Palo Alto group wins award for 'tunnel' vision

Architects take their concept of a train tunnel, funded by new development, to the community

Long before Palo Alto neighborhoods quivered at the thought of elevated high-speed trains whishing over their heads at 125 mph, a group of civic leaders and architects was hashing out its own vision for the city's future -- one that includes fast trains, leafy bike paths, dense developments, a hub and a really deep tunnel.

The vision -- advocated by local architect Tony Carrasco, former mayor Bern Beecham, Councilman John Barton and other prominent city leaders and architects -- would raise about $700 million by selling air-rights above the Caltrain corridor to developers and use proceeds to build a deep tunnel under the corridor for the new high-speed rail system.

The group has modified its plans since September as it learned more about train tracks dimensions and other technical details. Carrasco said the group also changed its plan for the 6-acre El Camino Park, which under the current version would house developments. The group proposes to compensate for the loss of green space by creating a 31-acre linear park stretching along the Caltrain Corridor.

The group also abandoned its initial idea to build townhouses along Alma Street. As detailed in current sketches, Alma would be a bicycle-friendly, tree-lined boulevard.

The vision, the group notes, isn't exactly a plan, but rather a conceptual exercise that seeks to promote further dialogue. No one expects it to be implemented in its exact form or in the near future. But the proposal has already piqued the interest of top urban designers and, last month, earned a prestigious accolade -- an Honor Award in urban design from the American Institute of Architects California Council.

The proposal, entitled "From an age of movement to an age of place" attempts to link Stanford University, downtown Palo Alto, Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford University Medical Center with a bustling "innovation place" -- a gathering area for friends, neighbors and networking entrepreneurs. It also imagines Alma Street as a tree-lined boulevard next to an underground rail system.

The trains, under the plan, would run below surface and would stop at a new station in downtown Palo Alto. Residents could mingle downtown, grab some dinner, run their errands and take the train to San Francisco, for example, to catch a ballgame.

"Our proposed high-speed rail system, rather than dividing Palo Alto, unites the community," proclaims a slide in the group's presentation.

But the new hub would come with a price: greater density. The plan would create a more urban environment around downtown by increasing density in retail, office and residential developments.

These developments, the plan states, would be "designed in character with the city" and consistent with city policies that encourage dense, mixed-use development near major transit centers.

Barton, who is also a principal in the architecture firm Barton Architect, said the goal of the exercise was to begin a conversation about what types of tradeoffs the city would have to make in the coming years. He said he doesn't expect everyone to embrace the details of the group's concept, but rather hopes other people would use it to develop their own proposals and ideas.

Barton said he was impressed by the passion and knowledge displayed by the Palo Alto community when it comes to the high-speed rail.

"A lot of folks are concerned and scared and angry at what it can be," Barton said. "But most people also say that, in general, the idea is good and we should work together to make sure it works for the city."

"The point of this exercise is to say, 'Here are the kind of tradeoffs we'll have to look at,'" Barton said.

Carrasco said the group will present its concept at an urban-design workshop the City of Palo Alto plans to host in early October. The workshop will bring noted architects, finance specialists and train experts to the city to discuss integrating the high-speed rail system into Palo Alto's urban setting.

In the meantime, Carrasco said the group is taking a closer look at its numbers and trying to determine, as accurately as possible, how much a train tunnel would cost and what kind of options Palo Alto has for financing it.

"This is only meant to stimulate discussion," Carrasco said. "We're hoping the community will turn out to help shape the proposal."

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Like this comment
Posted by Only 21 years old
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Given the way things work around here (the Palo Alto process) I highly doubt I'll live to see this project started/completed.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2009 at 5:24 pm

If HSR is coming to Palo Alto (and it most likely is), then we are going to have to do something to make it fit in. This proposal is better than most.

Please include south Palo Alto in the plan. HSR is going through all of Palo Alto, not just downtown.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 9, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Compared to prices for subways I have read, $700 million sounds quite cheap. (The last plan I read about was for Toronto, where new subway tunnels were expected to cost over $1M per foot.) Does this plan involve burying the train through the entire city, or just near downtown and Stanford?

Also, it sounds like this plan assumes a lot of the land can be sold at current Palo Alto (incredibly high) prices. The reason why prices are so high in Palo Alto is because demand is high and the supply is tiny. This would dramatically increase the supply -- has the depressing impact on prices of dumping a bunch of extra real estate on the market been accounted for in this estimate?

