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By 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).

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