Plans finally emerge for replacing two north Palo Alto bridges

To boost flood control, city eyes long-awaited reconstruction of Pope-Chaucer and Newell Road bridges

Replacement of the Pope-Chaucer and Newell Road bridges has been proposed, along with the widening of San Francisquito Creek in five locations to enable more water to flow through the channel, preventing future flooding during major storms. Work on a downstream section has already been completed. Graphic by Kristin Brown/map courtesy Google Maps.

More than 20 years after a massive storm swelled the San Francisquito Creek until it rose higher than the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, sending water onto nearby streets and into homes, two plans aimed at keeping the creek within its banks are finally emerging.

The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the regional agency that recently completed an equally ambitious flood-control project in the downstream area of the creek, has just released a draft environmental-impact report (DEIR) for improving flood control in the upstream area near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which connects Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

At the same time, Palo Alto is moving ahead with its own plan to replace the Newell Road Bridge, a narrow structure downstream from the Pope-Chaucer that has been designated as "obsolete" by Caltrans and that the city has been looking at replacing for more than five years. The environmental analysis for the Newell bridge plan will be released by the city in the coming months, after which the project would be vetted by the Planning and Transportation Commission and ultimately the City Council.

While the projects both seek to address the need to improve flood control around the volatile creek, the two have evoked very different reactions from the public: A proposal to replace the Newell Road structure with a larger span has been subject to intense criticism from some nearby residents, but the creek authority's proposal to build a new Pope-Chaucer Bridge is winning support from neighbors.

Norm Beamer, president of Palo Alto's Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, said he and his neighbors support the reconstruction of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which would be undertaken in conjunction with the widening of the channel at five locations. Concrete structures along the creek would give way to natural habitats, increasing the flow capacity of the creek. This "preferred alternative" presented in the impact report represents "the most bang for the buck," Beamer said.

"It's the least disruptive and it will solve the flooding problem," Beamer said. "Maybe not the 100-year-flood (which has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year) but the 1998-level flood, which is the largest we've ever had."

For some residents, who still remember the massive damage caused by the February 1998 flood, the preferred alternative is particularly significant for what it does not include: namely, floodwalls. The DEIR does consider an alternative that combines the replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge with the construction of floodwalls at the top of the creek's banks. The preferred alternative, however, eschews floodwalls in favor of widening the creek channel.

An unpopular option, floodwalls "would be very disruptive to property owners," Beamer said.

"I think a lot of people would rise up and be very opposed to it," Beamer said. "That would either delay or completely scotch the whole effort."

Trish Mulvey, a resident of Palo Alto's Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood who has been following the creek authority's flood-control projects since the agency's inception (she was part of a citizens group that successfully lobbied for the creation of the JPA), also lauded the agency for choosing channel widening over floodwalls, which would have a greater environmental impact. The new environmental analysis notes that the floodwall alternative may have "substantial impacts on aesthetics and trees on top of bank."

In addition to the two alternatives in the new report that call for replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, the document also makes a case for a third alternative: building detention basins in the upstream area, on land owned by Stanford University. The university is already looking at modifying Searsville Dam by creating an opening at the base of the dam, excavating sediment in the reservoir behind the dam and creating a channel to upstream areas.

"Very high flows that exceed the capacity of the new opening would back up behind the dam, thereby providing temporary floodwater detention," the DEIR states.

According to the document, Stanford's proposed project, when combined with the reconstruction of Pope-Chaucer Bridge, would accommodate a 100-year flood. In short, it would give residents of Crescent Park, Duveneck/St. Francis and the Willows in Menlo Park the flood protection they've long awaited. If Stanford does not move ahead with the Searsville project, the DEIR proposes creation of two detention basins along the creek, between the dam and Interstate Highway 280.

Mulvey, who served on a community-stakeholder group that Stanford had put together to provide comments on Searsville Dam alternatives, said she believes the upstream detention basins should be pursued in conjunction with the replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, rather than as an alternative that could replace the bridge project. And while the decision ultimately rests with Stanford, Mulvey said she is optimistic that the project will move ahead.

