Without collaboration with the City of Mountain View, Palo Alto won't be able to get a handle on the traffic and safety issues plaguing the south portion of the city, residents told Palo Alto officials at a town hall meeting last Thursday night.
The Dec. 3 meeting at Cubberley Community Center was the second in a series of town hall-style meetings that are part of an initiative by the City Council to better engage with neighborhoods.
Residents from Adobe Meadow, Greenmeadow, Monroe Park, Charleston Gardens, Charleston Meadows, The Greenhouse and Fairmeadow met with Mayor Karen Holman, two council members and staff to discuss the city's progress and needed actions in their neighborhoods.
The meeting touched on "single-story overlays" (a ban on two-story homes) in Eichler neighborhoods, the potential conversion of Cubberley Community Center to a middle school or high school, cellular access, teen suicide and the cost of renting city facilities for neighborhood meetings. But traffic was the biggest issue on residents' minds, with many expressing concern about the quantity of vehicles and the growing hazards to pedestrians and bicyclists -- particularly along San Antonio Road and the Charleston-Arastradero corridor.
Monroe Park residents said the traffic is so bad that many cannot get out of their driveways. The increase is due in part to Mountain View's higher-density development, which includes the revamping of San Antonio Shopping Center on El Camino Real into a mixed-use hub, residents said. The second phase of that development, The Village, is slated for completion in late 2017 and will add a hotel, a movie theater and nearly 400,000 square feet of office space, among other amenities.
Councilman Tom Dubois asked residents how they felt about the hotel proposal. Some residents said they are "really scared" about the project, and are worried about how emergency vehicles can get through the traffic snarls.
Converting Cubberley Community Center to a school would also add greater strain -- and danger -- if it becomes a school route with kids biking and walking to school, residents said.
"When I read about Cubberley possibly becoming a junior high school/high school, my blood ran cold. Traffic is already horrible," said Nancy Martin of Greenhouse I, a condominium community along San Antonio near Charleston.
She noted that Palo Alto gave San Antonio a face-lift only a few years ago, with new landscaping, medians, curbs and gutters, repaired sidewalks and repaved streets, which will be worn down by the additional traffic.
Lisa Steinback of Greenmeadow said consultants' algorithms for Charleston/Arastradero did not consider the reactivation of Cubberley as a school. But Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said the city is beginning the final design for the corridor and will rerun the model to consider that potential traffic impact.
The city is also replacing all of the controllers for traffic timing, which will allow the signals to cycle to where they left off when the sequences are interrupted rather than start from the beginning.
Residents and city leaders also discussed the need for grade separation (an under- or overpass) along the Caltrain right-of-way, both for traffic control and safety. Mello said traffic-calming plans are in the works at intersections along Alma Street, including the rail crossings.
The California Public Utilities Commission rated Churchill Street at Alma as one of the highest priorities for a pre-signal, which coordinates with the rail signaling to stop traffic before it crosses the tracks, Mello said. Currently, vehicles cross at these intersections and stop in a pocket which is only big enough for one vehicle, and some drivers end up on the tracks if traffic suddenly stops.
The city recently received a grant for a pre-signal at Churchill, but other intersections, including Charleston, will require a buy-in from Caltrain, and such signals are quite expensive. But it is possible for pre-signals to be added at those locations, Mello added.
Mayor Holman noted that Palo Alto is cooperating regionally with adjacent cities. It has worked with East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, and it is now working toward discussions with Mountain View and Los Altos. Santa Clara County has plans to fix the entrance onto southbound U.S. Highway 101 so that cars will enter from San Antonio rather than on Charleston, Dubois said.
Mello added that an "adaptive" traffic-signal system will be added to San Antonio that adjusts automatically to the flow of traffic rather than set signal times, which currently cause backups.
Holman also said the city is looking at significantly revamping its free shuttle system. Councilman Cory Wolbach, the council's liaison to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), said he is working on transportation issues with that agency, which holds the purse strings to large amounts of federal and state funding for transportation projects. Most of that money has traditionally been earmarked for South County and San Jose; city leaders in the northern part of the county are seeking ways to get a larger share of the pie.
But Holman said it hasn't been easy.
"It's an ongoing battle. It isn't that we just take it lying down," she said.
The council also recently approved two neighborhoods requests for a single-story overlay to preserve the character of their one-story Eichler homes, but while the first one, Los Arboles, had broad resident support, the second one, Greer Park North, was more controversial. Still, the majority rules and the council, although faced with a difficult choice, voted to approve the request.
As additional applications come up, the council hopes to refine the guidelines, broadening perhaps to create conservation districts similar to one created in the City of Cupertino, which developed an R-1 Eichler zoning district, Dubois said. Conservation districts can include characteristics common to a neighborhood that go beyond building height, which residents have expressed a desire to preserved, Holman said.
Wolbach agreed, saying, "What it takes to keep a neighborhood special might be different depending on the part of town."
The council and staff plan to hold additional town hall meetings in other neighborhoods in the coming year to address issues specific to those communities.