Tensions flare over plan to replace bridges over creek and widen its channel | March 17, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 17, 2023

Tensions flare over plan to replace bridges over creek and widen its channel

San Francisquito Creek board members clash as implementation nears

by Gennady Sheyner

After more than two decades of anxiety and frustration, residents around the volatile San Francisquito Creek could finally see improvements next year, when the Newell Road Bridge finally gets replaced, paving the way for other flood-control projects in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

But as the three cities prepare to hit the construction phase, officials are confronting fresh challenges, including unpredictable creek behavior that may require a modification of plans and a funding gap currently estimated at about $17 million, according to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA), a collaboration of cities and water districts that has been working on improving flood control.

On top of that, the cities are still working to overcome the objections of residents, which are delaying the project, including the refusal of three property owners on Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto to allow the creek authority to enter their properties to conduct survey work and identify easement needs.

"We anticipate that some of these properties will negotiate access agreements, and for others we may need to proceed with a legal process to gain access for survey work," a new report from Margaret Bruce, executive director of the creek authority, states.

On March 9, Bruce provided an overview of proposed work on what is known as the "Reach 2" area, which stretches from Newell Road to the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. (The creek authority already completed the "Reach 1" phase, which focused on improvements in the particularly vulnerable area downstream of the U.S. Highway 101.) The suite of projects in Reach 2 includes the replacement of both bridges, widening of the creek channel to boost water capacity and improving flood walls on top of the creek in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.

The creek authority originally estimated the Reach 2 projects would cost $47.9 million, which includes $9 million to replace Newell Bridge, $11.3 million for Pope-Chaucer Bridge, $23.2 million for channel widening and $4.5 million for repairing floodwalls downstream of the Newell Road Bridge, near East Palo Alto. The overall cost, however, has shot up to $65 million and the Newell Road project now has an estimated price tag of $15 million.

The funding challenges are not necessarily insurmountable. The Newell Bridge project is being largely funded by the state Department of Transportation, which had committed to footing 88.5% of the project's original price tag of $9.1 million. Holly Boyd, Palo Alto's assistant Public Works director, said the city is preparing to ask Caltrans for additional funding as well as an updated schedule, given that the state agency had earmarked the spending for fiscal year 2026.

For residents like Dick Held, the improvements can't come soon enough. The Palo Alto resident saw water flow into his yard and seep into his bathroom during the major flood on New Year's Eve. One of his neighbors, a 93-year-old woman who lives alone, remains frightened when she hears about another upcoming storm. Another neighbor spent $4,000 to clean mud out of her home after New Year's Eve.

"We just have reason to question the existence of any — after 25 years — sense of urgency on the part of the government in addressing the issue," Held told the board on March 9.

Eduardo Pelegri-Llopart, a resident of The Willows neighborhood in Menlo Park, shared his sentiment and also chided the creek authority for its "lack of a sense of urgency."

"I suspect part of it is the rotating people involved in this process," Peligri-Llopart said, referring to recent changes in the board's composition.

The meeting turned tense after one of the new members, Rebecca Eisenberg, who is representing the Santa Clara Valley Water District, began to express her reservations about the Newell Bridge design, the creek authority's funding plan and the impacts of the flood-control work on mature trees around the creek. She also said she does not see how the creek widening can be done without invoking eminent domain — notwithstanding assertions from the creek authority that the agency only needs easements from property owners for surveys and construction work.

Eisenberg argued that the proposed Newell Bridge design may not be sufficient to address the flood threats.

"If this bridge is only made to be as wide as the existing Newell Bridge, which is causing flooding, I don't feel confident. ... I think that the board really needs to look at the design because I'm hearing the community has significant objections to this," said Eisenberg, who serves as vice chair of the creek authority board.

But other board members had little appetite for reopening the design process for Newell Bridge, which was a subject of years of public hearings stretching from 2013, when eight alternatives were presented to the community, to 2020, when the Palo Alto council finally approved a design that widens and strengthens the bridge. The 1911 structure has been deemed functionally obsolete by the state Department of Transportation, the project's main funder.

