Facing a slew of physical obstacles and neighborhood concerns, Palo Alto is veering away from a once popular proposal to create an off-road bikeway through Midtown along Matadero Creek.
Instead, the City Council on Monday night took a turn toward a less controversial, complex and expensive alternative: turning Loma Verde Avenue into Midtown's premier east-west bike route. This could mean re-striping the street to create bike lanes going in either direction next to each other but away from the automobile lanes.
The decision effectively grinds to a halt what until now has been one of the most ambitious projects in the city's recently adopted bicycle master plan. Envisioned as a recreational path that would greatly improve east-west connectivity, the Matadero Creek project received a big boost in in 2012, when it secured a $1.5 million grant from Santa Clara County.
But while the path between Alma Street and West Bayshore Road looked good on paper, it had a hard time navigating through the barriers along the flood-control channel. In the westernmost segment, between Alma and Waverley, the proposed path runs into houses and a maintenance ramp used by Santa Clara County Water District. Further east, as it goes past Middlefield Road, the pathway would pass by the Winter Lodge, requiring the Lodge to give up some of its parking space. And in passing Seale Park, the path would run into another access ramp.
To deal with these obstacles, planning staff had proposed a "hybrid" approach in which the bikeway alternates between the usable segments of Matadero Creek and parallel streets. Rather than a straight-shot through the city's midsection, it would zigzag like a dislocated spine between Alma and U.S. Highway 101.
Some council members and bicycle advocates lauded the plan, despite these difficulties. Robert Neff, a member of both the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee and the special citizen committee that worked with staff on the Midtown path project, echoed the city's Planning and Transportation Commission in arguing that creating the pathway by Matadero Creek constitutes "the best use of land next to the creek, which would otherwise lie fallow."
But residents whose backyards are next to the creek saw things differently. Several argued Monday that the pathway would create both a hazard for bike riders, particularly children who may be liable to falling into the channel, and a disturbance for the homeowners who live by the creek.
Julie Nolan, who lives along the creek, called the creation of a public path in this area a "serious invasion of privacy."
"It's not just about looking into the backyard, it's about the noise and hundreds of people going by," Nolan said.
Others argued that because the proposed pathway is a jagged route, it fails to meet the objectives that the City Council had in mind when it conceived the project.
Stephanie Beach, who lives near the creek, urged the council to focus on achieving a goal of creating a trail from the Baylands to the foothills.
"How can we achieve it?" Beach said. "We don't achieve it by doing a piecemeal, block-by-block configuration that ends up being a trail to nowhere."
Her husband, David Beach, pointed out that improving Loma Verde would be a much cheaper alternative than creating the new pathway. It would also minimize maintenance costs and create a more attractive ride for bikers, he said.
"Matadero Creek is not a natural creek; it's not a riparian environment. It's an industrial solution," he said. "I think we'd be much better off to celebrate the flood control it provides and create a beautiful and safe connector along Loma Verde Avenue."
Jeff Knowles, consultant with the firm Alta Planning + Design, told the council that national literature suggests that a trail like the one proposed would not increase crime in the neighborhoods through which it passes.
Councilman Greg Schmid, who supported pursuing the pathway, noted that other area cities, including Mountain View, Cupertino and San Jose, have such pathways and do not experience the types of problems being cited by opponents of the pathway.
"They do not complain about privacy and security," Schmid said. "Actually, the values of their properties tend to go up."
Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said staff could address the residents' concerns by installing fencing or vegetation to screen homes from path users. He also said he could foresee a scenario in which gates limit access to the pathway in the evening and night hours.
But the council majority concurred that given all the obstacles and resident concerns, the $4.9 million project is perhaps more trouble that it's worth.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said it's time to "pull the plug" on the project and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was on the county Board of Supervisors at the time when the county allocated funding for the project, now expressed reservations about building the path.
"Going along behind people's houses at all hours of the day and night makes me uneasy," Kniss said.
Councilman Eric Filseth lauded the concept of a Matadero Creek trail and said that one can "clearly see the attraction of it." Yet as the city has gone through the hard work of figuring out how to implement the project, "one compromise after another has come up," Filseth said.
"At this point, a lot of compromises have been made to make it work," he said.
Councilman Tom DuBois was considerably more blunt.
"I don't think the plan makes sense," DuBois said, pointing at all the properties and obstacles that the path has to navigate, the hefty price tag and a lack of clarity in what the city is trying to achieve.
He and Wolbach each made the case for instead improving the bike ride on Loma Verde. Wolbach said any future exploration should be around ways to improve bike safety and encourage biking on Loma Verde, whether through a Class IV pathway (which is separated from driving lanes) or other amenities.
"I just don't think the creek provides the trail vibe people are looking for when they go away for trail riding," Wolbach said. "I don't think the creek will provide a great recreational opportunity. And it doesn't provide a top-notch commute option because of the back and forth."
In agreeing to pursue the Loma Verde project by a 7-1 vote, with DuBois dissenting and Councilman Marc Berman absent, the council directed staff to reach out to the county and see if the grant funds for Matadero could be redirected toward this project. If they cannot, the grant funding could still be used to work on the easternmost section of the Matadero Creek, between Ross Road and West Bayshore.