Plans unveiled for new Pope-Chaucer bridge

Water officials weigh two alternatives for new bridge between Palo Alto and Menlo Park

Even during a prolonged drought, the threat of flooding rarely strays far from the minds of residents around the fickle San Francisquito Creek, which 16 years ago washed over several Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto neighborhoods and inflicted about $28 million in damage.

On Wednesday, more than 100 residents who live near the most flood-prone bridge learned that help is finally on the way. Officials from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and the Santa Clara Valley Water District unveiled two possible alternatives for rebuilding the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge, which has the lowest water capacity of all the bridges crossing the creek between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. If things go as planned, upgrades could begin as early as next summer.

For residents in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, including Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis in Palo Alto and Willow Oaks in Menlo Park, the help can't come soon enough. Numerous residents at Wednesday's meeting at the East Palo Alto Academy in Menlo Park cited the damage their homes suffered in February 1998, when they were pummeled by the largest flood on record and water topped over the creek. Either of the alternatives unveiled this week would protect the area from floods of this sort, though in the first phase of work both would fall short of the type of protection required to accommodate a "100-year flood," which by definition has a 1 percent chance of occurring during any given year.

One option would raise the bridge and portions of streets leading up to the bridge by 4 feet, a design that would increase water capacity but would also require the construction of retaining walls in front of four corner properties near the bridge to accommodate the grading. The other option would leave the bridge at its current grade and avoid the retaining walls, but would require higher floodwalls than the raised-bridge alternative.

Kevin Sibley, civil engineer with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, called the "raised bridge" alternative the "standard engineer design." The water district is the main funding source for the Pope-Chaucer project, with most of the money coming from Measure B, a bond voters passed in 2012. Sibley said this design would raise both the bridge and portions of Palo Alto Avenue and Woodland Avenue.

At first, this design would require infill under the bridge to make sure water does not exceed the capacity downstream, particularly in the most vulnerable area between U.S. Highway 101 and the San Franciso Bay. As the creek authority completes other pending projects to boost flood protection in the downstream area, the infill would be removed, substantially widening the channel under the Pope-Chaucer Bridge.

Another long-term improvement would be construction of flood walls, ranging from 2 to 6 feet (the height varies because of the shifting road alignment). Once all these improvements are in place, the bridge would be able to withstand a 100-year flood and the residents around the bridge would no longer be required to purchase federal flood insurance.

The big drawback for this design, he said, would be the retaining walls in front of the four corner properties. Because of this impact, Sibley said, the water district is also considering an "at-grade alternative" that would rebuild the bridge at a slightly higher elevation than exists now. Because this would not provide the same level of flood protection as a raised bridge, it would ultimately require officials to build higher flood walls than in the "raised bridge" alternative. Here, they would have to be about 7 feet tall to achieve protection from a 100-year flood.

The creek authority, which includes elected officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the water districts from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, is also looking at rebuilding the Newll Street bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and, ultimately, the bridges at Middlefield Road and University Avenue.

Unlike last year's meeting on the Newell Street bridge, which attracted widespread criticism and a wide range of opinions about the design of the new bridge, the public hearing on the Pope-Chaucer bridge was a relatively subdued affair despite a standing-room-only crowd. Most people welcomed the fact that something is finally getting done, though a few asked questions about the project's impact on trees and area aesthetics. There was no heckling or jeering and the only comment that drew applause was Menlo Park resident Robert Filman's question about whether officials had considered getting rid of the bridge altogether (they did, before determining that traffic impacts would be substantial).

For Nancy Bjork, the big question was: Which alternative would provide the best flood control in the near term?

"What we want is to get the most water out of that thing as fast as possible and not count on the second part," said Bjork, a Palo Alto resident who said she suffered more than $100,000 in property damage during the 1998 flood.

Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority called the reconstruction of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge "an important part of the solution for addressing the flooding problem" in the region. The authority, he said, plans to spend much of 2014 determining the sequence of its many ongoing flood-control projects to make sure any individual projects don't end up pushing the flood problems to other parts of the watershed.

Currently, Materman said, the creek authority has the funding to perform the flood-control work between the Bay and 101 and to widen channels and rebuild numerous bridges, including the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. Other measures that would be necessary to provide 100-year-flood protection -- including flood walls near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge – would need to rely on future funding sources. The creek authority, he said, is now evaluating possible tax measures that it can send to the voters in 2016 or 2017 to pay for these improvements.

