Plan to widen sidewalks meets resistance on El Camino Real | News | Palo Alto Online |


Plan to widen sidewalks meets resistance on El Camino Real

Property owners criticize proposed ordinance as misguided, overly restrictive

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A regional drive to turn El Camino Real into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard clashed with thorny reality Tuesday night as property owners in Palo Alto lashed out at the city's effort to encourage wider sidewalks along the prominent commuter thoroughfare.

About 15 property owners attended a public hearing at Creekside Inn on Tuesday to hear city staff explain the city's proposed sidewalk ordinance and offer input. The ordinance, which was prompted by a memo from City Council members, seeks to expand the distance between curbs and buildings beyond the 12 feet that the zoning code currently calls for. It would maintain the 12-foot minimum width while also requiring an average building setback of 15 to 18 feet along El Camino.

The ordinance provides flexibility based on context, which includes such factors as "land use, adjacent properties' existing building setbacks, proposed or adjacent building design, and lot size." The city's Architectural Review Board, which issues recommendations on new developments, would consider these factors in issuing its decisions on particular projects.

In addition, the proposed ordinance would modify the existing "build to line" standard, which requires the front of the building to be 12 feet away from the curb. Under the new rules, the ground floor would be allowed to be set further back from the curb, to create more space for pedestrians, while the top floor could extend closer to the street. Features such as columns or arcades could also be brought closer to the sidewalk.

Chief Planning Official Amy French said developers currently have to request a "design enhancement exception" if they want to set their building back farther than 12 feet. The rule change would give them more flexibility in setting the buildings away from the sidewalk.

The movement to change rules along El Camino is rooted in both a regional effort to enliven the corridor and a local effort to reduce the mass of new developments. Recent developments on El Camino, including the Arbor Real townhouses near Charleston Road and the new hotel at the former Palo Alto Bowl site, have attracted criticism from residents about their large mass and proximity to the curb. In a memo last April, council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid argued that the new projects have "generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close the 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 council members pointed to the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a regional effort that calls for a minimum sidewalk width of 18 feet, significantly larger than the city's existing 12-foot standard.

"The idea of El Camino improvements is to provide vitality along the street," French said.

In addition to adjusting sidewalk widths, the proposed ordinance would also reduce the building density allowed at the 32 properties on El Camino zoned "neighborhood commercial." This provision was drafted in response to a recent change in state law that allows these properties to increase density from 15 housing units per acre to 20 units. In response, the City Council directed staff to consider reducing the "floor area ratio," which would effectively ensure that the additional units are small.

"One of the goals is (to have) smaller units to meet that segment of the housing need," French said.

Though planning staff stressed Tuesday that the new rules would only apply to new projects and not existing buildings, the caveat did little to assuage the concerns of the property owners. Many argued that the sidewalk ordinance would further limit their abilities to redevelop. Others dismissed the regional vision of turning El Camino into a "grand boulevard" as deeply misguided, noting that the car-heavy thoroughfare more closely resembles a highway than a promenade. Joe Rizza, whose property is at the corner of El Camino and Fernando Avenue, was one of many to question whether the city really needs to encourage more pedestrian use on the thoroughfare. A pedestrian who tries to cross El Camino at the crosswalk near this property effectively takes his life in his hands, Rizza said.

"I don't see people sitting on El Camino, with buses going by, enjoying their coffee," Rizza said. "I don't see bicycles using El Camino."

"El Camino Real is not a great place to attract foot traffic," he later added. "It's dangerous. It's a highway."

His was one of many skeptical voices at Tuesday's meeting. Property owner Sal Giovanotto lashed out against the city's effort to imitate European boulevards and argued that the movement will accomplish nothing aside from restricting residents' rights.

"This thing is not helping anybody," Giovanotto said. "There is not a drop of advantage to anybody. No matter what you do, you have to pay a price."

Ken Weng, who also owns properties on El Camino, said the new adjustments would have a particularly negative impact on small properties, which already face heavy restrictions when it comes to redevelopment.

"We want to see a nice El Camino Real," Weng said. "The problem is, all the rules when you add them up together don't make sense with small properties."

Several speakers argued that if the city imposes new restrictions on properties, it should relax other rules, including height limits for buildings next to residential properties. Because they would no longer be allowed to be built close to the sidewalk, property owners should have the ability to build higher, they said.

Staff's response that the height issue could be considered separately but is not part of the current ordinance did little to assuage their concerns.

"You're taking something away, but you're not allowing some sort of modifications to compensate for that," said Ben Cintz, who owns property on El Camino and Stanford Avenue.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to discuss the rule changes on April 9.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


Like this comment
Posted by 35 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 2, 2014 at 10:58 am

It doesn't matter what the property owners or local citizens want. The city will do it anyway because they want to enforce the ridiculous idea that people are going to use mass transit and sit around in front of buildings that offer coffee and pastries (oh, wait...that's Paris).

