Palo Alto narrows focus in quest for wider sidewalks

City looks to eliminate 'build-to line' rule while saving broader zone changes for later discussion

After seeing their prior effort to encourage wider sidewalks fizzle in June, Palo Alto officials are now narrowing their ambitions and pursuing a less dramatic change to the city's zoning rules.

The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider on Wednesday night a proposal to eliminate the "build-to line" requirement for new developments on major thoroughfares. The build-to line requires buildings to be placed 12 feet from the street unless applicants receive an exemption from the city. By eliminating the rule on all major thoroughfares except for El Camino Real, the city hopes to encourage greater setbacks for new buildings and wider sidewalks.

The effort to widen sidewalks was prompted by a flurry of criticism from residents and council members about new developments being too massive and imposing. In April 2013, council members Karen Holman, Gail Price, Greg Scharff, Greg Schmid issued a memo acknowledging the popular sentiment against massive new developments in a colleagues memo, which directed staff to consider new design guidelines to promote wider sidewalks. They cited recent public outrage about new developments such as the grocery store at Alma Village, the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino Real and the affordable-housing complex at 801 Alma St.

Yet the most recent attempt by planners to reform the sidewalk rules faltered in April, when El Camino Real property owners protested that a proposed ordinance would limit their ability to redevelop their properties and threaten local businesses. The ordinance would have required sidewalk widths of 12 to 18 feet, depending on context, and would have allowed upper floors to be placed at zero setback as long as the ground floor provided pedestrians ample space to walk. It also would have reduced the allowed density on dozens of El Camino properties zoned "neighborhood commercial."

In June, the council voted to not pursue the ordinance and directed staff to include these potential changes in the broader conversation about the city's future, an effort known as Our Palo Alto. At the same time, the council directed staff to eliminate the build-to line requirement, which is now seen as inimical to the city's mission of encouraging wider sidewalks.

The ordinance that will go in front of the planning commission Wednesday aims to do just that, while leaving broader questions about building design for a later date. Chief Planning Official Amy French wrote in a report that eliminating the build-to line requirement "will alleviate the 'fortress like' feeling of a recent development on Alma," a reference to 801 Alma St. "Instead, the City's existing context based guidelines will be used to provide a more context based analysis to determine setbacks on a case by case basis."

The ordinance eliminates the build-to line requirement on all streets except El Camino, an eclectic thoroughfare where setback decisions will be based on factors such as surrounding buildings and existing sidewalk widths. There, the requirement will remain but staff will conduct context-based analysis "to ensure that new buildings do not overpower existing development and to allow additional flexibility depending on land use."

The proposed ordinance states that on El Camino, "placement of building frontage shall be based on context including land use, adjacent and nearby properties' existing building setbacks, proposed or adjacent building design, lot size and similar consideration," the proposed ordinance states.

The ordinance also would not apply to Town & Country Village and Stanford Shopping Center.

Like the colleagues' memo, the proposed ordinance acknowledges community concerns about new developments and notes that new buildings on El Camino "are inconsistent with local and regional visions for vibrant boulevards.

"Recent developments 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, how they loom over the roadway 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 ordinance reads.

View the Planning and Transportation Commission's July 30 agenda here.

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Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2014 at 10:15 am

Remind me again how 12 to 15 foot setback but zero setback on upper floors made sense?

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Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 29, 2014 at 11:22 am

It provides a covered overhang for pedestrians in bad weather - shade from the sun and shelter from the rain - while still allowing room to walk on the sidewalk. Five foot wide sidewalks do not allow couples to pass each other, or wheelchairs, or strollers. Eight foot sidewalks allow for that if left clear, so that extra space is needed for street trees or street furniture - benches, trash cans, newspaper racks, etc. Thus, the desire for 12 ft sidewalks. If the obstructions were staggered, 10 feet would work, too.

Like this comment
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 29, 2014 at 11:51 am

How about just bigger setbacks? Seems way simpler but I guess the developers wouldn't like that and someone would lose the cement contract.

