Editorial: A pair of strong City Council decisions

With purpose and decisiveness, Palo Alto council moves forward with major improvements for California Avenue and the golf course

It is infrequent when one can celebrate decisiveness in process-obsessed Palo Alto, but Monday night's City Council meeting demonstrated that the current council is ready and willing to leave some constituents unhappy in order to move forward with important projects after doing their homework.

It probably didn't hurt that the meeting was the last before the month-long summer break and was packed with decision items, requiring that discussions be focused and efficient.

And in the case of both improvements to California Avenue and the golf course, deadlines outside of the city's control created pressure to act.

Bold change is not easy for many Palo Altans, and both of these issues will bring major changes to two important areas of the community.

On California Avenue, the council stuck by its many earlier decisions and approved an exciting renovation plan that includes reducing the street to two lanes, widening sidewalks, improving public spaces and creating an environment that will benefit both businesses and shoppers.

Sadly, a combination of poor early city staff outreach, the disastrous tree-cutting and a great deal of fear among local merchants, fueled by misinformation, made this an unnecessarily controversial and contentious project. Lawsuits challenging the process achieved nothing but delay and fomented additional tensions between some business owners and the city.

In reality, the plan is consistent with and significantly better than what the leaders of the merchant opposition themselves had previously supported. The lane reduction from four to two lanes, contrary to what many merchants have been led to believe, has been part of the plan for years and was developed and endorsed by the area's association of merchants and property owners. It is grossly unfair and wrong for opponents to pretend this was prompted by grant funding being available, as has been repeatedly argued.

In the end, the merchants opposing the plan decided they liked everything but the lane reduction, which they feared would create congestion and drive away customers. They asked for a trial period of temporary markings to test the impact of only two lanes, but the council rejected that plan as unnecessary and of little value, believing a temporary re-striping would create confusion, not reflect any of the benefits of a permanent reconfiguration, and result in little or no useful data.

They were right to do so.

All traffic data and the experiences of other retail-oriented streets similar to California Avenue that have gone from four to two lanes point to this being an easy decision. In fact, no one has been able to find an example of where a lane reduction has hurt local merchants, and there are many cases where it has contributed to great retail revitalization.

The lesson learned from this issue is that a natural fear of change and a lack of trust and confidence in the government are strong motivators to action, even when the facts and data don't support it.

We are huge supporters of California Avenue businesses, especially since moving our offices to the district almost three years ago and experiencing on a daily basis the area's special qualities.

The plan approved this week by the council will support the district's continued evolution into a treasured community shopping and dining area and is long overdue.

The golf course project has generated less controversy, primarily because it surfaced indirectly as a result of a flood-control project undertaken by the multi-city agency charged with reducing the risk of San Francisquito Creek going over its banks.

With that agency offering Palo Alto $3.2 million to redesign and rebuild parts of the golf course that would be affected by the construction of new levees adjacent to the course, the city developed a range of options, from doing the minimum required to supplementing the funding and undertaking a major and long overdue overhaul of the course.

The council unanimously opted for the most ambitious plan, which will add $4.3 million in cost and result in a major course redesign and the construction of three new playing fields to the Baylands Athletic Center. In spite of some complaining from golfers about future higher green fees to pay for the project, this was clearly the best option and one that will rescue the tired and uninspired golf course and create needed new athletic fields in addition to reducing flood risks in north Palo Alto.

Both of these projects are great examples of long-term community investments that will pay for themselves many times over yet that so often are beaten back by the Palo Alto process and indecision. Especially in today's environment of operating budget constraints, the council is to be commended for moving forward with these important improvements.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

Am I the only one worried about funding these plans? Saying that they will both pay for themselves many times over is not something we can put on a balance sheet.

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Posted by paco
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jul 27, 2012 at 5:33 pm

1st of all, The Palo Alto Weekly isn't located on California Ave. They don't have to deal with the increased congestion. They don't sell a product and don't have to worry about disgruntled customers leaving a defined business area in disgust. It's easy for the Weekly to sit back in their easy chairs and tell us what a great job the city is doing because all they have to do is put a free opinionated paper in a newsrack and hope somebody picks it up and reads it. Not much motivation on their end to disagree with city politics. Not much motivation to report real costs to city business's or costs to city taxpayers. What a pity.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

"It is grossly unfair and wrong for opponents to pretend this was prompted by grant funding being available, as has been repeatedly argued."