There is, however, one potential obstacle standing in its way: Palo Alto's plan for the Newell Road Bridge, which has been moving through various phases of analysis for more than six years. Mulvey said it will be critical that the Newell Road Bridge be replaced before work on Pope-Chaucer moves ahead. Allowing more water to pass through Pope-Chaucer would cause substantially more flooding at Newell if that bridge isn't fixed by then, she said.

"The projects have to be sequenced so they can work together smoothly," Mulvey said.

To date, the city's path to replace the Newell Road Bridge has been anything but smooth. During public hearings in 2013 and 2014, residents criticized the plan and expressed concerns that a larger bridge, coupled with a proposed bridge realignment, would bring more traffic into their neighborhoods. Some argued that the city should remove the bridge altogether or create a smaller span only for bicyclists and pedestrians.

A new report from the city's Public Works Department suggests that staff is backing away from some of its most ambitious proposals for the Newell Road Bridge, which was constructed in 1911. Its environmental analysis is considering five alternatives: a one-lane bridge with two-way traffic controlled by a signal; three options for a two-lane bridge (with different plans for realigning Newell Road); and the "no build" alternative. The preferred alternative, according to staff, calls for a two-lane bridge on the existing alignment of Newell Road. As such, it obviates the need to raise the roadway.

Both bridge projects still have to overcome numerous hurdles, including getting the needed funding. The creek authority is banking on various grants to implement its preferred alternative for the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which creek authority Executive Director Len Materman said is expected to cost about $35 million. This includes $8 million from the Federal Emergency and Management Agency. The city, for its part, plans to seek a Caltrans Highway Bridge Program grant to cover the construction costs for the Newell Road Bridge once its environmental analysis is completed.

The release of the JPA report, which paves the way for the bridge reconstruction, is a significant milestone in the creek authority's long journey toward improving flood protection in the upstream area. The agency hopes to launch construction in 2020, though Materman acknowledged in his executive report that "because of the complexity of this project, beginning construction in 2021 may be more realistic."

Related content:

• Crescent Park neighborhood resident Rom Rindfleisch discusses the efforts to prevent San Francisquito Creek from flooding on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on, or our podcast page at

Officials unveil first phase of San Francisquito Creek flood protection

Stanford removes dam, giving endangered fish room to roam


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16 people like this
Posted by So....
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2019 at 10:04 am

see you in 2025 to talk about it more? Adorable.
You keep being you Palo Alto.

13 people like this
Posted by Protect people
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2019 at 11:06 am

This is a golden opportunity to have a design contest.

14 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2019 at 11:16 am

Oh by, a sarcasm contest!

And not a century too soon.

10 people like this
Posted by Newell Bridge
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 1, 2019 at 11:56 am

Newell Bridge is a registered user.

Since I don't live in the neighborhood I have no knowledge of traffic patterns in that area. For local residents, what is the rationale for building a new Newell Bridge? Given the expense of rebuilding the Chaucer Bridge, why not remove the Newell Bridge and either not replace it at all or build a bike/pedestrian only bridge?

7 people like this
Posted by LKA
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2019 at 12:13 pm

LKA is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

13 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on May 1, 2019 at 12:32 pm

The Newell bridge is narrow & very dangerous. Try making a left turn from the bridge to get to University & 101. The many speeders on Woodland in both directions create a big hazard. It's also tight when 2 cars in opposite directions are on the bridge at the same time.
Please fix it without spending $$$$$$ on "consulting" fees.

3 people like this
Posted by M&M
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Newell Bridge isn't dangerous. It forces people to go slow on approach, over the bridge and while leaving the bridge. It's a crucial component of transportation in the area, so it's vital that it's replaced with the best design possible.

[Portion removed.]

7 people like this
Posted by Newell Bridge
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 1, 2019 at 1:36 pm

Newell Bridge is a registered user.

"It's a crucial component of transportation in the area"

If a bridge is necessary in that location, perhaps it makes more sense for East Palo Alto to fund its replacement. Given its location it appears (from the map) to exist to primarily serve a small pocket of residents who live between Woodland and Bayshore.

5 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on May 1, 2019 at 1:38 pm

@ M&M - You think the Newell bridge isn't dangerous? I do go very slowly but th Woodland Ave drivers don't, which puts me in danger. Widen the bridge. It's an important part of the access route to 101 for residents of Crescent Park, Duveneck, &
St. Francis areas.

