. This surprised me because his customers skewed young (skateboarders).

The Study Group came up with a series of recommendations on improving the visibility of the small businesses, but that went nowhere: The City implemented the improvements related to Stanford Shopping Center, and ignored the rest of the El Camino business district (as usual). Shortly thereafter, that Senior Planner retired, but her work product may still be buried in the City's files.

Strolling: One of the arguments for widening the sidewalks somewhat is that it would encourage shoppers to stroll down the street window shopping. The first question is ==I "How do they anticipate getting the density of the right type of stores that shoppers would want to stroll?"== The second question is "How much of the time such shoppers would feel comfortable strolling?" During the Caltrans/El Camino Design Study, I did an experiment trying to simulate strolling. While I have no problem walking longer distances along El Camino to get to a destination, there is no way I would stroll. Noise from the traffic was the first problem. I have been in big cities where there traffic noise on some big streets was not an impediment to strolling and yet the noise on similar streets nearby felt threatening. I found the noise on El Camino to be threatening.

The elements were the second problem. There was wind both from the (truck) traffic and from the weather. The effect of sunlight was also very noticeable: Walking on the northeast side was noticeably nicer--the southwest side got shaded by building before it really warmed up.

Sidewalk dining: Another argument for somewhat wider sidewalks is that it would allow restaurants and coffee shops to put out tables. They cite Cafe Barrone in Menlo Park (next to Kepler's Books). What those advocates miss is just how deep that plaza is, and that, in my experience, the tables are usually far back from the street (common exceptions for warm days on weekends). Furthermore, the building for the British Bankers Club (currently closed) provides a windbreak for the plaza. To have similar depths on southern El Camino, many properties would have to surrender one-third to one-half their lots to sidewalk.

Parking behind: If you want to have the fronts of buildings close to the sidewalk, you putting parking behind the building, and this is what the City says is the preferred configuration for new buildings. Furthermore, rather than each building having its own parking lot and driveway, it is preferable to have a shared driveway that connects to a side street. You see this in several blocks on the NE side of southern El Camino. However, the City's actions have been to discourage this configuration. A persist complaint of the merchants is that their customers are often unaware of this parking, and they have asked the City to at least get signage installed on El Camino. After 20 years of this being repeatedly raised, the City has failed to act.

Grand Boulevard: The regional government (ABAG, MTC, ...) wants to turn El Camino into a "Grand Boulevard", ignoring the practicalities. The Grand Boulevards in the cities they cite often were created in the late 1800s as fire breaks--the Great Chicago Fire (1871) was simply the most famous of many. Some of the boulevards were created during rebuilding, and others were created as preventative measures as part of vast "urban renewal" projects where vast swathes of wood-framed buildings were wiped out and replaced by ones with stone and masonry.

Because these redevelopments had the luxury of coordinated planning for very large areas, they were able to put very dense retail near dense housing for people with high disposable income. For example, the redevelopment of Paris France (1851-1870) resulted in massive "gentrification" (driving out the working class from those portions of the city). The regional planners halfway recognize this: The talk about massive redevelopment stretching half-a-mile to a mile on each side of El Camino. What they refuse to acknowledge are the realities on the ground. Thanks to Satellite view in thing like Google Maps, you can easily see that there isn't room. To hear the regional planners talk, you could be forgiven for believing that there are vast expanses of dilapidated commercial districts on both sides of El Camino. But Palo Alto is hardly alone in having a narrow band of retail/commercial along El Camino that almost immediately become residential neighborhoods.

Planning is so much easier and more fun if you don't have be constrained by facts.

The difficult of redevelopment along southern El Camino has to do with the lots and their ownership. Many of those lots are painfully small: They were created as narrow and deep, but had their front portions taken during successive widenings of El Camino. Developers have tried to combine some of these small lots into something practical and given up in frustration. I was told that they couldn't contact the owners directly. The City has had similar problems locating the owners. One common situation seems to be that the last local owner left the property in a trust for his children who left their shares to their children. The lawyer who is contact for the trust shields the identities of those people. And when you have many people involved in a trust, it is often hard to get a decision.

