Unpopular developments in Palo Alto come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have one irksome quality in common -- sidewalks that many resident believe are far too narrow.
On Monday night, the City Council will take a step in tackling this problem when they consider a proposal from four council members to review the city's regulations on sidewalk widths. Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwomen Karen Holman and Gail Price, and Councilman Greg Schmid are urging staff to examine the city's rules on sidewalk widths and to return with suggested zoning amendments.
For land-use watchdogs and neighborhood preservationists, the issue narrow sidewalks has been a hot topic for many years, with the Arbor Real housing development on El Camino Real and Alma Village in south Palo Alto as two commonly cited examples. These days, the topic has a particular urgency with major development applications on the rise and the closure of Miki's Farm Fresh Market at Alma Plaza earlier this month -- a closure that many in the community blame on the development's site design (the supermarket's back faces Alma Street, creating a wall-like effect for drivers along the busy road).
The memo argues that the new developments along El Camino Real and Alma "address the street in ways that are inconsistent with the intent and vision of the El Camino Real Design Guidelines and the Grand Boulevard Plan." The plan seeks to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience for El Camino Real by encouraging, among other things, 18-foot sidewalks -- a width that is 50 percent greater than what Palo Alto currently requires.
"This has generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close these new buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way due to inadequate setbacks and building articulation and openings to reduce the building mass," the memo states, noting that critics often erroneously blame the "planned community" zoning process and the principles of New Urbanism for creating buildings that are being characterized as "unfriendly and overwhelming."
Holman, a former planning commissioner who has been persistent critic of dense developments with narrow sidewalks, said the recent closure of Miki's "just punctuates the need for something that we had plans for some time." She told the Weekly that she hopes the city can complete the revisions to its sidewalk laws (a process that includes input from the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board) within six to nine months.
Much of the work, she said, has already been done. The Grand Boulevard Initiative, a collaborative effort by agencies throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, already includes guidelines for street designs, transportation programs and other ways to enhance the heavily used El Camino Real corridor. The bulk of the work would entail integrating some of the suggestions from this document into the city's zoning code.
"It's a matter of getting those standards codified," Holman said.
While the city's rules call for 12-foot sidewalks, the measure refers to the distance between the building and the curb. With fire hydrants, trees and other street fixtures often occupying the 4-foot "planting strip" near the curb, this leaves only about 8 feet of passable space for pedestrians. The width, or lack thereof, also affects street trees, the memo notes. The Grand Boulevard Initiative also notes that typical 8-foot sidewalks are "too narrow" and that "heavy transit- and pedestrian-oriented areas in larger cities are 40 feet and more wide."
"It is worth noting that 8-foot sidewalks limit the species of trees to those with vertical growth and thus result in a smaller canopy than can be accommodated in areas with greater setbacks," the memo states.
While the memo focuses on El Camino and Alma, other parts of the city could also be impacted. The four council colleagues urge staff to also address other thoroughfares -- including downtown, California Avenue and Charleston Road -- when appropriate.