"Our goal is to get out of the flood-insurance program," Materman said, noting that the requirement for flood insurance is costing the properties around the creek an average of $1,300 annually.

"We might have to phase that so that while we're doing other pieces -- widening other channels and the Newell Road bridge -- we don't impart risk on someone else over that process," Materman said.

Officials from the water district and the creek authority plan to hold another meeting on Jan. 29 to solicit more input about the design of the new Pope-Chaucer Bridge. If all goes as planned, Materman said, all the the environmental analyses will be completed by May 2015, paving the way for construction to begin. Barring unforeseen complications, it would take about a year to reconstruct the bridge, he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 9:58 am

Two comments:
1. I believe it is Nancy Bjork, not "Rjork".
2. There is no mention about alignment, widening, traffic flow, etc. --- essentially the critical issue that has my neighbors in Crescent Park, especially along Newell Road most concerned about.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 16, 2014 at 11:31 am

Wrong bridge. This is Chaucer-Pope, not Newell. They plan to keep the width the same as now, which is 45 feet. This is plenty wide for two lanes, sidewalks and bike lanes or shoulders. The alignment is perfectly straight and doesn't need any adjustment. This is a cakewalk compared to Newell.

Like this comment
Posted by no backups
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 11:46 am

"This is Chaucer-Pope, not Newell. They plan to keep the width the same as now, which is 45 feet. This is plenty wide for two lanes, sidewalks and bike lanes or shoulders."

You know? Exactly what they need at Newell!

Like this comment
Posted by Flood Insurance is going up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 11:49 am

While flood insurance rates may now be $1300/year, they are scheduled to go up thanks to Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 Web Link In particular, this rate is subsidized and the subsidy goes away immediately upon house sale. For everyone else, the subsidy is reduced over a five year period. But this change may be deferred per the current Federal spending bill Web Link The Union of Concerned Scientists has an alternative proposal for dealing with the costs of flood insurance and mitigating flood risk. Web Link Essentially, our flood insurance rats are going up because of the flooding in Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana and are not based on the actual risks in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Caroline Creekside
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm

I hope we can find a better bridge solution than the two offered to us last night. Artificially raising the banks of the creek with flood walls seems like a very heavy handed solution, particularly the one proposal to line the bridge itself with 7 foot high flood walls. I hope a good Landscape Architect with commercial experience can be engaged to find a solution in which we can all take pride.

Like this comment
Posted by doubtful
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Last night's meeting was an insult. There can't be only these two "options." What are all the options studied in the EIR? How many residences are in the flood zone in menlo park and palo alto? How many of these were notified of the EIR scoping session? Last night's meeting did not list all the options included in the EIR but instead selected the 2 that the JPA supports. The sequence of this project is not correct. The draft EIR should be released and all the options should be described for the residents in the flood zone. The JPA is rushing and misleading the public. Was there any mention of the option for a culvert along side the creek running Woodland? Was there any description of the possible sites for retention ponds upstream in the hills?

The JPA needs to slow down and actually include the public in this process. The head of the JPA told the audience that the public is included in the very early phases of this decision. That's malarky. These meetings are the usual mandatory public outreach meetings that mean nothing. Read the heading of this article, "Plans unveiled for the op-Chaucer Bridge." Yes, plans already decided by the Santa Clara Water District and the JPA are being unveiled for the public as though the public has a say. Harrumph!

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Sixteen years is rushing things? At the rate this is going I will be long gone before anything happens.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Doubtful - are you a flood expert or something?

Like this comment
Posted by Willows resident
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm

I submitted comments on the original EIR and was not notified of Wednesday's meeting. I can only conclude that the announcement was sent out selectively. At the meeting to explain the EIR, commenter after commenter stated that they did not want to see the natural environment of the creek destroyed with flood walls. It doesn't appear that our voice was heard.

Like this comment
Posted by Another Willows resident
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 9:45 pm

I don't know where they are getting their figures for how much people are spending per year on flood insurance. I paid $2,251.00 in December. The whole time we have lived here I have never paid as low as $1,300.00.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Two thoughts on this:

1. Why should should such a simple bridge take a year to complete. Can't they pre-fab the major parts and deliver them just in time then pave the thing over? Seems like it ought to be able to be done, or at least the interruption ought to be able to be limited to a summer.