This distorts history. I was present at the initial public workshop when the lane reduction was presented as a way to convert street pavement far in excess of traffic needs into area that would benefit the merchants and their customers, such as sidewalks (including room for restaurant seating). Narrowing the street was not to protect pedestrians, but by having a shorten crossing time to reduce traffic delays.

I was surprised when the grant application went into MTC as predominantly a lane-reduction project. I asked then Transportation Division Chief Joe Kott about this, and he told me that MTC would fund only that portion of the project, and that he _hoped_ that the City would be able to fund the remainder, but there was no allocation at that time.

Although the grant proposal was essentially a subset of the original plan, there were some modifications (which I forget) to bolster the case that it would improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. This proposal was not funded.

The proposal-induced claims then took on a life of their own, and we started hearing the contradictory claims from the advocates that CalAve had so little traffic that it could easily be reduced to two lanes (true) and that CalAve had such a high volume of speeding traffic that it endangered pedestrians and bicyclists and discouraged them visiting CalAve, and therefore needed to be reduced to two lanes.

Then we have a subsequent grant application which characterizes the changes as making CalAve a bike-friendly transit corridor between the Caltrain station and the Research Park. Again, if you listened to the advocates' priorities, they were those reflected in the grant proposal.

Notice that various of the features of the original plan that supported the shops and shoppers have only recently been added back into the plan that is to be funded. I think it is highly misleading to treat features for which funding is not being sought as being part of the plan.

Personally, I would prefer that CalAve remain at a scale where a 2-lane street is practical, but Council and Staff (and ABAG/MTC) seem dedicated to a level of development that could require 4 lanes.

It is ironic that former editor Jay Thorwaldson bemoans the decline of newspapers as losing an important repository of local history, but the PAW fails to provide, even contradicts, that history in its coverage.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Doug, what is your point? That the arguments made to the county to get grant money for the lane reduction evolved over time? As I read the Weekly's editorial, they correctly point out that the merchants group supported a lane reduction long before the controversy of the last couple of years. The grant availability was just seized upon by the city as a way to get funding for a project that the merchants were originally behind. Where is the contradiction?

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE "Resident"
What the merchants originally supported by equating a plan that _included_ a lane reduction that would enable many benefits to the merchants, benefits which were part of the plan. To equate this to a plan that was little more than a lane reduction is an instance of the pervasive pattern of misrepresentation by the advocates that sparked so much suspicion and animosity.

This misrepresentation appears to be both intentional and malicious because "Resident" is responding to my post where I pointed out that the grant proposal was for only part of the plan, but his post falsely states that it was for the plan that the merchants supported. Again more evidence for why this issue became so contentious.

Aside: Recognize that talking of "the merchants" is slippery. First, many of the meetings between the City and the merchants were not public and are based solely on recollections. Second, there is a complicated question of how much the various merchants knew of what was being proposed. An example of being informed without really being informed was the announcement of "the tree massacre" which was sent out as a warning of tree work causing traffic inconveniences, but only if you read it carefully, thought about the details, and compared those details to an aerial photo of CalAve would you have realized that they would be doing wholesale cutting down of trees.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 28, 2012 at 9:32 am

> First, many of the meetings between the City and the merchants
> were not public and are based solely on recollections

This seems to me to be a pervasive problem with the City, as private meetings between transportation/planning people and various special interest groups goes to far too frequently. Similar goings on happened on the Charleston/Arastradero downsizing that involved secret meetings with neighborhood associations (at least one or two) and key transportation people--who seemed Hell-bent to stop the Hyatt expansion project.

It's not hard to see that there is not much transparency in the planning processes orchestrated by the City of Palo Alto. With inexpensive video/audio recording equipment available these days, disc storage also being very inexpensive, and internet tools facilitating universal access to all information (no matter what the format), the City's planning processes can only be described more as medieval than state-of-the-art.

Time and again we've heard one story, and then another, because meeting notes were not taken, and/or claims that it would be too expensive to transcribe the notes for every meeting. These days, it really is a "no-brainer" to record all meetings, and even video record them, and make these recordings a part of the project materials. Of course, this would require a very different mindset on the part of the City--a mindset that embraces openness, honesty and an commitment to more public awareness of City thinking and directions than we have seen in the past.