Located in the downstream area of the Reach 2 span, the Newell Road project is the necessary prerequisite to all the other projects further upstream, including channel widening and replacement of the flood-prone Pope-Chaucer Bridge.

Ruben Abrica, an East Palo Alto City Council member who lives close to the Newell Bridge, said he doesn't want to spend any more time on the dais debating the design of the project. Abrica cited the long history of the project, noting that Palo Alto took the extra step of doing a full environmental impact report to address community concerns, even though such an analysis was not required for bridge replacement.

"I think that area has been reviewed very thoroughly," Abrica said. "I saw plenty of graphics. We saw all kinds of designs. We heard from the Crescent Park people, the East Palo Alto people, and I'm satisfied personally that it's probably the best design that can serve both purposes, to replace the old bridge and at the same time help the JPA with the whole flood management."

Board Chair Drew Combs, who serves on the Menlo Park City Council, also took issue with Eisenberg's long sequence of questions and demands for additional information such as maps and copies of environmental impact reports. Combs objected when Eisenberg began to ask staff about the number of mature trees that would need to be removed from the creek area as part of the Reach 2 work.

"This is the problem," Combs said. "When you get to essentially beat up on staff and suggest there is no urgency and then in one minute create this whole new scheme that you think they hadn't taken a note of. That is the problem. I'm not going to sit here, meeting after meeting, and be quiet for it."

Combs also objected later in the meeting when Eisenberg pressed staff for more details about the impact of the work on private properties near the creek, including possible use of eminent domain to acquire properties.

While Eisenberg said she doesn't see how the projects can proceed without use of eminent domain, Boyd assured her that there are no plans to take any properties through eminent domain.

"We just need to enter into agreements so we can go into the property during construction, but the improvements won't be on the property," Boyd said.

After several rounds of questioning, Combs suggested that the board "move on" while Eisenberg asserted that the overview was not the "deep dive" into the project that she had been promised.

"At some point we have to move on. ... I'm not going to be here until 8 p.m., because you don't feel your question was answered," Combs said.

"These are questions from my constituents, and I do not take lightly to being told that my constituents can't have their questions answered," Eisenberg responded. "I'm sorry if this is inconvenient to the chair."

Combs also took issue with comments from some residents who suggested that the creek authority is not acting with a sense of urgency. The government process, he said, requires officials to consider and address the input of many stakeholders, which takes time.

"For every voice that spoke here and said, 'This needs to go more quickly,' I can promise you I can find a voice that says this project shouldn't happen at all," Combs said. "And in some communities and some sectors you can just push them aside, but that's not how this system works."

While the projects have been in the planning phase for years, they took on fresh urgency in recent months thanks to heavy rains that have amplified flooding risks. The New Year's Eve storm resulted in erosion along the creek and forced water to spill over the banks in areas that the creek authority's models did not predict, Bruce said.

To gain a better understanding of the current creek conditions, the creek board approved spending $45,000 on survey work, which will help agencies design future flood-control projects.

"Those changes in creek behavior are going to be an important guide to make sure we're designing the right project," Bruce said.

Even with uncertainties over creek conditions and funding, the creek authority and its partner agencies are preparing to construct all the projects in the Reach 2 area over the next four years. Palo Alto administrators hope to go out to bid on a contract to replace Newell Bridge in early 2024, and construction is expected to take about 18 months. After that, the creek authority will be able to do the rest of the projects, including the Pope-Chaucer replacement, which is slated to begin in 2026 and be completed in 2027.

Abrica said after the presentation that he is optimistic that the projects will finally get built, starting with Newell Bridge. He also stressed the need for the cities to continue to work together on flood control — an issue that is too big for any of them to tackle individually.

"The way our system is set up is — it has a lot of strengths but that's the weakness: Nobody is responsible," Abrica said. "How can you deal with nature that way? You can't. The fact that we formed this agency and have stayed together is really the only way."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 10, 2023 at 11:16 am

Crescent Park Mom is a registered user.