(Don't take my questions as criticism -- I think it would be awesome to bury the trains. I just want to understand how it could be reasonably done without risking bankrupting the city.)

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Building a subway in a big city (underneath sky scrapers, etc.) is a lot more expensive than building it in open space (which is essentially what the existing Caltrain corridor is).

Like this comment
Posted by Tom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 9, 2009 at 9:38 pm

The project is very ambitious and it looks great in the images. A lot better than the proposed concrete behemoth cutting across the city.

But let's not get too excited yet,

It took the city council TWO YEARS to establish a small parking permit system for ONE neighborhood. Plus the entire cost of the project was/will be funded by Stanford Univ. ($100,000)

Now the city wants to plan this $700 million project that will cross through TWELVE neighborhoods. Since it took two years to figure how to allocate $100,000 then maybe it'll take the city 7000 years to figure out how to allocate the 700 million.

With the Palo Alto Process each neighborhood will form some committee to evaluate/propose ideas and there'll be numerous public hearings and then of course lots of environmental impact reports. The Architectural Review Board will have a hearing about the new buildings proposed. Then a couple dozen traffic impact reports, hearings with the HSR board, hearings with CalTrans to modify El Camino/Highway 82, hearings with Santa Clara Co. to modify Oregon Expwy, hearings with Stanford University about changing Palm Drive...

I'm all for the idea of undergrounding HSR but with the way the city works, the 'Palo Alto Process' will keep this project from becoming reality. How disappointing...

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Posted by crazy to me
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 6:29 am

Is this what Palo Alto is to become. Is our city looking to become another small San Francisco. What do you think those developers want to do, other than make tons of money on the public's back.

Tunneling through Palo Alto is about 1 billion / mile or about 4 billion for the 4 miles. The plan is without merit.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Harrington
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 10, 2009 at 7:29 am

I would love to see the slide presentation this story is based upon.

'A picture is worth a thousand words.'

Like this comment
Posted by Tony C.
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 7:59 am

Hello Bob Harrington,
If you click on "its own vision" in the first paragraph you can see the slides.These images are ment to start a discussion of the possibilities.
A community workshop is being planned for October 3-4th at the Sheraton in order to gain more ideas as well as understand the tradeoffs our neighborhoods are willing to accept.

Like this comment
Posted by TunnelVision
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 10:13 am

I'd like to see someone start a TunnelVision bumper sticker campaign patterned after the 'Think Tunnel' approach to Devil's Slide.

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 10, 2009 at 11:22 am

What a wonderful plan! It look gorgeous and I strongly believe Tony C is the correct person to be at the head-end of this project. He has shown a strong commitment to the betterment of Palo Alto, has moderate views, and is forward looking and seeking.
I am assuming your plans include the Palo Alto California station and the infamous Meadow track crossing, but space constraints on this page prevent a more expansive show and tell. (Please re-inforce this idea).
Speaking of re-inforcement - I *love* the Think Train Tunnel bumper sticker idea. Any printers out there willing to gamble? I'd buy a dozen today!!

Like this comment
Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2009 at 12:10 pm

This is a very impressive concept and obviously a lot of thought went into it. The area around the train station today is very divided: spaces that are just 100's of feet apart as the crow flies, feel miles apart to walk or drive--quite aside from any effect that HSR might have.

While it may make sense to tunnel just under the University Ave, I don't see a strong link between what is described (Innovation Place, focused narrowly on University / Alma / El Camino / Palm) and the rest of Palo Alto. You could build Innovation Place without tunneling through all of town; they're really two separate ideas with only tenuous and artificial linkage.

Tunnels costs are not hard to come by; there are several Bay Area rail tunnels in detailed planning & design at the moment, and they typically cost about $10,000 per inch. Four miles will run you about two-and-a-half billion dollars. That's one of the reasons (among others: Web Link ) why tunnels won't happen.

It's great to see some positive thinking taking root.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm

For the Think Tunnel advocates, start a Facebook page along the lines of the University Pedestrian Mall Facebook page and see how the numbers grow. Facebook appears to be a great way to get the news around Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by All together now
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 10, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Include south Palo Alto in the planning. We are one community and the trains will run full length. What is the plan for the south?

There is no plan unless we have considered the WHOLE community.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2009 at 2:30 pm

The existing SP tracks have divided Palo Alto since before it existed. Even now they can be crossed at only 9 places, including San Antonio Road and the Homer Tunnel. HSR won't remove any of those crossings. So why the sudden fuss?