2. Look at every other thing Palo Alto has done ... when they say a year, that sounds like a lot, but why should we even believe that. Look at the Mitchell Park library ... 3 or 4 times longer than promised.

Well, do we have any choice?

The drawing looks good, but it really just looks like a reinforced paved bottom, with a paved platform over it ... simple and functional. Get it done!

Like this comment
Posted by no hurry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:59 pm


There is no hurry, the traffic can go around, there are plenty of alternates.
I am surprised they are even rebuilding it, its not like it services a major traffic need.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Unless you count all of the cut through traffic that goes across each evening heading to the Dumbarton Bridge.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2014 at 4:18 pm

You can pre-fab a bridge and drop it in, but to what do you fasten it? It is the foundations and abutments that take up most of the time, along with the retaining walls.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2014 at 6:16 pm

I guess running an upstream pipe from San Francisquito Creek to a temporary holding pond on the Stanford campus at Lake Lagunita for the excess water is not considered sophisticated enough. That could've been done 16 years ago.

Like this comment
Posted by doubtful
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Santa Mateo County does NOT have a water district and therefore there is no representation on the JPA from San Mateo that balances the interests of San Mateo. This leaves a gap in engineering expertise from San Mateo County.
Willow Oaks doesn't exist. There is the WIllows and there is Menlo Oaks. Mr. Sheyner needs to clarify this.
The article does not mention the number of speakers who spoke of their dislike of the 2 alternatives presented. There were several people who do not want hundreds of trees cut down, hundreds of cubic yards of cement covering the walls of the creek and hundreds of ft. of a 4 ft wall along the creek. The 7 ft wall on both sides of the bridge preventing any view of the creek is a disaster.
There is no need for a pipe to pump water upstream. The retention ponds can be in the hills and collect water as it flows down the creek out to the bay.
This article assumes too much. The JPA and the Santa Clara Water District is pushing this engineering overkill but the decision is up to the residents who pay the property taxes and the salaries of the engineers and the JPA employees plus we elect the three council members who are on the JPA. Let's get the line of authority straight here.

Like this comment
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 20, 2014 at 5:11 am

To preface my remarks below (c.f. Hmm's comment about one of the commenters being a flood expert) - I do have a PhD in hydraulic engineering and along with some of my neighbors did do flow modeling of the creek a decade or so ago.

To Bob:
Unfortunately, the laws of physics make a pipe immensely impractical for a variety of reasons. If one wants to use upstream storage, best to collect the water upstream. The problem with this is to find a site. The one possible site, west of 280 on Stanford lands has a number of environmental and logistic problems. Even then, I gather that the cost would be enormous, i.e., more than an in-stream solution.

To Doubtful:
You have touched on one of the really difficult issues - for a long time San Mateo County has not been willing/able to put up $ etc. to match what PA/Santa Clara could do. Indeed, when I was active in Creek issues in 2002-2003, it seemed to me that SCVWA was intentionally withholding support for any action to protect against flooding to force Menlo Park to be more forthcoming. One reason for this is that currently the FEMA designation doesn't include much of the Willows area, something that modeling we did with the same model the JPA is now using suggested was due in part to the PC bridge. Remove the bridge, and some folks in Crescent Park would not be flooded, but others in Menlo Park who were not flooded in 1998 would be underwater and thus in the FEMA zone, changing the political dynamics.

The use of concrete solutions - flood walls - is also a consequence of the physics. Without widening the creek, say
by taking parts of Woodland and Palo Alto Avenues, there really is no other way to pass the design flow without walls. If land costs weren't ridiculous, then creating some kind of floodway (via eminent domain) as has been done various places in the world might be feasible, but short of a ca. billion dollar gift from Zuckerberg, this isn't too likely.

This might be viewed as the whose ox gets gored problem - build the walls and various parts of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and East Palo Alto gain a measure of flood protection at the cost of loss of some of the natural ambience of the creek as it exists now, something many of us enjoy, including especially those who live next to or near the creek. So whatever is built for flood protection will benefit some and hurt others. It is good to see that what is being developed by the JPA starts with eliminating the most dangerous flooding - in East PA, where loss of life in a large flood is a very real possibility. It is also good that the local communities have finally recognized that waiting for the Corps of Engineers to act is a non starter.

Finally, we should all applaud Len Materman and his staff for their hard work in moving this forward.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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