There are few places in Palo Alto where dreams and reality clash as starkly as on El Camino Real.
Envisioned by communities along the Peninsula as a "Grand Boulevard" with generous amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians, the prominent north-south corridor has gained notoriety locally for traffic jams and hulking developments that tower over narrow sidewalks. Arbor Real, a dense townhouse community near Charleston Road, has become a poster child among local land-use critics for everything wrong with building design today.
Alma Street has also become a subject of derision, with residents complaining about imposing, in-your-face developments such as Alma Village near East Meadow Drive and the new affordable-housing development at 801 Alma, near Homer Street. It's not just the gadflies. Some city officials are scratching their heads over the design of the latter building. Arthur Keller, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, compared 801 Alma on Wednesday to a fortress.
"Especially the little windows," Keller said. "They look like someone will shoot arrows, as in one of those fortresses that you find in Europe."
Now, the city is preparing to reverse this trend. In April, four council members released a memo calling for a re-examination of sidewalk widths and building designs on El Camino, Alma Street and other busy stretches with small sidewalks and large buildings. In the memo, Mayor Greg Scharff and council members Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid pointed to a climate of "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 buildings, the memo notes, are often characterized as "unfriendly and overwhelming."
The task of reversing this trend officially kicked off Wednesday night, when the city's two main development-review boards met for their first discussion of the topic. In a wide-ranging discussion, members of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board expressed diverse and often divergent views about how to deal with the problems of narrow sidewalks and uninviting buildings. They all agreed, however, that the subject is critically important and that it will take many more meetings to come up with solutions.
"This is a rather important discussion. Eventually, it's going to define the complexion of El Camino Real and hopefully lead us to some new El Camino Real design guidelines," said Lee Lippert, vice chair of the architecture board and former planning commissioner. "It's really a leading piece here to what we want El Camino Real to look like."
One thing most commissioners agreed on is that existing design rules could use an upgrade, though there was no consensus on what the changes should be. Randy Popp, a member of the architecture board, advocated for incentives that would encourage developers to abide by new design guidelines.
"The goal here is to cause change and to create the space that we're dreaming about to get these wider sidewalks, to get a more robust canopy along El Camino, to make it safe and to make it a focal point of our community and really a destination that people seek out," Popp said.
These incentives could include allowing greater building heights on El Camino in exchange for larger setbacks to allow more generous sidewalks, Popp said. Keller rejected this idea and cautioned that larger buildings would have a negative impact on adjacent homes.
But everyone was open to at least exploring changes to design criteria, which include the existing "build-to" rules that force developers to build close to the road. Clare Malone Prichard, who chairs the architecture board, said the city should allow more flexibility in its design guidelines for El Camino. Under existing laws, buildings have the same setback requirements, whether they are vibrant retail structures, small motels or housing units with bedrooms on the ground-floors. That should be changed, Malone Prichard said.
"I'd like to see some more flexibility in the rules that really appreciate the different uses and what the appropriateness is of those different uses to the sidewalk," Malone Prichard said
She also agreed with Popp that the city should explore new incentives to developers to provide greater building setbacks.
"We can make all the rules we want," she said. "If there's no incentives for developers to follow the rules, we will not see new development and the rules will not be implemented."
The discussion over rule changes and incentives is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. But the one thing that the commissioners and board members agreed on Wednesday is that they should evaluate what other communities have done to create vibrant boulevards. Planning Commissioner Alex Panelli rejected the notion of proposing broad design changes from the dais and encouraged his colleagues to first do some research.
"My concern is that we're sitting here sort of in our ivory towers pontificating on what we believe the right code provisions will be that will compel this change to occur," Panelli said. "I think that's perhaps a bit unlikely. I think the market will do what the market will do given whatever the rules are there."
The idea of taking a step back and evaluating other communities caught on and the meeting adjourned with an understanding that staff will meet with chairs of both bodies, which will reconvene for another session within two months.
Much of the analysis about what constitutes a Grand Boulevard has already been done. A coalition of cities and counties from all along the the El Camino corridor have spent years working on the "Grand Boulevard Initiative," which aims to revitalize this critical thoroughfare between Daly City and San Jose. The initiative's vision statement is: "El Camino Real will achieve its full potential as a place for residents to work, live, shop and play, creating links between communities that promote walking and transit and an improved and meaningful quality of life."
Among its proposals is an 18-foot sidewalk, far larger than the 12-foot sidewalks in Palo Alto's stretch of El Camino.
But the effort to promote vibrancy by encouraging alternatives to cars has run into some roadblocks. Each of the cities along the way has its own vision for the corridor, which creates a challenge for regional planners. A recent proposal by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to dedicate lanes on El Camino to buses fizzled last year after several cities, including Palo Alto, voiced concerns about traffic impacts.
Keller warned on Wednesday that the city should tread cautiously on any proposal that would consider reducing lanes and pointed to Menlo Park, where a lane reduction causes bottleneck traffic during busy commute hours.
Others emphasized the need to make El Camino more bike friendly. Eduardo Martinez, who chairs the planning commission, argued that in Palo Alto, as in other cities, "the idea of the importance of the automobile is losing a little bit of its grip." Mark Michael, vice chair of the planning commission, agreed and said improving El Camino means making conditions safer for non-drivers.
"I think ultimately the quality of the experience on El Camino and other thoroughfares is going to be raised to the extent that we transition out of automobiles and to other modalities," Michael said.