Palo Alto's plan to redesign the commercial stretch of California Avenue -- a plan that has galvanized a small community of area merchants -- is becoming more ambitious by the moment, with some City Council members directing staff this week to explore creating a new central plaza and a new parking configuration for the commercial strip.
The council debated on Monday night (Oct. 17) several options for widening sidewalks on California. These include a design that would feature parallel parking on both sides of the street and would eliminate 37 parking spaces; an option that includes angled parking all along California and nets no loss in parking; and a "modified hybrid" alternative that includes both parallel and angle parking and results in 10 new parking spaces. The alternative also includes raised crosswalks and the widening of sidewalks by 7 feet at select locations.
After a lengthy discussion, the council voted to support the third option and specified that staff should pay particular attention to pedestrian safety in the northeast end of the project. Councilman Pat Burt, who made the proposal to select the hybrid alternative described in the initial plan, which included reducing lanes from four to two and adding a host of streetscaping improvement, as "dynamite." But he said the new modifications make the project "even better than what we were looking at a few months ago."
"I think this would be a great winner and would still net out additional parking for the merchants there," Burt said.
The rest of the council agreed and voted unanimously to direct staff to explore the hybrid alternative. But members split over an alternative proposal, championed by Councilman Greg Schmid, that the city also explore creating a new central plaza between Ash and Birch streets to accommodate community activities. This option would eliminate parking all along this stretch of California -- a loss of 32 spaces.
The city's effort to redesign California Avenue, a project supported by a grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, drew heavy support from the community at the Feb. 14 council meeting and earned a unanimous vote from the council. Several merchants have criticized the plan, particularly the proposal to reduce lanes from four to two. In April, Terry Shuchat of the camera business Keeble & Shuchat, and resident Joy Ogawa filed a lawsuit arguing that the city failed to conduct the necessary environmental analysis before approving the project.
City Attorney Molly Stump said the two sides in the lawsuit made their cases in the Santa Clara County Superior Court earlier this month and are now awaiting a ruling.
The litigation did not stop the council, however, from proceeding with the major project. The city's planning staff has recently held two community meetings with business owners and residents around California Avenue to solicit input. According to a report from city Traffic Engineer Shahla Yazdy, some attendees continued to advocate keeping all four lanes. Others identified the western portion of the project, between El Camino Real and Birch Street, as their preferred widening areas.
Jessica Roth, of the California Avenue business European Cobblery, attended the meeting and proposed a three-lane alternative, with two lanes flowing into California Avenue from El Camino Real and one lane flowing out. The design, she said, would reduce the congestion at the intersection of California and El Camino.
But Monday's council discussion focused not on traffic lanes but on parking and sidewalk widening. Several council members, including Burt, stressed the need to retain parking spots on California.
"I think we can expand bicycle use and expand pedestrian access to this area so we won't have as many car trips as we would otherwise," Burt said. "But I don't think we can cut back on parking."
Taking away 32 parking spaces, he said, is "really the opposite direction of what the need is going to be."
"If I'm a merchant, I'll be livid about taking away almost half of on-street parking on this thing," Burt said.
Schmid and Scharff both said they support exploring the potential for a new plaza and parallel parking all along California. Schmid cited the prominent nature of the neighborhood and advocated larger sidewalks that create more opportunities for green spaces and benches.
"Let's not lose the potential," he said.
Scharff agreed and said that if the city doesn't at least consider these alternatives, it is "short changing the citizens of Palo Alto."
The proposal to explore the plaza and parallel parking alternatives passed 5-4, with Mayor Sid Espinosa, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Gail Price joining Schmid and Scharff.
Everyone agreed, however, that the "modified hybrid" alternative should be the focus, even if it will require additional investment by the city.
"This is a project that wile be in place for a very, very long time," Councilwoman Karen Holman said. "It's a large project and it very likely merits some additional investment if it really makes it a much better project."