Responding to a surge of concern in the Old Palo Alto and Southgate neighborhoods about potential property seizures, the Palo Alto City Council officially pulled the plug Tuesday on controversial proposals to raise or lower the railroad tracks at the Churchill Avenue crossing.
By a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting and Mayor Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Eric Filseth recusing, the council agreed during a special meeting to narrow down its list of options for separating the city's tracks from local streets from 10 designs to eight. The vote all but ensures that eminent domain will not be used to take private properties as part of a redesign of the Churchill Avenue rail crossing.
The council's vote spells relief for the more than 400 residents in the two neighborhoods near Churchill who signed a petition opposing the use of eminent domain and the dozens who attended Tuesday's meeting. One after another, residents appealed to the council to remove designs that could threaten their homes.
Jason Matlof, one of the leaders of the petition drive, said these options would be "devastating" to the neighborhood. Churchill resident Monica Tan Brown said she lives with an "existential threat" over her head.
"There are people here who talk about slowing down the process who have no skin in the game," Tan Brown said shortly before the vote. "I have skin in the game. I would lose my house, which would have a huge detrimental impact on my family."
The arguments proved convincing. Following the recommendation of its Finance Committee, the council scrapped from consideration the "hybrid" option, which calls for partially elevating the train tracks and partially lowering the road. A recent analysis commissioned by the city confirmed that the hybrid option on Churchill would have a "significant impact" on 14 properties and require eight driveway modifications.
The council also agreed Tuesday to nix the "reverse hybrid" option at Churchill, which called for elevating the road over a partially lowered rail track. That option would have significantly impacted 43 residential properties, with modifications required for an additional three residential driveways.
The council's vote Tuesday effectively killed what up to now have been the most ambitious and expensive alternatives for one of the city's two northernmost grade crossings. It also makes it increasingly likely that the city's preferred solution for Churchill Avenue will be to simply close it to traffic, either fully on a part-time basis, in conjunction with other traffic improvements.
The council has yet to determine what exactly those traffic improvements will look like, but members signaled Tuesday that widening Embarcadero Road will likely not be one of them. With residents around Embarcadero voicing concerns about this idea and preparing their own petition on the matter, the council agreed not to consider this option as part of the grade-separation debate. Instead, members only committed to "study options" for addressing the expected increase in Embarcadero traffic once Churchill is closed.
Barbara Hazlett, who lives on Emerson Street near Embarcadero, said a neighborhood petition opposing a widened Embarcadero has already garnered about 100 signatures. She asked the council to be explicit in eliminating this option from consideration.
The city is now left with eight options for its four rail crossings, which include four designs for the two southernmost crossings at Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. The city is considering hybrid and reverse hybrid options for these two crossings, as well as a tunnel and a viaduct.
On Churchill, the only option still on the table is the closure to traffic, though the council has yet to decide whether to close it to traffic fully or partially. At the Palo Alto Avenue crossing, staff is also considering street closure (in conjunction with traffic improvements elsewhere), as well as an elevated rail alternative (either a hybrid or a viaduct).
Also on the menu is the citywide tunnel, an idea that has been consistently popular but that is seen by most council members as extremely unlikely because of its high cost.
The council was unanimous in eliminating the two Churchill options with eminent domain implications from consideration. Members were split, however, over whether they should extend the same courtesy to the residents around Meadow and Charleston, where a citizen movement similar to Churchill is taking shape.
Councilman Tom DuBois urged his colleagues to eliminate the hybrid options at all rail crossings. He said he was loath to eliminate an option with eminent domain in one part of the city but leaving it in others.
"I think we need to think about a clear process and clear criteria as we go through these options," DuBois said.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou supported the idea, while others argued that scrapping the hybrid option from the two southern crossings is a premature move. City Manager James Keene noted that staff has not yet analyzed the impact of raising or lowering the rail tracks on properties around Charleston and Meadow. Making the decision on these crossings at this time, Keene said, would run counter to the council's established process on what he called "the biggest infrastructure decision that the city has faced in generations."
The council ultimately coalesced around a compromise: directing staff to return to the council in August with an analysis of the Meadow and Charleston crossings. At that time, with data at hand, the council will have a chance to decide whether the "hybrid" and "reverse hybrid" options should remain. Tanaka, as the sole dissenting vote, agreed with his colleagues that the city should not pursue options that require eminent domain. He voted against the motion after the council declined to accept a series of proposals that he offered, including one calling for a financial analysis of tunneling.
Councilman Adrian Fine, who sits on the council's Rail Committee, agreed with his colleagues about scrapping the two Churchill options but warned not to base all of their decisions on eminent domain. In developing a preferred alternative, the council should consider other criteria such as constructability, permitting, safety and funding.
"I'm a little worried that we're using eminent domain criteria to eliminate options that have other attributes that we like," Fine said.