For Palo Alto's birdwatchers, few locations offer a more pleasant vista than the timber boardwalk stretching from the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center to the marshy nature preserve.
Constructed in 1969 and widened in 1980, the boardwalk is among the most popular features of the city's extensive Baylands trail network. Even so, the boardwalk has seen better days.
In 2014, the city closed off public access to the boardwalk because of concerns about damage and commissioned an assessment of the structure, as well as options for repairing or replacing it. While a portion of the boardwalk reopened to the public in 2015, the weather-beaten structure by and large remains "structurally unsound," according to the recent review, with some portions more worn and torn than others.
Now the city is on its way to replacing the venerable structure, an effort that is projected to cost about $1.5 million and to be completed in 2020.
On Monday night, the City Council is set to take its first major step in this endeavor by approving a $439,992 design contract agreement with the firm Biggs Cardosa Associates.
The agreement calls for the firm to design the new structure, obtain environmental clearance, shepherd the project through various public hearings and ensure that the new boardwalk is fully compatible with its sensitive Baylands habitat.
Though the item is listed on the council's "consent calendar" (which typically means there will be no discussion or debate), the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and staff from the Public Works and Community Services departments have held numerous meetings on the project to consider the best way to address the damage. In March, the commission concurred with the staff recommendation to replace, rather than repair, the existing structure.
The choice was driven largely by the Boardwalk Feasibility Study, which was conducted last year by Biggs Cardosa. The study concluded that the cost of repairing and replacing the boardwalk would be roughly equal, somewhere in the ballpark of $1 million. Rehabilitating the structure, however, would make it difficult to comply with American Disability Act requirements, reduce the city's flexibility to adjust the boardwalk's elevation and width and lower the life expectancy of the new structure.
The study also proposed two different replacement options, without choosing a preference among the two. The first one would effectively replicate the existing structure by installing new longitudinal timber beams, supported by timber posts. The boardwalk would also be expanded in width from 4 to 5 feet and equipped with new steel-screw anchors and supporting beams and planks.
The second alternative would shorter beams running in a transverse alignment on top of a platform of longitudinal stringers. Because it calls for running beams across -- rather than along -- the boardwalk, this option would rely on smaller deck boards that would be easier to transport and construct, according to Biggs Cardosa.
In its March discussion, the Parks and Recreation Commission generally favored the replacement options, citing the longer design life (estimated at 50 to 75 years).
Commissioners Abbey Knopper said the schedule "feels very fast" considering the number of endangers species in the area, the stringent permitting requirements from environmental agencies and restricted construction periods.
Given the challenges, Knopper wondered whether the schedule proposed by staff is too aggressive.
Commission Chair Ed Lauing countered that most residents wouldn't see things that way. It's important, he said, for the city to communicate to residents the reasons for the long construction period.
"A lot of the citizens will say that we're basically building a deck and construction takes five months. And this is going to take two and a half years," Lauing said. "You say it's going way too fast. Most people will say it's going way too slow."