Palo Alto's plan to transform California Avenue into a two-lane pedestrian-friendly boulevard sped ahead Monday night (Feb. 14) when the City Council unanimously backed the project despite a mixed reception from area merchants.
Local opinions at Monday's meeting ranged from anticipation and excitement to frustration and skepticism. While a clear majority of area residents and business owners spoke in favor of the streetscape project, some claimed the changes would disrupt traffic flow and hurt California Avenue businesses.
After hearing from both camps, the council approved the environmental study for the California Avenue Streetscape Project -- a $1.7 million effort to renovate the popular commercial strip and to add a host of street improvements, including newsracks, benches, bulbouts, large trees and bicycle parking spots. The project would be funded largely with a $1.2 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), with the city contributing an additional $550,000.
"I think this will be a fabulous improvement to California Avenue," said Councilman Greg Scharff, whose office is located near the busy strip and who regularly dines there.
Scharff urged his colleagues to support the plan,
"I pretty much live on California Avenue, and if I for a minute thought it would destroy the businesses and would have negative impacts, I wouldn't vote for it," he said. "I just don't see it."
By far the most contentious element of the project is the proposal to reduce the number of lanes from four to two. City officials say the lane reduction would make the street safer and more attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists. The city also hopes to enhance the street's sense of identity and make it more like Castro Street in Mountain View and Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park. Thomas Fehrenbach, Palo Alto's manager for economic development, told the council Monday that the California Avenue improvements would entice shoppers and diners to spend money in the commercial area.
But some business owners said they weren't so sure. Last Wednesday, a few of them attended the MTC meeting in Oakland and convinced the commission to pull the California Avenue project from the list of transportation improvements it approved at that meeting. After hearing from Palo Alto attorney William Ross and merchants, the commission decided to discuss the proposal further with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the agency through which the commission disburses money to local jurisdictions.
Ross spoke about the project at numerous public hearings and repeatedly voiced his opposition to the lane reduction. He asked the council on Monday to delay its decision on the project.
"You're forcing us into a position of opposition," Ross told the council Monday night. "This is a unique situation -- it does not fit Menlo Park, Mountain View or anything like that.
"That's why we went to the MTC -- we weren't being heard."
Former Palo Alto Vice Mayor Jack Morton, whose accounting practice is based on California Avenue, warned the council that reducing the lanes on the street could reduce the vitality of the business district. Drivers, he said, rely largely on two lanes, with the other two serving as "support lanes."
"If we're wrong about the way traffic flows, we will destroy a business district," Morton said.
Jaime Rodriguez, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, said the city had completed an independent study on the project's traffic impacts, and the study concluded that the lane reduction would not increase congestion. He also said the streetscape plan would result in 17 new parking spaces on California Avenue, as well as 75 to 100 new bicycle-parking spaces.
Rodriguez's report also said the project would enhance the "overall aesthetic environment of California Avenue."
"Upgraded benches and tables, trash receptacles, paving treatment, plantings, artwork and other feature should create an improved sense of place and quality for employees, residents, and visitors," he wrote.
Dozens of speakers, many of them residents of the nearby College Terrace, Evergreen Park and Barron Park neighborhoods, praised the project and its promise of a safer passage for bicyclists and pedestrians. Stephen Godfrey, who lives in Evergreen Park, called for the council to "enthusiastically support" the project because it gives the city an opportunity to invest in the area. Robyn Duby, who lives in the College Terrace neighborhood, agreed.
"I'm really excited about it," Duby said. "It will be revitalizing for the area and increase our environmental resources."
The council also urged staff to explore widening the sidewalks on California Avenue as part of the project. Staff will return to the council at a future meeting with a workplan for the additional design work.