Like this comment
Posted by Denny
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2014 at 12:38 pm

An example of what is possible is the design of the new building at University and Cowper, where the building was pulled back on all four sides to provide more public walkway and plaza areas.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Jul 29, 2014 at 4:09 pm

5 feet? Some sidewalks are so overgrown with vegetation that there's only 2 feet of walkable space. Who do I contact to get that fixed?

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Posted by M Robert
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 29, 2014 at 4:31 pm

So what happened to the enforcement of the sidewalks on University Ave. Tables have encroached on the public right of way so there is only a foot or two of walking space. Is the city at least getting rent for the use of this space?

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Posted by midtown resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm

I totally support the wider sidewalks initiative. On El Camino, the setbacks desperately need to be increased to avoid it turning into a tunnel. However, with the existing sidewalks, first thing to improve pedestrian access and comfort is to start handing out tickets for cars parked on the sidewalk. I sometimes see the sidewalk reduced to half due to bad parking.

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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2014 at 4:01 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I see no issue with a building overhanging some of the WIDER sidewalk as long as:
1) the sidewalk is not cluttered with business displays/tables/news racks. It is to be for WALKING.
2) the lowest part of the overhang provides at least 12feet of ground clearance to prevent truck-building damage.

Having a weather sheltered walking area seems like a Plus to me.

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Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 5:13 pm

12 - 15 feet overhang is pretty substantial and would do some weird things to the architectural choices.

With all the overbuilding around here, blotting out the sun is not a reason to make a code to essentially require overbuilding.

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Posted by Mitch
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:49 am

No one is suggesting 12-15 feet of overhang. Too often people have absolutely no idea what the actual issues being considered allow or restrict. And frankly, the tables that stick out slightly on university don't bother me. Its dining outdoors. It's beautiful.

No one is walking down El Camino these days. This initiative is a small piece in the plan to make it more pedestrian friendly. And its not a developer preference that the setbacks not be increased, its an owner preference. A local business owner preference. The assumption that some developer will not make as much money and that's why people oppose it is ridiculous. People oppose change. That's it. They oppose change. When was the last time you tried a different toothpaste? What makes anyone think this community is ready to accept a walkable pedestrian friendly El Camino? Nothing really. Stop holding this city's future hostage. The next generation doesn't have a phobia about change.

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Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I was talking about the previous suggested revision: "The ordinance would have required sidewalk widths of 12 to 18 feet, depending on context, and would have allowed upper floors to be placed at zero setback as long as the ground floor provided pedestrians ample space to walk.

Zero setback for any floor is still a looming wall. I'm guessing it was a compromise to make the sidewalk setback palatable.

When did this ordinance requiring people to build up to El Camino in a wall come about anyway, and what is the historical context? It seems like if it hasn't been around for very long, businesses have very little to complain about if we tried it and it's creating an overdevelopment frenzy that is ruining our town. These businesses aren't going to do very well if no one wants to drive through our jammed up urban tunnelways that we create with such ridiculous rules.

So having varied setbacks is now "broken teeth"? I'll have to use that one when I remodel my house...

Like this comment
Posted by howlong
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 31, 2014 at 5:59 pm

how long before this thread is closed to all but registered users.
do not support pa online censorship
this is not a game

Like this comment
Posted by safety first
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 31, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Wider sidewalks will allow pedestrians to walk farther away from potentially sidewalk-jumping cars. It will also give the city more space to install barriers (trees, planters, walls, etc.) between the street and the sidewalk to help keep cars where they belong. In light of today's "accident", these are very real issues that have to be considered.

Like this comment
Posted by Question.
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 4, 2014 at 8:01 am

Additionally, wider sidewalks also be navigable for people of all abilities, especially as technology advances for transportation and energy. A too built up environment is not only unpleasant and less safe, it will limit our options to be a real city of the future.

At the least, it will spare us the giant lawsuit we face for shutting the disabled out of the prosperity of Silicon Valley in a fake quest for affordable housing (witness the City's pressure to put in Maybell which was majority a market rate development - ironically totally inaccessible to the disabled across from a school for the disabled - while doing next to nothing for BV).

Putting safety first has other benefits.

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

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