Seeking to make California Avenue safer for pedestrians and more attractive to shoppers, Palo Alto officials on Monday renewed their commitment to reducing lanes on the commercial street despite opposition from a small but vocal group of merchants.
The long-awaited project, which includes switching California Avenue from a four-lane to a two-lane street, suffered a setback earlier this month when Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Patricia Lucas ruled that the city failed to comply with environmental law when it applied for a grant for the project before completing its analysis of the lane reductions' traffic impact. To comply with the ruling, the City Council last week rescinded its earlier grant application and environmental analysis. On Monday night, the council approved these documents once again -- this time in the order prescribed by Lucas.
Mayor Sid Espinosa on Monday called Lucas' ruling and the council's subsequent rescission of its prior approvals "a little hiccup in the process."
"I hope we can correct the process that we did not follow, apparently, the first time," Espinosa said. "But we're correcting it this evening."
In re-approving the documents, the council reaffirmed its commitment to the lane reduction, which the city's traffic study indicated would not cause any serious impacts. Several critics of the project, including former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, argued at the meeting that the lane reduction would hurt businesses by creating congestion. Terry Shuchat of the California Avenue camera store Keeble & Shuchat argued that most merchants on California Avenue oppose the change.
Shuchat, who is one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the city, accused city officials of not listening to the merchants. He said he supports other elements of the streetscape project, including new newspaper racks, lighting and crosswalks, but urged the council to leave the four-lane configuration in place.
"We do not wish California Avenue to have the traffic backups currently experienced on University Avenue," Shuchat said.
While merchants warned that the lane reduction would create downtown-style congestion, council members argued that the change would inject economic vitality into the arty commercial district near the center of the city. Councilman Larry Klein pointed to other major downtown thoroughfares, including Mountain View's Castro Street and Menlo Park's Santa Cruz Avenue, as examples of well-functioning two-lane strips. He also said he was "amazed" to hear critics say they don't want California Avenue to become like University Avenue. He noted that the slow traffic on University only adds to the downtown strip's vitality.
"California Avenue is really an underdeveloped asset for our community," Klein said. "I think this will go far in making it a more vital place in our city."
Councilman Pat Burt agreed and disputed the claim from several property owners that the city is merely chasing grant dollars. Burt noted that the city has been planning to add streetscape improvements to California Avenue for many years but has not been able to land a grant until now. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is expected to consider the $1.2 million grant at its January meeting. The city is spending another $550,000 on design work for the project.
"Those of us who go periodically to Castro have seen a very clear increase in vitality as a result (of the lane reduction)," Burt said. "I'm baffled that merchants and property owners haven't seen that in a variety of communities surrounding us.
"It's really obvious and I'm very confident it will occur here."
Councilwoman Gail Price said she hopes this is the first of many projects the city will undertake to improve California Avenue.
"This is a critical corridor for our community," Price said. "It is a corridor that needs beautification, needs enhancement and needs investment."