Recognize that if you are doing a very large high density development (tens of acres), having the sidewalk on one side be a bit wider is not a sacrifice. However, if you are considering replacing a building on an already undersized property, those additional few feet can be precious. And there is a certain sense of futility about it: What good is it for you to widen your sidewalk if all the other properties on the block don't (because they continue to defer replacement of those buildings)?

Note: Not that long ago, the City could have declared a redevelopment area and used eminent domain to take over such properties. However, because of the widespread abuses of this process, this is now illegal.

---- Footnotes ----

1. PaloAltoOnline articles: Rule changes aim to widen El Camino sidewalks (February 26) and El Camino property owners irked by plans for wider sidewalks: Palo Alto to hold special meeting Tuesday to address concerns and 'misinformation' from critics (March 27).

2. Retail loves retail: Shoppers favor destinations where they can combine various shopping tasks. But concentrations also provide for impulse buying--seeing something interesting as the shopper walks to/from the intended destination. And there is the benefit of familiarity: When faced with a choice of where to buy, shoppers tend to favor the stores in locations they are already familiar with.

Shopping malls major advantage over downtowns is not easier parking--it can be worse--but rather that once you are there, it is easier to walk to a variety of stores, restaurants and other destinations. How well a mall manages the mix and placement of business is a large factor in its success. (Department stores were an earlier iteration of such consolidation).

While cities cannot exert such control, many do engage in substantial recruiting efforts to support their retail districts. Not only has Palo Alto rejected this, but it has knowingly pursued policies that have weakened retail areas such as southern El Camino by further fragmenting what retail is present. Studies have shown that even half a block on non-retail on a retail street can produce significant detrimental impacts (or so we citizens were told by the retail planners and mall managers in various workshops). Yet Palo Alto deliberately chooses to do this with its policies favoring housing and office developments with little or no retail presence (yet another small coffee shop has little impact).

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Barron Park , a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 29, 2014 at 11:48 pm

This transformation has happened in the US in a major land starved location in the past decade or two: Arlington, VA. Wilson and Clarendon Blvds. have gone from El Camino like to a retail residential combo with wide sidewalks that is quite successful. The difference: the Metro. We have no subway... In the last 7 years Virginia built an extension of the Metro out to Dulles Airport via Tyson's corner (underground at Tyson's 3 stops) while in California during those same seven years we talked of the high speed rail from SF to LA with virtually no progress. Why drive to El Camino to then walk? Taking the metro and walking makes sense. Wider sidewalks would be nice, but honestly getting BART underground along El Camino would be better... More expensive, yet infinitely more useful.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 30, 2014 at 1:35 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Please respect the title of this blog: A PRAGMATIST'S Take
It is not for pie-in-the-sky scenarios.
And please take into account, and respond to, the information previously provided.

If you believe, as commenter "Barron Park" apparently does, that the extensive redevelopment that Grand Boulevard envisions is possible, please provide some details. For example, you are talking about purchasing several square miles of single family homes in Palo Alto alone. Consider a house near me in Barron Park that is within 0.34 miles from El Camino, and hence within the band that the Grand Boulevard "visionaries" see being replaced by high density housing. It is on a 5762 sqft lot just sold for $2.45M. Using that for a *very* rough approximation, and adding in 710 sq ft of street, that is $16.5M/acre, which is $10.6 B per square mile. Even if funding was not a problem, acquisition of residential neighborhoods has historically been complicated, slow and expensive without using eminent domain, and that is now illegal.

If you advocate the Grand Boulevard concept within the existing commercial area, please explain how this all will fit in a strip that in many places extends only 100-200 feet from El Camino. And on parcels that are often 100 feet wide, sometimes less (go to Google Maps, create a dummy map and edit it--the line drawing tool displays distances as you move the cursor). Yes there are also some larger parcels, but remember what I said in the OP about the difficult of consolidation.