If the concern is that we have to solve bridges downstream first, why can’t we tear down Newell Bridge immediately and start Pope Chaucer rebuild immediately? Deal with the Newell design consensus drama later. Not much traffic goes over it anyway. Pope Chaucer neighbors have needlessly been held hostage for years because of all the players involved in the Newell bridge rebuild. Eliminate the problem.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 10, 2023 at 12:11 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

No more delays. Thousands are at risk on an ongoing basis as this necessary creek improvement project moves at a snail’s pace for so many years!
Aren’t there easements allowing the government to access the creek, creek sides to proceed with this project?
And late objections or reservations a out the creek improvements and bridge replacements from our new representative doesn’t make sense.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 10, 2023 at 12:30 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Pictures that accompany stories about these bridges and the flooding often show a problem that is, arguably, unrelated to storms and property access and bridge design, and funding for the new bridges: garbage. All the crap tossed into these creeks is functioning like a beaver damn! Can't the various authorities at least clear out the debris so that it doesn't exacerbate the predictable problems associated with storms?

Posted by P2L1
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2023 at 1:02 pm

P2L1 is a registered user.

"At some point we have to move on. … I'm not going to be here until 8 p.m. because you don't feel your question was answered, Combs said."

If Creek Authority Board Chair Drew Combs can't be bothered to stay at a public hearing later than 8 pm, to seek answers to fellow Harvard Law grad Rebecca Eisenberg and her constituent's questions, then he should resign his position asap.

Posted by densely
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 10, 2023 at 1:22 pm

densely is a registered user.

Rebecca Eisenberg is a loose cannon. She should be able to do her own homework rather than bog down meetings and harass staff members to get answers to questions whose answers are well documented.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 10, 2023 at 1:23 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

There's a huge difference between the "taking of properties" under eminent domain and forcing property owners to allow surveyors onto the properties to do their work.

Posted by Scottie Zimmerman
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2023 at 1:30 pm

Scottie Zimmerman is a registered user.

My comment comes from way out in left field, I'm sure, and I don't mean to trivialize the very real concerns of people whose homes have been damaged by creeks that jam up and flood during severe rainstorms.

Several months ago, we learned that two beavers had been spotted in Palo Alto--the first to appear in over 100 years. The story came and went. Meanwhile, for years I've been reading and watching reports/documentaries that demonstrate the powerful positive effects beavers have on the environment when they move in and begin to build their dams and manage the flow of water in rivers, streams, and wetlands. The work they do, 24/7 and 365 days a year, creates healthy living spaces for 80% of the wild animals (including fish) in their neighborhood. Equally important, areas where beavers thrive are resistant to the devastation of both drought and wildfires. Beavers conserve water.

I hope our community acts expeditiously to improve the bridges and prevent flood damage to creek-side homes. At the same time, I hope we give proper consideration to the welfare of our two immigrant beavers. Please, let's leave sections of natural creek bed where beavers might live & work. Let's not create another concrete trench as was done to Matadero Creek. I still miss the baby toads that would hatch out of Matadero and migrate to my garden for earwig control.

Posted by Eduardo
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 10, 2023 at 7:33 pm

Eduardo is a registered user.

I'd encourage more Palo Alto residents to reach out to their representative, Rebecca Eisenberg, and convey their perspectives on this project. Eisenberg came across as representing the interests of a small number of residents directly adjacent to the Creek who, as per the Flood Map, would NOT be impacted by floods.

Posted by Screeedek
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 10, 2023 at 11:18 pm

Screeedek is a registered user.

Can a board member be recalled? That might speed the process up a bit.

Posted by Xenia
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 11, 2023 at 7:39 am

Xenia is a registered user.