Like this comment
Posted by propety owner
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 2, 2014 at 11:48 am

There should be a law that requires the city to compensate for loss of value when new rules are imposed on property owners for the benefit of the over all city.
This will make city and citizen to think hard about what they are asking for.
I remember Berkeley was a very vibrant city untill rent control went into effect.
15years later, the city became a dump. Affected property owners are minority whose rights should be protected.

Like this comment
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm

The whole ABAG crew has more passion than brains.

No one's going to sit near El Camino like it's Paris. These people are totally clueless.

Require that the NEW buildings have bigger setback. Simple enough.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I like the idea of the Grand El Camino Real, but I know this will take time and planning. Won't be like Paris ever but the idea of coming up with different mixed uses. I don't the idea of taking property over to build wider sidewalks, this needs to be done when property owners want to build anew.

A idea to create small business zones and give them names that reflect the neighborhood. What does Barron Park need and willing to walk or bike too, will merchants come in and open up shop for Barron Park.

2 to 3 story buildings might have to built to have apartments, flats, shop keeper units.

2 people like this
Posted by Mila Z
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 3, 2014 at 8:38 am

Many of us Palo Altans do sit and drink coffee along El Camino at a wonderful cafe called Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park. I let my kids play along the fountain & stroll up and down the block. Exploring the widening of sidewalks is something I support along with enabling small property owners to receive variances or whatever to go beyond the current height restrictions if they are impacted. I'm happy to see these ideas out there - especially since I patron many small stores along the El Camino between East Charleston and Page Mill.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 3, 2014 at 9:11 am

@ Mila Z. Agree with you. Urban Parks, water features, more open air markets, shop keeper units, and other features. Well lit shops and buildings would help.

It will take time, no need to take property.

Like this comment
Posted by P.A. Native
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 3, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Well said Mila.

Enough of the building to the sidewalk. If we continue down that path El Camino will turn into a canyon.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Mila Z et al.:

The Cafe Barrone plaza is roughly 90 ft deep. If you look at the lots size on southern El Camino, you will see that many are in the range of 100 ft deep.

P.A. Native:
A key aspect of a "canyon" is the relative height of its walls. Adding a few feet of width to the sidewalks is not going to change the perception for pedestrians when they have 15-20 ft blank walls for stretches along the sidewalk. If you look at the examples cited by the Council memo, they include Arbor Real, where the sidewalk with its adjoining landscaping is quite wide, yet pedestrians (predictably) find it un-friendly. It is not "build to sidewalk" that is the problem, but *how* one builds to the sidewalk when one does that.

Like this comment
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 4, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Doug, since you stimulated more public interest, why not go a step further? The City Planning Department could demonstrate the dueling concepts on a half mile section of El Camino Real, perhaps centered around the higher density areas of Ventura neighborhood. On one side of ECR, show architectural renderings of wider sidewalks, pedestrian use, anticipated shops, cafes, etc. On the other side, sketch out how development with likely go forward with no changes in sidewalks, traffic lanes, etc. Two such renderings would be worth a thousand words. The ensuing debate would result in better ideas, more informed residents/voters and greater unity about the future.

Like this comment
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

ECR near Ventura has a lot of old eyesores. How do you suggest persuading owners to demolish them in return for giving up space for wider sidewalks & actually leasing to tenants who'll open "pedestrian boulevard" friendly cafes, etc?

Another consideration is the abundance of driveway curb cuts for existing businesses. As long as cars are using those driveways to get to the businesses, pedestrian safety is hard to maintain. Drive-thru fast foods, restaurants with rear parking, small businesses with off-street parking - all of that would have to go away before I'd take a leisurely stroll along El Camino, just to enjoy the fumes from cars & buses.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 4, 2014 at 2:36 pm

@ Neilsen Buchanan.

I agree with your idea.

Lived and visited European cities, not all had wide salkwalks but did have nice features and very well lit.

Personally don't think we should be going after those kinds of high density. Every city I have seen has neighborhoods outside the city center.

We aren't Central Paris, copying this doesn't make sense and yes those density won't work. In reality some places might be good for 4 to 5 story but not everywhere.

2 to 3 stories buildings.

First floor. Shop or living unit.
Second Floor Office or living unit.
Third Floor if needed. Office or living unit.

It could be all three, enogh small businesses losing space for larger needs.

Think small. University students and the benefits of biking or walking. Neighbors who want to see small friendly businesses.

