Palo Alto's quest to transform California Avenue into the city's "second downtown" got off to a rough start in 2011, when dozens of area merchants lambasted a plan to reduce the number of driving lanes from four to two.
Since then, the focus has shifted on what the prominent avenue will gain even as it loses two lanes -- namely, two public plazas, wider sidewalks, brighter lighting, a new sculpture and a host of street amenities, from new benches and game tables to new newspaper racks and trash cans.
The panoply of proposed designed elements, which are geared to jazz up the pedestrian and bicycle experience on California Avenue, earned much praise and a few minor notes of criticism Thursday morning, Feb. 21, from the city's Architectural Review Board. While the board did not take a formal vote on the project, members voiced excitement about sprucing up and revitalizing the eclectic but somewhat rundown strip between the railroad tracks and El Camino Real.
The project has undergone a substantial evolution since 2011, when the City Council first proposed reducing the number of lanes -- a decision that met a chorus of complaints and a pair of lawsuits from area merchants who argued that reducing lanes would create congestion and cut into their business. Since then, the council directed staff to widen sidewalks and consider new plazas, two of which are now part of the design. The plan calls for a tree-lined plaza complete with tables, benches and a sculpture on the east end of the strip by Park Boulevard, near the Caltrain Station.
Another, more flexible plaza, will be closer to the center of the street, between Ash and Birch streets. Under the proposal now on the table, this space would be separated from the sidewalks by decorative bollards and would be available for use for public events, such as the farmers markets, and for "seasonal expansion of retail activity," according to Transportation Engineer Shahla Yazdy.
Some aspects of the design required the city's landscape architects to negotiate a compromise between "old" and "new," reflecting community opinions. Yazdy noted in the report that at recent community meetings, some participants "felt that the street should have sleek and modern furnishings, to give it a more contemporary look and feel."
"Others preferred a more traditional style of furnishing, which they felt was more consistent with some of the existing brick and wood elements and the warm ambience of the space."
Staff and its consultant, David Gates Landscaping, opted for the middle path and chose benches "with simple, clean lines, contemporary metal accents and the warmth and traditional aesthetic of wood."
All five members of the architecture board praised the project and its recent changes, though each added a few cavils. Lee Lippert urged more attention to landscape improvements around the tunnel near the Caltrain station. Randy Popp suggested more interesting bike racks than the standard U-shaped ones proposed by the project architects ("This is so plain; I can't stand it," Popp said, referring to the standard design).
Naseem Alizadeh and Popp both said they would prefer a consistent contemporary feel, rather than a compromise between the two different styles.
"I'm vehemently opposed to combining old and new," Alizadeh said. "Keep it modern. Keep it consistent. Keep it new."
Board members had few bad things to say about the proposed furniture, though Popp urged consideration of other designs for drinking fountains and game tables and Lippert suggested a different design for benches -- one that would make benches comfortable to sit on but not to lie on.
Lippert also said it's important to make sidewalks as attractive as possible to soothe merchant's concerns about fewer driving lanes.
"There's a lot of animosity there," Lippert said, referring to the lane reduction. "I think coming back with a really thoughtful approach in terms of how the sidewalk will respond to the pedestrian experience, as well as the parking, really creates opportunities for these merchants and for this area becoming the second downtown for Palo Alto."
The only wild card in the project is lighting. In recent months, city planners have been floating a proposal to install new pedestrian streetlights along California Avenue to comply with the wishes of area merchants. The Planning and Transportation Commission signed off on this latest change earlier this month, though several commissioners said they were bothered by the fact that this aspect was not in the original proposal and is only now coming to the forefront. The new lighting structures are expected to cost around $1 million, bringing the total cost of the streetscape project to more than $4 million.
The council has not yet approved the lights proposal. It is scheduled to consider the issue, along with all the other proposed design elements in the California Avenue project, in early March.