Listening to Council Member Pat Burt's rant about "misinformation" from "somebody", while having so little information made available to the public on a timely basis should make Palo Altans embarrassed for their City's public image. Burt has never shown much interest in increasing the transparency of the public process. Is there any wonder that with this much resistance to this project, that some "misinformation" was generated?

The merchants have every right to be concerned:
Web Link

How many Council members have businesses on California Avenue? The Council seemed more cavalier, then not, about any disruption (short and long term) to their businesses, and certainly no one in the Planning Department can be held responsible for the consequences of their plans.

Given how long this project has dragged on, not having a well-documented project record has contributed to differences of opinion that have made this process more difficult than it needed to be. Sadly, no one on the Council seems interested in reform in the Planning Department.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm

> “With purpose and decisiveness, Palo Alto council moves forward …. It is infrequent when one can celebrate decisiveness in process-obsessed Palo Alto, ….”


February 15, 2005: “Council Member Kishimoto referred to page 7 of the CIP projects, DowntownUrban Design Improvements and suggested that the City eventually develop a similar CIP for California Avenue where the streetscape needed attention.” Web Link

OCT 20, 2009 Project description in Notice of Intent to Adopt a Negative Declaration “… POSSIBLE restriping of roadway lane configuration to reduce travel lanes …” (Highlight mine) Web Link

October 4, 2010: Grant proposal submitted by Rodriguez The California Avenue‐Transit Hub Corridor Enhancement project between El Camino Real and the California Avenue Caltrain Station includes … traffic calming improvements such as 4‐to 2‐traffic lane reduction Web Link

February 14, 2011: Special Council Meeting “ … Staff recommended that Council approve the proposed Negative Declaration for the California Avenue Transit Hub Streetscape Project, and establish the Capital Improvement Project to fund the Project improvements. The City was awarded a grant from the Valley Transportation Authority Community Design for Transportation Program in the amount of $1,725,200. A $550,000 local match, from the Infrastructure Reserve Account, would be required as part of the grant requirements. A Council decision on the lane reduction was required because the grant funding was predicted on a two-lane concept.”

Our esteemed council members approved the plan -- and THEN told staff to go back and spend more money:

• 2-14-11 “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. … 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. Web Link

• PA Daily News: 2-15-11 “Council members on Monday night also asked city staff to determine how much it would cost to study whether the project could include wider sidewalks.”

• Daily Post 2-15-11: Mayor Espinosa "wanted to know if some type of bike lane could actually be folded into the design plan."

July 23, 2012: Council approves plan costing over $2.1 million.

ONLY 7.5 YEARS! Definitely cause to “celebrate decisiveness”!

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Posted by Vote "NO"
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm

California Avenue and redesigning the golf course are not the only big expenses for the taxpayers of Palo Alto.

City council hopes to place a bond measure on the ballot next year to cover the backlog of Infrastructure needs that the Infrastructure Committee has recommended. Now it appears the Policy Committee for Cubberley made up of 3 Council members and 2 School Board members wants to include a bond measure to rebuild the Cubberley complex.

Infrastructure alone will cost some $600,000 Million. How much will a High School/Community Center at Cubberley cost? Total close to $1. Billion?

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2012 at 10:34 am

The "success of the two lane" University Avenue creates congestion and unnecessary density. I always prefer the calmer currents of the four lanes on California Avenue and only went Downtown a few times a year.

Looks like I will be taking my shopping needs to another town, where the traffic and density are easier to deal with.

Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 30, 2012 at 10:38 am

Dianna Diamond's excellent article pointed out how the city council just doesn't listen. You can find her article via Google News. I can't remember the last time I was in downtown Palo Alto to shop.

But no problem with the ridiculous Cal Ave. decision because the city will simply raise utility rates to cover the sales tax shortfall.


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Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2012 at 11:06 am

I support revitalizing California Avenue. Right now, it's so bad that even 1 lane might be an improvement.

At some point, the council has to crack eggs to make omelettes. Of course, the chickens don't like that. But after 7.5 years of deliberation, let's just move on.

Good job city council (can't believe I said that!) finally making some decisions and getting the revitalization going.

Like this comment
Posted by Happy about council's decision!
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2012 at 11:23 am

Doug Moran wrote: "Recognize that talking of 'the merchants' is slippery. First, many of the meetings between the City and the merchants were not public and are based solely on recollections. Second, there is a complicated question of how much the various merchants knew of what was being proposed. An example of being informed without really being informed was the announcement of 'the tree massacre' which was sent out as a warning of tree work causing traffic inconveniences, but only if you read it carefully, thought about the details, and compared those details to an aerial photo of CalAve would you have realized that they would be doing wholesale cutting down of trees." End of quote.

