If and when high-speed rail is built in Palo Alto, properties and home values will decrease, residents predicted Thursday night at the Rail Corridor Study Community Workshop held at Lucie Stern Community Center.
The session was the first of six planned for over the next year as the city works to gauge resident concerns with the planned project.
At the meeting, the city and BMS Design Group presented the three current designs for what the high-speed-rail system would look like currently being analyzed by authorities.
The first, Alternate A, would feature a combination of graded berms beginning at the California Avenue station, which would remain as it is today. The berms would become 10-foot-tall aerial viaducts near Palo Alto High School. Such layouts usually require a 78-feet-wide right of way.
Alternate B would combine three types of structures: an open trench at the Menlo Park/Palo Alto border, a graded berms near California Avenue and an aerial viaduct around Charleston Road. The tracks would then return to graded berms and open trenches en route to the Mountain View station.
Alternate B1 would feature an open trench design along the entire route.
"Just think about what will happen to the land values if these tracks are put above ground," said Judith Wasserman, a member of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board, pointing to New York City as an example of how above-ground tracks have impacted housing prices as well as the character of the neighborhoods that surround them.
This concern was echoed by another homeowner, Jonathan Horne, whose property is adjacent to Caltrain. Horne said the addition of above-ground high-speed-rail traffic will without question affect the selling price of his property.
William Cutler, a resident of Park Boulevard, agreed. If trains were to run at street level and roads were routed below ground, at least 500 feet -- or four to five houses -- on either side of the tracks would be impacted.
"If the tracks are placed on the surface, and the streets are forced to go below, properties will be made inaccessible to the street," he said. Crossroads like Charleston and Meadow Drive would also likely be used more, with the impact of reduced property value likely stretching along their intersections with El Camino Real.
"What needs to happen is for the railway to go under street level," he argued, noting that the costs of excavation and concrete would likely be similar for either option.
"If you put the trains below ground, you can't see them and you can't hear them," Wasserman said.
The potential problem of congested crossroads corresponded to another great concern indicated by a poll of the workshop audience, namely, the potential impact on the already difficult issue of traveling east to west. The need for appropriate auto, bicycle and pedestrian routes across the current Caltrain tracks as well as Alma Street were listed as high priority items by residents.
But the question of whether the high-speed-rail project should be implemented in the first place was also brought up by various members of the audience. "What convinces the city that change is necessary? Why are we doing this?" asked one resident.
"If you feel like no change is an option, we want to hear that," Director of Planning and Community Environment Curtis Williams said, stressing the point that the city is asking for community thoughts and perspectives so that resident concerns might be part of the discussion going forward.
That some form of change was bound to happen was acknowledged by the vast majority of attendees. They were asked to place stickers on boards that posed questions related to residents' desires for land-use development along the rail corridor -- roughly half a mile on either side of the present Caltrain tracks -- at locations such as Charleston Road, California Avenue, Park Boulevard and the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station. Residents expressed an overwhelming desire for more mixed-use, retail and residential developments along the corridor.
And roughly half indicated that they envisioned high intensity land use to prevail in Palo Alto over the next 40 years, corresponding to the mixture of land use seen downtown today. The other half envisioned a Palo Alto with more moderate intensity developments, in keeping with present 50-feet-building-height restrictions.
They were also asked to indicate the level of priority that should be given by the city to the various land-use and transportation trends as it moves forward with its high-speed-rail development plans.
The results of the workshop, Williams said, would be put forward at the Planning and Transportation Commission meeting on June 8, as well as at the Rail Corridor Task Force meeting scheduled before the next community workshop on July 7.
The first two workshops would address the context of transportation and land use in Palo Alto, as well as residents' visions of their future, said Barbara Maloney, a partner at BMS Design. The second set would map out alternatives for the planned changes in transit systems and land use, while the final pair, scheduled for between December 2011 and February 2012, would develop final plans and strategies for implementation.
"We want to have these conversations with our neighborhoods, so that they have some way of articulating these thoughts to the agency," Williams said.