Besides, HSR will never be built in our lifetimes. With a price tag of at least twice the current state budget deficit, and no significant new revenue sources in sight, we can't afford it.

Like this comment
Posted by Not for HSR through P.A.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2009 at 2:31 pm

At one of the city council meetings the question of who owns the air rights above the Caltrain corridor was raised. The city attorney did not know and was to look in to it. I understand that the residents have partial ownership of the corridor. Has this question been resolved?
Also, there has been a growing concern that the HSRA did not do thorough research into alternate alignments for the rail, and currently they are being asked in the state budget to do this research prior to getting any of the funds for this rail. I believe that the Caltrain corridor is not the best location for it. And I think that the billions that will be needed for it could be used for things that are more important and essential at this time. Several members of the P.A. city council have been pushing to have the HSR go through P.A. from the beginning. How interesting that John Barton a member of the city council who has been for it all along is an architect and one of the members of this group who came up with this concept of building densely above the tunneled rail( that has not been approved.) It sure seems like a conflict of interest to me!

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 10, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Dear Clem - thank you for the math. "Four miles will run you about two-and-a-half billion dollar" is indeed a bit out of a small town's reach.
I suppose I am still shuddering for the two young people who took their lives blocks from my home.
- Is this an inappropriate forum to request some action to be taken at all crossings?
- Is this an inappropriate forum to discuss the University pedestrian mall?
Perhaps, but when you pull on one string, they bunch up the others in the fabric. Tony et al, need to have answers and be ready to speak on those topics when at the podium.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 3:38 pm

While there may be general agreement that what the Caltrain/HSR bureaucracy wants and intends to build is not what our residents want, that does not mean that we all agree on what it is we want. Some want a tunnel. Some don’t. Some don’t want the train to exist at all; others just don’t want it to go north of San Jose. And so forth.

The Utrain tunnel group wants to remove all the tracks from the rail corridor in order to obtain air rights on the ROW for development. That means tunneling all three train systems, Caltrain, HSR and Union Pacific. Have they all agreed to this? Will they? What if Union Pacific says no? Is that the end of this discussion?

Part of the Utrain package includes revenues from the air rights development to pay the extra costs of tunneling. Clem tells us how much that would be. In order for this arrangement to happen, the PCJPB would have to agree. They would have to be willing to relinquish administrative control (they say ‘ownership’) of the rail corridor and agree to have the pair of tracks removed. How likely is that? After all, that is the whole reason for their existence.

Some of the tunneling conversations involve all three of our neighboring towns, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. There are those who believe that a 7.5-mile tunnel beneath the rail corridor would be the most appropriate solution through those towns. Apparently, that’s not part of the Utrain agenda. They are only looking at downtown Palo Alto development. That would be a very different tunnel indeed. In fact, it would not longer be a tunnel issue; it would be a development issue.

It is most unlikely that Palo Alto residents living along the corridor south of downtown would find high-rise, high-density development on the rail corridor an acceptable substitute for the trains. And, that certainly is the case for Menlo Park residents and Atherton residents.

This architectural award, and the aggressive promotion of a Charette/workshop this fall to look at downtown Palo Alto development, are all part of the larger development agenda. Those council members and professionals in Palo Alto who advocate this concept, which includes tunnels, are development advocates. They -- at least in some cases -- stand to personally benefit from the development agenda. The tunnels are the means, profitable development is the end. Not the other way around.

Now, what’s my point here? There are too many of us who disagree with one another. We persist in quarreling over this solution or that one. Altamont is the answer! No, going on 280 or 101 is the answer! Stopping the trains in San Jose is the answer!

My reading of this situation is that a year from now we will all still be engaged in the same quarrels, the same disagreements. There will continue to be the developer-tunnelers; the reverse-the-vote referendum promoters; the take-the-train-off-the corridor advocates. In each case, 'we' are right, and the rest of you are wrong.

Meanwhile, HNTB will have completed the initial design work for the high-rise wall with four tracks on it. They will issue reports telling us that they studied ALL the other options but find this one the most environmentally appropriate, and we can all go to hell. (Of course they won’t use those words, but I will.) And Kopp and Diridon will laugh all the way to the bank.

Like this comment
Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 10, 2009 at 4:18 pm

I have never understood why the train doesn't run along the bayshore such as the way BART runs next to 580.

In any event the earthquake probability makes the whole thing about high speed through PA corridor "sounds nice on paper" but totally off the grid for reality checks.

