An effort to replace the narrow Newell Road Bridge and improve flood protection around the San Francisquito Creek received a long-awaited boost last week when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board unanimously backed the project.
The board's vote in favor of the project sets the stage for the City Council's final approval, potentially allowing construction to begin later this year. Construction is expected to take about a year and a half.
The replacement of the 1911 bridge connecting Palo Alto to East Palo Alto is considered a necessary prerequisite to replacing other flood-prone bridges at the creek, which runs along Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. These include the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which connects Palo Alto and Menlo Park and which was covered by water during the February 1998 flood that caused about $40 million in damages to the three cities.
Since then, the three cities have been working with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, at improving flood control. The agency, which includes council members from the three cities and representatives from the two water districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, scored its first major victory in this effort in 2018, when it had reconstructed levees and widened the channel in the particularly vulnerable area downstream of U.S. Highway 101.
While flood control is one major goal of the project, traffic safety is another, according to city and state officials. The funding for the Newell Road Bridge project is expected to come primarily from the state Department of Transportation, which in 2011 deemed the structure to be "functionally obsolete," making it eligible for grant funding to pay for design and environmental analysis. Once the council approves the Environmental Impact Report, the city will apply for grant funding to pay for construction.
A main reason for the designation is the narrow width of the span. The bridge, which connects the Crescent Park neighborhood in Palo Alto and the Woodland Park neighborhood in East Palo Alto, currently has just 18 feet of width curb-to-curb, barely enough to comfortably accommodate two cars passing each other.
The design that the Architectural Review Board approved Thursday would expand the curb-to-curb width to 28 feet, which will include a 10-foot vehicle lane and a 4-foot bicycle lane in each direction. The vehicle lanes would have "sharrow" markings to encourage shared use between bicyclists and drivers. The new bridge would also have raised sidewalks on each side for pedestrians.
The size of the new bridge has been a point of contention over the course of the design process, with some residents arguing during public hearings and in letters to the city that wider lanes would only encourage more traffic. Peter Forgie, a Palo Alto resident who lives near the bridge, argued in a letter to the city that "a huge bridge that virtually invites increased traffic would only exacerbate the decline of the area."
"Newell would become a freeway and I'm sure most of us nearby would have to move," Forgie wrote in June. "People already drive too fast and don't stop at the intersection of Newell and Edgewood. How would making the road wider improve this? It would effectively constitute an attractive nuisance."
Yang Shen, whose Edgewood Road residence stands next to the project site, said he opposes the project. His attorney, Paul Gumina, wrote to the city that his clients have no objections to the flood-control aspects of the project and acknowledged that removing the bridge over the creek would be beneficial. Shen's only dispute, Gumina wrote, is "whether the bridge should be rebuilt, and whether it is in the best interests of the neighborhood and its residents to permanently close Newell Road to the traffic south of Woodland Avenue."
Gumina also told the board Thursday that his client is afraid that the construction project will stall out, leaving a staging area next to Shen's backyard with no completion date in sight. Shen will be forced to bear "the brunt of the negative impact of this project, which he opposes," Gumina told the board.
Others argued that it's well past time to get the project done. Xenia Hammer told the board that the project has already gone through an "extensive" community input process.
"The project has been scaled down as much as possible in response to the community input," Hammer said.
Hamilton Hitchings, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, also urged the board to approve the design for the new bridge, which he said, "dramatically improves pedestrian and bicycle safety." Hitchings said the 1998 storm caused the flooding of more than 400 homes in his neighborhood, which is near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. The city, he noted, needs to replace the downstream Newell Road Bridge before it can move on to Pope-Chaucer.
The board widely shared this view. Board member Alexander Lew said he owns property near the bridge which experienced flooding in 1998.
"For new owners, you do not understand how traumatic that was," Lew said. "That happened in the middle of the night. My neighbors were fleeing their house in the middle of the night to go to a hotel," Lew said. "It took weeks to clean up the damage from the flood. We've been waiting for over 20 years for this. And we're ready for it. We need it."
His colleagues agreed that it's time to move the project forward. Board member Grace Lee said the new bridge, with its enhanced bike amenities, will be an important element in both cities' efforts to improve the bike network.
"I understand this is part of a gesture at connecting a larger bike network, a larger regional thinking in terms of pedestrian safety, linking East Palo Alto to Palo Alto, considering how all those pieces play together," Lee said.