By the time the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto City Councils decide on what to do with the old Newell Road bridge, it may be the most studied bridge of its size.
The narrow, substandard, 102-year-old bridge crossing San Francisquito Creek and connecting a portion of East Palo Alto with the Crescent Park and Duveneck area of Palo Alto has long been identified as a major flood hazard in need of removal and, most people assumed, replacement.
The bridge and its abutments constrict the passage of water during high storm flows and can cause severe flooding. And of equal if not greater importance, until the old Newell Road bridge is removed, other needed flood-control work and bridge replacements upstream cannot be done since they will have the effect of raising water levels downstream.
Palo Alto city staff and its consultants initially believed the solution was pretty straightforward: replace the 18-foot-wide bridge with a modern 32-foot-wide bridge that included proper car and bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. But a turnout of more than 200 concerned residents at a January outreach meeting convinced City Manager Jim Keene to put on the brakes and expand the analysis to include other alternatives and a full environmental and traffic assessment. Residents expressed a variety of concerns, including whether a new bridge would attract more traffic and if a replacement bridge was needed at all.
Last week, at another community meeting, the staff offered up eight options for further study, including doing nothing (leaving the current bridge as is), a full-scale replacement similar to what was initially envisioned, and several alternatives that would limit or prevent automobile traffic on a new bridge. The idea of changing the placement of the bridge to better connect the Newell roads in each city, which do not align, was also offered.
The hope was to reduce the number of alternatives, but residents from both sides of the creek expressed widely differing views, with each alternative having supporters. As a result, the city staff will take the input and return to the community in January with its recommendations for which options should remain under consideration.
The city staff deserves credit for pivoting in response to initial reactions to its proposed bridge replacement, and for recognizing that time spent now involving the affected residents in crafting alternative solutions is well worth it.
We have criticized previous missteps by the staff in community education and outreach, but its efforts on this issue and the direct involvement of City Manager James Keene should be a model for future controversial issues.
Too often these issues wind up in front of the City Council at a meeting with an audience full of upset and/or fearful residents and a staff and council on the defensive. This process is designed to avoid that outcome and create a proposal that has the support of most neighbors when it goes to the two councils.
The flood-control problem is real and urgent, important to both cities, and we can't afford a long, drawn-out process. But future plans for the bridge will require the approval of both the East Palo Alto and Palo Alto city councils, so the more this process includes residents and officials from both cities now, the more likely a solution will ultimately emerge that meets both cities' needs.
For the moment, however, the goal isn't to pre-judge the outcome, but to get going on the environmental and traffic studies for as limited a number of options as possible. The city staff is on an encouraging path to accomplish that in the next two months.
In last week's editorial opposing Palo Alto Measure D, the distance between the proposed single-family homes was incorrectly cited. The current zoning requires at least 12 feet between homes and the proposed new zoning would reduce the distance to 10 feet, on average, for the 12 single-family homes in the project. Lot sizes under current zoning must be at least 6,000 square feet, but are estimated to range from approximately 2,700 to 4,600 square feet under the proposed zoning.