Like this comment
Posted by Vivek C
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 4:41 pm

The Plan does cover all of Palo Alto, but as Clem pointed out, it's gonna depend on cost. Here are some of the images for South Palo Alto:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Frank Flynn
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 10, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I wonder how we ever built Oregon Expressway or highway 85.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank Flynn
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 10, 2009 at 4:52 pm

>I have never understood why the train doesn't run along the bayshore such as the way BART runs next to 580.

Because when the train was built in the 1860's 101 was bay or marsh. The people lived around where the train stations were put. Back then folks had the idea that if the train stopped near your home it would be more convenient because you could just walk to the train.

BART was build in the 1960's.

Like this comment
Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm

> Here are some of the images for South Palo Alto

I love it. Clearly south Palo Alto has the potential to become another Parc du Luxembourg, as the little vignettes seem to imply. But seriously... The thought that went into the University area is far more sophisticated and accomplished than a vague notion of a linear park unrolled on the tracks like a green carpet.

> Is this an inappropriate forum to request some action to be taken at all crossings?

Such action was already planned before the recent tragic events. The action to be taken is to separate Churchill, Meadow and Charleston from the tracks, thus eliminating those rail crossings and eliminating pedestrian access to the tracks. Exactly how those grade separations will be configured is the subject of much controversy. I wrote something up about the options a little while ago: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Bigbabies
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 10, 2009 at 5:13 pm

YOU people would complain even if it was turned into a horse and buggy trail...Whaaaa the horse poopoopp smells...MOVE out to the middle of Neveda then nothing will be around you

Like this comment
Posted by Tony C
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Susan thanks for your kind words. We are hoping we can do all of Palo Alto as Vivek's graphics depict above.
Clem, Thanks for your expertise your blog is really informative, Would you be willing to help us think this out?
Regarding the "Stop HSR in San Jose" proponents: This is not really a solution since an electrified Caltrain has most of the same problems as HSR with a planned 24 trains during the peak hours, tall catanaries and sound walls with little money for grade seperations. If some of the San Jose HST passengers want to get to SF, Caltrain will need more trains than 24/peak hour possibly 30-36/peak hours and possibly four tracks. If we do get grade seperations Caltrain will not have as much money to consider tunnels or cut-and-cover sections.
Altamont supporters: same as above with 24 trains/peak hours.
It makes sense to me that Caltrain and HSR collaborate to find a good soloution.
Regarding Development and profits: We hope that the Cities along the corridor can sell and profit from the Air Rights and use those profits to benifit our neighborhoods.

Like this comment
Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2009 at 6:45 pm

@Tony: I'm happy to help out in any way I can. Contact info on my blog. It's quite refreshing to see these constructive ideas.

Like this comment
Posted by crazy to me
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2009 at 9:08 pm

The problem with Clem's numbers is they are off by at least a factor of 2 on the low side. Look at Bart's estimates for single tunnels. So your looking at $20,000 / inch minimum. I think the 4 miles for all of Palo Alto is a bit over $4 billion. Add in Menlo Park and Atherton, 7 miles total, and you are at $7 billion. Oh well, a billion here and a billion there, who cares.

Like this comment
Posted by High speed observer
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 11, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Mr. Engle:
I'm truly impressed that you can predict the profits and windfalls of people and agencies 6-8 years in the future, if a high speed train is approved. You've might also share the likely increase in value you might realize on your rail front property, should a tunnel succeed.

Maybe I should hire you as an investment advisor, as my efforts have not been very profitable lately.

It's obvious you know a great deal about predicting the future..

Like this comment
Posted by Train Watcher
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 12, 2009 at 2:35 pm

@ Clem:

Glad to hear you will listen to Tony C and his ideas. Tony's project is the kind of thing the PCC (Peninsula Cities Consortium) has been advocating for - a sharing of ideas. His proposal may not be THE answer - but it begins a constructive dialogue. Some of the bloggers have accused the PCC of trying to stop the train altogether - this project proves their inaccuracies.

I hope you can join and help. Your expertise is needed! As you can see - some of these ideas are a bit fantastical and need grounding. Please help!

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Tunnel Vision is right - all about dense housing development. Id like to see how many NEW SCHOOLS and WHERE this group has in its plans for their tunnel vision of the densely packed Palo Alto

Like this comment
Posted by Grandparent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2009 at 12:39 am

Dear parent,
Do you have any ideas/opinions about where schools should go in this plan? No disrespect, just asking. I think all opinions should be heard.

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

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