I am a California Avenue merchant that is thrilled our city council took wise and decisive action to get this project going. I admit when I would get email from the former association, CADA, I would not read it.

I never attended any CADA meetings in the 15 years I had a business on California Ave. All these meetings were open to the public, for anyone that wanted to come. I would get email reminders of meetings. I chose not to be involved.

I later saw meetings were even published in the Chamber of Commerce directories and in the annual PA Weekly Coffee table magazine about Palo Alto. But I did not care about it before the trees were cut. I was too busy with my own business. I did not even care about the trees until I saw the street. Now that got my attention. I have read that three people made the decision, and it was based on the recommendation from the city. But I have no one but myself to blame for not being involved. Since the trees were cut, I have attended as many public meetings as I could make, but did not speak. I chose to listen and watch.

I am happy council made the decision to go forward. I support the proposed project. From what I can see, this editorial summed up the situation correctly.

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm

And who will pay the merchants for lost business during and after the project completion?

Be realistic - there will be lost business as potential customers in cars find travel down the new California Ave. to be a congested mess.

Like this comment
Posted by Get Real, please!
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

@Bill g- How do other cities handle their renovations? How did they do it on Castro Street? How do you remodel your own home? Wave a magic wand, sprinkle some fairy dust, and poof! Renovation is done?
It will be a nuisance for a while, like child-birth, and then everyone will forget the pain, and love the outcome. The only question will then be: why didn't we do this sooner?

Like this comment
Posted by E
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm

What about the Farmers Market? Will they have enough room after all is done to put up their stalls and be able to have people pass through them? What will happen when they have to work on the street. The City Council really goofed. Wait and see. This editorial stinks!!!!!!!!!

Like this comment
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 31, 2012 at 3:19 am

While I think the project should go ahead at this point, the editorial is patronizing and almost completely ignorant of the history of this project.

Back in 2005 the self appointed CADA (California Avenue Development Association) members consisted of three property owners and a real estate agent. Although when they formed their association there had been a few more self appointed members. Even though some meetings were announced there was no written record of what was discussed. When the four members of CADA took their renovation plans for California Avenue to city hall unfortunately city staff proceeded under the assumption CADA represented the merchants and businesses.

And to Get Real, "How did they do it on Castro?" By putting some of the small family businesses out of business. I don't call that being a "nuisance for a while" for those merchants and small family restaurants who lost their livelihood.

The huge development and density of offices and apartments the city now plans around California Avenue, including lifting the previous height limitations on California Avenue, has been put on the fast track by the city council. Few members of the public are aware of this. There are also development overlays by other entities such as Cal Trans, VTA, ABAG.

However, the future traffic impacts were deliberately excluded from the traffic report, I know this because at one of the public meetings I asked why future traffic impacts of this growth weren't taken into account. Our chief planner stood up and responded that since they hadn't (yet) received any building applications they couldn't speculate what increase in traffic would result from the new growth plans for the area. No doubt they wanted to convince the public that lane reduction would have minimal impact. Because lane reduction is mandatory to get the grant. A real feather in the cap for Jamie Rodrigues.

I dislike the way the traffic and planning departments have been so high handed all along. And managed this project so badly from the start, which must have resulted in many tens of thousands of dollars in staff time that could have been avoided. The pervasive "culture" at city hall allowed the trees cut with no advance notice, the outreach meetings merely a formality to say the public had had a chance to comment and "consulted" while there was no intention of taking any comments or suggestions seriously.

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm

The Weekly's editorial praises the city council's bold actions, but it fails to view these actions in the wider context of city finances. And the city council failed to do that too.

1. re Cal Ave, why spend all that money--$550,000--on cosmetic changes which will take time to achieve and likely cause some businesses to fail? And the council ignored the petition signed by 55 merchants--not a sign of a healthy democracy flourishing.

2. Since when did creating a WOW factor (council's terminology)on a golf course merit MILLIONS of dollars expended, when hardly a mile away Animal Services is being gutted because of a shortfall of $430,000?

A willful lack of perspective, and skewed priorities: these are what are governing Palo Alto these days!

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