A city vision to revitalize California Avenue in Palo Alto was met Thursday evening with both vocal opposition about changing the aging avenue and caution about not wanting divisiveness to sabotage the streetscape-improvement project.
City officials presented the latest version of the streetscape plan -- its seventh iteration – at Escondido Elementary School. Approximately 30 people attended.
The plan would narrow the street from four lanes to two, could broaden sidewalks for a European-boulevard look, and add landscaped seating areas, a shared bike lane, benches, a redesigned plaza near the Caltrain station, lighting fixtures, bicycle racks, information kiosks and inviting gateway signs.
The design concepts incorporated residents' feedback from a Sept. 9 meeting. City officials want to firm up a concept to take to Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) by Oct. 4, when the city will apply for a $1.5 million VTA Community Design for Transportation Grant to beautify the retail area. The grant is given to cities to improve transit connections, calm traffic, promote bicycle and pedestrian uses and increase economic development.
But some residents and business owners urged the city to slow down the process. Reducing the lanes to two is a major sticking point. They said they fear traffic backups as cars attempt to pull in and out of the diagonal parking spaces.
One concept would widen sidewalks by three feet and increase diagonal parking angles to 45 degrees. A three-foot buffer zone between parked cars and vehicle traffic would be painted on the roadway. The traffic lane would be 12 feet wide. Parking spaces would be slightly reduced from 111 to 108 and would add a loading zone. The plan would cost an estimated $2.1 million, Chief Transportation Engineer Jaime Rodriguez said.
A second concept does not widen the sidewalks but places parked cars at a 60-degree angle. The three-foot buffer zone is included in this option. The traffic lane is 16 feet wide and would be marked as a shared bike lane. Parking spaces would increase to 135 and two loading zones would be added. The plan cost would be $1.7 million – less costly because sidewalks remain the same, he said.
Three other improvements would cost extra: street resurfacing costs $500,000 and is funded already to take place in the next two years; lighting costs $500,000. Recognizing the lack of parking during lunchtime, city officials are considering additional parking structure(s) on side streets, but that concept has not reached the costs or locations stage.
Residents wanted a "greener" California Avenue. One option is a permeable-paving area for the diagonal parking that would reduce contaminated street-water runoff to the San Francisco Bay would cost $400,000, he said.
People questioned the feasibility of trying to "brand" California Avenue as a destination-shopping district, similar to University Avenue. The mix of stores serve local residents and would attract few outside shoppers, they said.
"California Avenue is the last local downtown of Palo Alto. It would be nice to have something smaller scale and more personal," said William, a resident who asked not to be identified with his last name.
Other people felt the plan caters to vehicles, not pedestrians.
"I like the idea of getting parking off California Avenue -- period. It's short-sighted to approach with a car-centric concept," resident Becky Fuson said. She wanted a more "long-lived idea" to be developed with "a more human scale," she said.
But others said the four-lane concept is outdated and they did not agree with fears that two lanes would jam up traffic or be any more dangerous to pedestrians.
James Cook said he liked the idea of branding and beautifying the area.
"It has a tired look. The four lanes must be a remnant of another time. It's like a freeway look," he said.
Some residents of the adjacent Evergreen Park neighborhood said they welcome the changes and questioned some assertions that "if it isn't broken, you shouldn't fix it."
"We need a more pleasant place to visit. Beautifying the street has got to be a goal. We should be careful. We don't want to kill this thing. To say it's not broken -- I would question that," a resident who remained anonymous said.
But Terry Holzemer, of the Palo Alto Central Homeowners Association near the Caltrain station, said a survey of residents there found people did not want to change the four-lane configuration. Congestion and bikes sharing lanes with cars is "a recipe for disaster," he said.
Rodriguez said the designs could still be modified before construction takes place. The Architectural Review Board, Planning and Transportation Commission and City Council still must review the concepts before the plans move forward. Those reviews are expected later in fall.
Reducing the lanes would slow down traffic and make the area more pedestrian and bike friendly, Rodriguez said. One idea includes 6-inch raised tables at crosswalks and a flashing-light, pedestrian crossing signals.
Colored crosswalks and parking areas would alter the "sea of asphalt" look of the current roadway, he said.
Residents and business owners liked a previous concept for landscaped seating areas that would form nooks with tables and chairs. But some businesses were concerned that only businesses adjacent to the seating would benefit.
Another concept would create a landscaped, tree area with seating, chess tables, a new water feature and bike racks at the plaza near the Caltrain station. Nine parking spaces would be removed, Rodriguez said.
The city surveyed other surrounding municipalities that have converted shopping districts form four lanes to two, including Menlo Park, Los Altos and Mountain View. www.cityofpaloalto.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=24669.
Those cities had greater retail sales afterward and were satisfied with traffic flows and pedestrian and bike safety, Chief Planning Official Julie Caporgno said.
A general illustration of the plan, which the city posted Sept. 14, can be viewed at www.cityofpaloalto.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=24727. It is closer to the 60-degree parking option and does not show the expanded sidewalk option.
Additional, updated drawings of both plans will be posted in several days on the city's website www.cityofpaloalto.org/depts/pln/transportation/default.asp.