For Palo Alto residents who live near the Caltrain corridor, the tracks are both a blessing and a curse -- a way to get around the Peninsula without cars and a barrier that restricts their ability to travel east and west.
This dichotomy, and the opportunities and challenges it presents, is at the center of a new report from a specially appointed Palo Alto Rail Task Force, a 17-member group that has been meeting for more than a year with the goal of adopting an official community "vision" for the corridor. Members included Sierra Club representatives Tom Jordan and Irvin Dawid, Board of Education member Barb Mitchell, architect Tony Carrasco, Jim Rebosio from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, residents from various neighborhoods along the tracks and Charles Carter, Stanford University's director of land use and environmental planning.
The project was prompted by California's voter-approved high-speed rail system, which under the current state proposal is slated to run along the corridor. The community's concerns about the $98 billion project ultimately led the city to take a fresh look at the corridor and figure out ways to improve it. In July 2010, the City Council appointed the task force to "generate a community vision for land use transportation and urban design opportunities" along the corridor. In addition to the Caltrain tracks, the report examines El Camino Real and Alma Street, two busy north-south arteries that run parallel to the tracks throughout the length of Palo Alto.
The new report, which the council's Rail Committee began discussing Thursday morning, March 1, highlights the variety of circulation and urban-design issues along the corridor and offers, as the community vision, "to create a vibrant, transit-rich Corridor with city and neighborhood centers that provide walkable, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly places that serve the community and beyond; and to connect the east and west portions of the city through an improved circulation network that binds the city together in all directions."
Barbara Maloney, whose firm BMS Design Group served as the consultant for the task force, told the Rail Committee that the vision the task force settled on "really capitalizes on the unique and special character of the area" and on the "unique mix of uses and diversity of uses that are in this corridor."
To capture this diversity of uses, the task force had split the corridor into six distinct "subareas," each with a unique character and challenges. These include three residential subareas -- Southgate-Evergreen Park area, Ventura and the Charleston Meadows-Monroe Park area -- along with downtown, the California Avenue area and the "neighborhood center" around El Camino Way in south Palo Alto.
Among the city's highest priorities, the report states, should be improving east-west connectivity throughout the city and particularly in south Palo Alto.
"The Caltrain corridor represents the most significant barrier to east-west connectivity in central Palo Alto. ... It is a difficult barrier that divides the city in half," the report states.
One of the task force's boldest recommendations is increasing the number of rail crossings throughout the corridor, whether as an underpass, overpass or at-grade. The task force brainstormed possible options and came up with a list of 15 potential new crossings that could be added to the 11 already in existence. It narrowed down its list to 15 "priority crossings," which would include four new ones -- at Everett, Kellogg and Seale avenues and at Matadero Creek. These locations were located largely to provide residents with safer access to schools and neighborhood services areas and to "ensure safe linkages at all existing grade crossings."
The task force's report also urges the city to bring more schools and neighborhood services to areas around the corridor, as well as parks and recreational amenities. The study area, the report notes, "is generally underserved by park and recreation facilities," though the report also acknowledges that creating "major parks and open spaces will be challenging" given that Palo Alto is a built-out city.
"In most areas, the goods and services offered in the area tend to be more regional or citywide in their orientation rather than serving the day-to-day needs of residents in a convenient manner that does not require dependence on the automobile," the report states.
The report states that the task force's vision for the mixed-use centers is to enhance their "variety of services, housing and employment, and create unique centers for neighborhood."
Its vision for the residential subareas is to "protect areas from noise, vibration and other impacts associated with Caltrain and future High-Speed Train," improve linkages to services and enhance the bicycle and pedestrian linkages.
Though the scope of the study extends far beyond high-speed rail, the report acknowledges that the rail project would have a significant impact on its study area. It includes an analysis of possible rail crossings under a "blended" design in which high-speed rail and Caltrain use the same tracks on the Peninsula and under an alternative in which high-speed rail uses a below-ground "trench" design. It also highlights a variety of state and county transportation initiatives that could further impact Caltrain corridor, Alma Street and El Camino Real. These include the "Grand Boulevard Initiative," a collaboration by various Peninsula agencies to improve safety and aesthetics on El Camino, and "Sustainable Community Strategy," a regional effort to encourage development near transit.
The committee on Thursday took its first look at the report, which is still in draft form and subject to major revisions. During the brief discussion, Councilman Pat Burt urged consultants to limit their discussion of state initiatives for Caltrain and high-speed rail given that these plans are "highly fluid." The rail committee will continue its discussion on March 15 and other local commissions are also scheduled to provide input in the coming months before the council adopts the document.