Each neighborhood has needs other then larger chain stores. Cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, ATM, coffee shops, dry cleaners, insurance agent, dentist, Subway, florist, Laundromat, and etc.

Don't know, I drive for a living and see loads neighborhood serving businesses.

Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2014 at 10:30 pm

The two big problems here are first that palo alto allowed developers to build right up to the edge of the existing sidewalk. There is no set back to work with. Second is that many developers put blank walls facing the street. It doesn't matter what you put up if it has a flat blank wall going up from the sidewalk people will not want to walk there.

What does barron park need? We need a grocery store/supermarket. We had one but the cit allowed a developer to convert the area to a video rental store and amJamba juice place. We also need a bookstore, variety store, shoe store, second hand store. We had all these once, but gradually they disappeared.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 5, 2014 at 1:37 pm

I remember the All American Market, the Italian Restaurant near the Vet, also The Gap store.

Grocery stores have disappeared over the years but the ones that have remained are either larger or upscale.

Bookstores have off with record stores and along video rental stores.

Shoe stores with shoe repair shops are few, why? We live in throw away world. Wal Mart, Target and the chains killed those businesses.

Ready to wear vs the Tailor or the Dressmaker.

Full Self Service vs the Butcher.

Big Box vs Ma and Pop.

We live in a sea of Wal Marts, Home Depots, Safeway, Whole Foods, Ross, Target, Walgreens, McDonald's and Starbucks. Uniformity, sameness, parking lots and big blank walls.

Like this comment
Posted by Not in your games
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2014 at 5:49 am

Along the same lines as the poster above regarding the struggles of local businesses, If I cannot ride my bike to buy it, I generally will get it from Amazon if can. My fellow drivers have made it so unbearable to deal with them
on the roads at times, that I resist many local trips. If I can wait two days and have it delivered to my doorstep free of charge, why would I want to go out and become involved in the morass of road rudeness and selfishness?
I think many opt for this route of home delivery rather than local retail if at all possible.

Like this comment
Posted by dosomewalking!.
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 7, 2014 at 11:51 am

On sunday, i walked alon ECR from los altos ave to page mill, fot a total of 2 hours.
Here is what I found.
1. Encountered one biker along ECR. But there were MANY bikers along Arasteradero, sone almisr run over me.
2. Busiest shops are the Starbucks, and a few eateries. Did not see bikes at the sites.
3. Nearly all new developments are almost right up to the 6ft, maybe 10ft side walks.
These buildings will there for 50years! Why don't we ask them to cut back to 18 ft?
Thsee buildins have no stepped backs on uoper floors.
4. MANY older properties are right next to 6ft wide walks, why should the rebuild just to loose more space and revenue? Why should they be asked to sacrifice while thses new buiding are the cause of concerns?
5. The are some building looking abandoned, did owner want it that way? Why are some retail shops struggling and close on weekends? Arre you going to walk to shopping and carry them home?
6. The exercise shop had many parking spaces, but it was not open.
I wondered if the custemers drove to exercise or walk to it?

Any way, we should all take avwalk down ECR.
It certainly feels good to be a CEO naking a decision,
but CEO should walk around the work place and talk to the working ranks.

Very cerncerned citizen.

Like this comment
Posted by Seer
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 7, 2014 at 9:54 pm

I commend you for walking along El Camino and doing some actual observations. However, this is not about the El Camino we see today but the El Camino we want to see in 10 years or so. Not to many people walk or bike on El Camino now, but imagine what it could be like if we changed out policies. Wider sidewalks are not enough by themselves, but they are part of the picture. If we wait until we can do everything at once we will never accomplish anything, Doug Moran. We need to do what we can when we can, and work on all the important items.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 8, 2014 at 4:51 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

The Kings Highway could be the next "route 66". 'Cars'(the movie) was modeled on what is now 'Historic 66' that I traveled as a child.

University is 'Downtown', not ECR, which is also designated *Highway 82*.

We are NOT Europe. Our cities are CENTURIES younger.

Like this comment
Posted by dosomewalking!
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 8, 2014 at 8:27 pm

@Seer, when government make changes at the expense of small group, you need to do your due deligence. I am all for improving ECR, but who is paying?
I am posting because I have done my walking, did you?

Like this comment
Posted by Planning Commissioners
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

Real estate attorney/mogul Michael Alcheck at last night's Planning Commission killed any attempt to make changes on El Camino.
He was supported by development advocate Tanaka.

Like this comment
Posted by Planning Commissioners
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm

The Council members who voted for Alcheck to be on the Planning Commission were

Voting For Michael Alcheck:
Burt,Espinosa,Klein,Price,Scharff, Shepherd

See page 1,Council Action Minutes of 07-23-12

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