I attended this meeting via Zoom. And later that night, we had another close call with SF Creek as the water level reached the top of Pope Chaucer Bridge opening. Everyone needs to proceed with urgency to get these projects done. I also want to thank the SF Creek JPA and the City of Palo Alto staff on their presentation and update on the progress of these projects. The City of Palo Alto maintains a project website for the Newell Road Bridge project, and the SF Creek JPA for the Reach 2 project with extensive background information.
Web Link
Web Link

Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 11, 2023 at 4:49 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

Crescent Park mom, it is absolutely unacceptable to remove the Newell bridge without replacing it immediately. Everyone in my neighborhood on the EPA side of the bridge is at risk in the event a major earthquake or widespread fire with only two ways in or out of our neighborhood. We lived with that reality while the Reach 1 work was done and the bridge on West Bayshore was being reconstructed. During that construction period, a tree fell and blocked entry into the neighborhood from University Avenue. The ONLY way in or out for several hours was the Newell Bridge. It is a crucial safety valve for our neighborhood even though most of us use the other two entry and exit points more frequently.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 11, 2023 at 6:44 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I went over to see how the creek was doing. Lots of half pulled out shrubbery in the channel. You all still have to tackle the dam on SU campus - this whole situation needs an overhaul from top to bottom. During the summer someone has to go through with trucks and pull out the shrubbery that is at potential water level. There seems to be a lack of maintenenace on the creek on the SU property which just moves shrubbery down the creek. How to get all of the agencies working on this seems to be a giant problem.

The beavers are on Matadero Creek which has a lower water level overall

Posted by wise
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2023 at 8:17 pm

wise is a registered user.

All of the general residents of Palo Alto should not have to pay for flood control. The people who bought in flood areas should pay for any flood control costs in their area.

Posted by John
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2023 at 6:29 am

John is a registered user.

“She (Eisenberg)also said she does not see how the creek widening can be done without eminent domain — notwithstanding assertions from the creek authority that the agency only needs easements from property owners for surveys and construction work.” What reason does she have to question their statements?

"If this bridge is only made to be as wide as the existing Newell Bridge, which is causing flooding, I don't feel confident.” Is her lack of confidence solely based upon feelings?
Then she started talking about mature trees.

Rebecca Eisenberg has a history of unfounded assumptions, meandering reasoning and when it comes to subjects like law enforcement, uninformed bias. Sounds like she’s not adding value here either, just making baseless assertions, but perhaps Mr. Shenyer left out her well thought out arguments?

Posted by Pete Farmer
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 13, 2023 at 10:58 am

Pete Farmer is a registered user.

Rebecca Eisenberg: "I think that the board really needs to look at the design because I'm hearing the community has significant objections to this."

The mentality that says that EVERY community member's views must be satisfied—even if those views are ill-informed or based solely on conjecture—keeps us from getting needed stuff done. I get tired of calls of restudies of restudies or restudies that each are conducted because someone objected, at late stages, to a duly-considered plan.

There is no change you can make in the community without having someone feel that they're slighted.

These bridge changes are a case in point. Reducing our at-grade railroad crossings is another.

It's time for action.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2023 at 12:27 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

We have bridge designs. Let's get this job done so that homes will no longer be at risk.

We need new bridges ASAP. The current bridge design--worked on over many years with a broad array of constituents, reflects compromises that were made to meet most needs of all parties. Like most things in adult life, this solution imperfect, but it meets the needs of the many. Majority consensus and SAFETY of people and their homes should rule.

We can't always get what we want, but if we try, sometimes we might get what we need.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 16, 2023 at 9:32 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Using eminent domain to take personnel property seems to be favored activity in this state. The Water Board wants to create a new dam on personal property and use eminent domain to take that land. That land is near the Anderson Dam which was emptied due to earhquake zone. The new dam is in that earthquake zone so forget that reason.

HSR is taking family farm land and family busnesses, letting foreign companies shove around cenment, and produce no product that produces a taxable end requirement - or working product.

We are looking at the reduction of taxable, personal property for no good reason. The problem is this case is the portion of the creek and dam on SU property. It is not managed at the top of the chain of events. They need to clean up and widen at the top and clear the vegetation at the top that keeps getting loose and coming down the creek. Why can't anyone talk about that? Is SU untouchable on land issues which do not benefit the overall surrounding communities?

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