Note: The Palo Alto City Council has stated opposition to the Grand Boulevard redevelopment intruding into single-family residential neighborhoods. It is the advocates who pretend that this isn't a problem.

Posted by Barron Park, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 30, 2014 at 8:51 am

Let me clarify... A couple of key points:

1. My first point is that all of the grand boulevards have not been developed eons ago - there are modern examples in places with real estate constraints similar to ours.

2. This grand boulevard may not be possible for us: we lack a unified vision, the requisite infrastructure (metro), and the fortitude (persistence and the ability to execute) to achieve such ambitious designs.

3. It is still possible to make El Camino a bit more inviting -here are some examples:
- underground parking e.g. Whole Foods like
- pedestrian activated lights at cross walks (living in Barron Park the number of people I see crossing in unlighted crosswalks, especially near the synagogue is frightening given the speed limit and width of El Camino)
- widen sidewalks with redevelopment: perhaps just an additional 4 feet is needed rather than trying to go another 8-12 - this is the incremental approach, but it will slowly convert the street (it took 20 years in Arlington, but this is where CA and VA differ: in CA we will talk about it for 20 years; in that time VA will talk about it, make a decision, and actually get it done)

A pragmatic approach is best: this is not going to happen overnight, but slow incremental improvements can make the road more appealing and safer for everyone. It does not have to be some utopian pedestrian paradise, but there is quite a bit of room for improvement that would be valuable to the community without excessive loss of development space for owners along the road.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community,
on Mar 30, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I tend to agree, we keep talking about and by the time we get around to building costs are so high.

I 105 (Century Freeway) was a 172 million dollars a mile project. LA has done a great job adding rail lines.

How long do we wait until BART meets with Caltrain?

Posted by Julian, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

"Planning is so much easier and more fun if you don't have be constrained by facts."

That's a spot-on, concise statement of how the City of Palo Alto does its planning.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Apr 1, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I think the idea of small lots can be turned into shop keeper housing, shared parking agreements, keeping the idea of the Grand Blvd. but making the idea of neighborhood businesses districts. Small useful shops, services can be useful compared to large car centered stores.

We aren't Paris or London but why not change a 1 story building to 2 to 3 story.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Apr 1, 2014 at 7:00 pm

We need to think along the lines of Poundbury, John Simpson did some design work for the village.

Web Link

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 1, 2014 at 9:42 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

What you suggested (eg shared parking) has been tried multiple times and failed. Why do you think that now will be different?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Apr 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm

> "Small useful shops, services can be useful compared to large car centered stores."

Given the high cost of rentals, could any business afford to cater to neighborhood walkins? Doubtful.

Even in Europe, where people used to walk to the butcher, baker, etc. every day, big WalMart-type stores are threatening the mom-&-pops.

Posted by Bewildered, a resident of Midtown,
on Apr 3, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Seriously, on what part of El Camino in Palo Alto is there any retail beside a restaurant that people would want to walk to? All I can think of is Happy Donuts and Walgreens....and that does not entice.

Posted by need for change, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Apr 4, 2014 at 6:45 pm

A look at our streetscapes reveals why people are angry with the direction of development. Here are a few of the troublesome projects: the JCC at Charleston and San Antonio, the former Rickeys property, the former Miki's market. And all indications are that the development on Cowper between Hamilton and Forest, now under construction, will be more of the same. Too much development is in the mode of "build it to the side walk", regardless of the result. You only need to see Paris to understand grand boulevards. It can be done here. Over the last 20 or so years Chicago has required setbacks and street level trees in the renovation of commercial areas. It's North Michigan Avenue shopping district is a magnet for shoppers -- North Michigan Ave is at least as wide as El Camino. Trees make a difference; wide sidewalks make a difference. With them, a bit of higher density can be tolerated, and human scale can be retained.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Backhaus in Burlingame finally opens for the holiday rush
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 2,819 views

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 2,598 views

Fun Things to Do Around the Bay This Holiday – Peninsula Edition
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,416 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 25 comments | 1,957 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,086 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.