Palo Alto prepares for massive downtown 'upgrade' | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto prepares for massive downtown 'upgrade'

City's plan to replace utility and water mains, add street improvements to launch this spring

The streets of downtown Palo Alto will transform into a hive of construction activity this spring, when the city launches an ambitious, yearslong plan to replace utility pipes, upgrade traffic equipment, widen sidewalks and expand its fiber-optics network.

The construction frenzy is set to launch in April and May and crawl block-by-block along University Avenue and surrounding streets, where roads will be torn up to accommodate new pipes, cables and equipment relating to traffic signals and utilities. Known as "Upgrade Downtown," it will involve the installation of -- among other things -- 17 traffic poles, 84 directional signs, more than 16,000 linear feet of gas pipes, 47 utility boxes, 30 streetlight pull boxes, and 2,470 linear feet of street-light conduit, according to a report from the Utilities Department.

Sidewalks will be widened on the south side of University Avenue and at University's intersections with Tasso and Kipling, creating shorter pedestrian crossings and making room for 12 new bike racks.

And about 2,750 linear feet of fiber cables will be installed within the same trenches as the gas and water pipe lines, with the goal of allowing more residents and businesses to tap into the city's underground fiber-optic network.

Years in planning, the project will be among Palo Alto's most complex, visible and potentially disruptive projects of the year -- also, among the most expensive.

While city engineers had estimated the project to cost about $12.4 million, the Bay Area's sizzling construction climate has inflated the price tag by close to $4 million, according to staff. On Monday, the city is scheduled to approve a $16.3 million contract with the firm Ranger Pipelines, Inc., for the pipe upgrades.

To accommodate the swelling price tag, the city plans to withdraw funds from various reserves in its gas, water and fiber utilities (which are generally thought of as rainy-day funds) and to take about $1 million from programs intended for street maintenance and sidewalk repairs.

The lion's share of the utility work will take place along University, between University Circle and Webster Street, and other Downtown North neighborhood streets. According to staff, that's the area where gas and water mains were identified as most in need of replacement, based on pipe material and age. While the gas mains are the highest priority, utilities staff also identified the replacement of water mains as an upcoming project. To avoid digging twice, staff agreed to combine the two.

Dean Batchelor, chief operating officer at City of Palo Alto Utilities, said both the gas and water lines were near the end of their respective life cycles. He pointed to recent water leaks on University Avenue as a sign that it's time to act.

Then, following the same logic, Utilities Department officials agreed to add fiber to the mix. Citing the City Council's recent advocacy for a "dig once" strategy for installing telecommunication infrastructure and its general support for expanding the city's dark-fiber-optic network, officials plan to install 2,750 linear feet of conduit in the same trenches that will contain the new gas and water pipes.

"One of the thoughts was, since we really don't have any fiber conduit going down University Avenue and since we're going to tear up 26 blocks, it made sense to go ahead and put in 2-inch fiber conduits," Batchelor said.

The installation of fiber cables is expected to improve the reliability of the city's fiber-optic network, which is currently congested because of heavy demand, said David Yuan, strategic business manager at Utilities. It will not, however, provide the type of "fiber-to-the-node" or "fiber-to-the-premise" service that council members have been pursuing, on and off, for nearly two decades.

Under the fiber-to-the-premise model, the municipal dark fiber network would be expanded throughout the city, allowing most residences and businesses to opt in and get ultra-high-speed broadband. The more cautious and incremental "fiber-to-the-node" model would establish nodes at various points in the city and then allow neighborhoods to tap into the network as funding for "last-mile" connections becomes available..

Yuan said that the while the newly installed fiber may enable such services in the future, the city will first have to complete a comprehensive design for a citywide network.

The biggest and most expensive component of the downtown project is the replacement of water and gas distribution pipes with high-density and medium-density polyethylene, respectively. The replacement, according to staff, will "eliminate leaks in the project area through the fusion of joints, increase the reliability and protection of the water and gas distribution systems, increase required flow and pressure for fire protection, make the system more resilient against corrosion and earth movement, and reduce energy costs."

Batchelor said the work along and around University Avenue alone is expected to take about 12 months. One by one, each block of University will be closed off to traffic, though city officials say pedestrians will be able to get to downtown businesses unimpeded.

The city will then move on to other parts of downtown, with the goal of completing all the work by 2021. Once the pipes are in place, work will begin on street improvements, including installation of federal Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps and sidewalk expansions.

According to the Utilities Department's schedule, street-improvement work will begin in 2019 on Hawthorne Avenue (between Emerson Street and Middlefield Road), on Everett Avenue (between Middlefield and Alma Street) and on Emerson Street (between Channing and Forest avenues). In 2020, the city plans to move on to Emerson (between Forest and Palo Alto avenues) and Webster Street (between Lytton and Hawthorne avenues).

More information about Upgrade Downtown is available here.


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46 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 18, 2018 at 10:28 am

Annette is a registered user.

Reads to me like a some good and necessary improvements. Since disruption is inevitable (not potential) would it be too much to ask that the City hold back on approving other downtown projects so that we don't have an overload of simultaneous disruption?