Like this comment
Posted by M&M
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2019 at 1:46 pm

No, Chip, it's not dangerous. It can also be redesigned to optimize safety. Continuing to pretend that only Woodland drivers cause you problems is your myth. I'm looking forward to a newly designed bridge.

2 people like this
Posted by M&M
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2019 at 1:57 pm

Newell Bridge - I suggest you read the article. But please don't stop there. If you want to discuss the creek bridges you should get up to date with relevant info so that you're not wasting your time commenting without adequate facts.

10 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2019 at 2:27 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

The Newell bridge is a necessary transportation outlet for our neighborhood and is also used by many Palo Altans. An improved Newell bridge will be a benefit for flood control for both sides of the creek and will also be safer for all who depend upon it.

4 people like this
Posted by Newell Bridge
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 1, 2019 at 3:26 pm

Newell Bridge is a registered user.

I am interested to learn that so many people use Newell Bridge and Woodland as the most convenient rat run to connect to and from 101.

10 people like this
Posted by KK
a resident of Stanford
on May 1, 2019 at 9:42 pm

It takes 20 years to figure out a plan... maybe another 10+ years to really fix it? It takes less than 1 year in other countries to fix two bridges.

21 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 2, 2019 at 12:30 am

Crescent Park Mom is a registered user.

Newell Rd is the Palo Alto Safe Routes to School route our kids use to bike to school (Duveneck, Greene (aka Jordan), Paly, Casti, St Elizabeth Seton). Widening the bridge will allow cars to drive faster over the bridge and continue that speed or faster down Newell. It will also encourage significantly MORE cars to drive down Newell to get to/from the freeway to downtown and El Camino Real. Cars regularly drive down Newell at dangerous speeds now and many run the stop signs. This get worse every month. (Grab a lawn chair and sit at Newell/Edgewood or Newell/Hamilton and see for yourself!) You see the same type of driving behavior down Hamilton and Edgewood as well. Increasing the bridge width, would be a mistake and will change our neighborhood.

9 people like this
Posted by A resident
a resident of Mayfield
on May 2, 2019 at 12:59 pm

Removing the Newell Bridge is the dream of the Crescent Park residents; break the connection to EPA. If you live near the Newell Bridge in the tony down of Palo Alto, many of the residents of EPA park their cars for blocks. If I were a resident of Crescent Park, I guess I wouldn 't be happy if every night both sides of the street in front of my house were packed with cars.

11 people like this
Posted by Newell Bridge Facts
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 2, 2019 at 4:33 pm

Newell Bridge Facts is a registered user.

The Newell bridge is half owned by Palo Alto and half by East Palo Alto so neither can decide what to do with it unilaterally. Thus, the option to completely remove the bridge is not something East Palo Alto will agree to. Caltrains will pay to upgrade the bridge since it is 100 years old and not close to present day safety standards. The Chaucer Street bridge cannot be replaced until the Newell Street bridge is replaced. The Stanford upstream retention is to small to prevent further flooding, although a good add-on to the replacement of these two bridges. Without the replacement of these two bridges and the increase in global warming, it is likely that Palo Alto will eventually experience another flood similar to the 1998 flood, which seriously damaged 400 homes in Cresent, Duveneck & St. Francis neighborhoods. There are however, different options and configurations for the bridge that can at least partially address concerns about the speed and volume of traffic coming into Palo Alto.

3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2019 at 10:14 pm

Posted by Crescent Park Mom, a resident of Crescent Park

>> Cars regularly drive down Newell at dangerous speeds now and many run the stop signs. This get worse every month. (Grab a lawn chair and sit at Newell/Edgewood or Newell/Hamilton and see for yourself!) You see the same type of driving behavior down Hamilton and Edgewood as well.

It is everywhere, all over the city. Everywhere, that is, except where (rush hour) traffic jams have slowed traffic down to jogging speed (6 MPH).

How many traffic enforcement police are there now? There just isn't enough enforcement to concern the average reckless driver.

4 people like this
Posted by Traffic Enforcement Officers
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 10:32 am

There are now 3 traffic enforcement officers (up from zero) thanks to the new police chief, who has made traffic enforcement a priority

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