39 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2018 at 10:35 am

Following on from Annette's very sensible comment above, I would think it would make sense if the CC, or PAPD, or whoever, would inform us by way of social media, PA Weekly, or whatever, which streets will be impacted on which days.

There is nothing worse than getting stuck in traffic or finding that somewhere you want to go is closed off when you get near, when you could easily have planned to do that another day or take another route if you had known in advance.

Any type of disruptions to traffic in particular, are now fairly easy to alert by technology. If we can plan accordingly it will make our lives a little less stressful and make it easier for those who didn't know and got stuck.

A Palo Alto traffic alert on our phones would be an easy type of solution as would something on PAPD twitter feeds. Thank you.

12 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 10:49 am

I hope they are incorporating the latest in solar features in the process.

Would be nice if University Ave were to be paved (with all this tear up) with the solar paving that powers things, or the new plastic paving that lasts longer and takes plastic waste out of the oceans, etc.

17 people like this
Posted by Marj
a resident of University South
on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:25 am

I hope that the majority of work would be done at night after 9:00pm. This would help with the traffic congestion..

12 people like this
Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:27 am

cvvhrn is a registered user.

As If I needed another reason to avoid downtown. It does sound like these are much needed improvements to infrastructure and I'm glad they are combining projects rather than rip up the streets twice.

3 people like this
Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:28 am

cvvhrn is a registered user.


Its a good idea but I doubt it. They are already 4 million above projections and the cost of working at night would add alot IMHO. I think this is going to be a daytime operation and University is going to be an ugly place for traffic for a year (if we are lucky)

16 people like this
Posted by Still more signs
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:36 am

> 84 directional signs
We don't have enough sign pollution, sure, add more.
And spend a lot on them. Former traffic manager owns a sign company, right?

29 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Why not go all the way and make University a pedestrian mall?
And make Hamilton and Lytton one way streets?
Many European cities have car free zones...

4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 18, 2018 at 5:07 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

That's great news...and I really mean it... that there will finally be something done about our infrastructure, even though downtown is always the first area served. SPA gets the hind tit most of the time. Thankfully, all the construction won't affect me at all because I never drive downtown anymore since Avenidas moved to Cubberley, and is, essentially, in my own backyard. And, there are enough restaurants, coffee shops, and salons, to fill my needs, near me, in my end of town, at Midtown or CalAve, without having to drive down to University Ave. Wake me up and let me know when it's all over. I have many fond memories of University Ave, most of them going back to our earlier years of living here, the 60's-70's, and maybe some leakage into the 80's-90's. After that the party was over.

Your idea is not that far fetched. I've traveled in Europe. I can see that as a real possibility, although I see a problem with it. Where will the cars, coming down to the area, park? People will still have to drive down and park near the pedestrian mall. Oh, wait, I forgot that we will all be riding bicycles and there will be many stands available to park them. Staff and CC goals...a car free town. Under-parked housing projects, multiple bike boulevards, all for the purpose of choking the life out of car drivers. Brilliant idea! I want to hear from all those brilliant people...staff, planners, CC, et you own a car, do you need it, why do you need it, and when do plan to give it up and go carless? Wow, the silence is deafening! Brilliant ideas for us folks, but not so great for them.

8 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 5:38 pm

@Gale Johnson - Europeans who don't want to walk or bike will take public transit to get downtown. Driving is a last resort.

8 people like this
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 18, 2018 at 6:37 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

I vote for University Ave pedestrian only too. The parking garages are off University and there isn't that much parking anyway. The shuttle could be used for more remote parking, especially if garages charge for parking and underwrite the shuttle. The Art Fair showed pedestrian only does work. While they are at it, pedestrian only California Ave would be good, too.

13 people like this
Posted by broken
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2018 at 9:06 pm

@Still more signs is exactly right. The City is
redoing the Downtown but no mention of a design
consultant or landscape architect being part of
this project. So the City is turning over the Downtown streetscapes to transportation planners whose goal and track record has been to cover the city with signs and paint,bollards,etc making the streets ugly, uglier,ugliest and unsafe at the same time. Now let's do the Downtown. Let's give some big contracts out. The Palo Alto City government is fundamentally broken.

7 people like this
Posted by Residential
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:19 pm

I wonder why they don't dig a utility tunnel under the street. They can then install pipes and electrical wires inside the tunnel and accessible for repairs and future upgrades. Digging and then covering it with mud is so inefficient and disruptive.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 19, 2018 at 7:03 am

Why isn't Market Street in San Francisco pedestrian only? Our University Avenue is a completely different scale, but the pedestrian-only justifications seem to revolve around traffic and density and safety. What arguments apply to University that wouldn't apply to Market Street? Isn't driving a last resort in either case? I'd want to see Mountain View's Castro or Menlo's Santa Cruz go pedestrian-only before considering that for University. One or two weekends per year have proven popular, but permanent closures? I'll be satisfied with the currently proposed downtown upgrade project, but wouldn't count on budget or schedule being anywhere near realistic.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 20, 2018 at 9:39 am

You already have University Ave closures several times a year between the art / wine / music festivals.

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