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Palo Alto councilmembers want wider sidewalks

Original post made on Apr 11, 2013

Unpopular developments in Palo Alto come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have one irksome quality in common -- sidewalks that many resident believe are far too narrow.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, April 11, 2013, 8:49 AM

Comments (29)

Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

> The plan seeks to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience
> for El Camino Real by encouraging, among other things, 18-foot
> sidewalks --

This comes to about 36 feet for sidewalks, for both sides of the street. Hard to believe that this much sidewalk is in anyway desireable--at least for the El Camino in Palo Alto. In addition, the maintenance costs for this additional sidewalk area will necessarily increase. There is a lot of tree-root damage on the sidewalks of El Camino, because of the obsession with trees. Increasing the surface space will only increase the space subject to root-damage.

This idea of "le grand boulevard" is not well thought out. It's clear that the so-called "planners" have become detached from the reality, and economics, of modern life.

As for other parts of Palo Alto, what exactly are the Council Members thinking about, in terms of sidewalk size, and location. At the very least, given how small Palo Alto is, Council Members should provide a street inventory, with suggested sidewalk sizes (current and future widths would be nice).

Palo Alto isn't Paris--and we shouldn't get carried away claiming that it is.

Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:05 am

I agree that wider sidewalks are much more welcoming, especially for residential and retail areas. Baby strollers and wheelchairs can be very difficult to use on narrow sidewalks. The recent series of cars jumping the curb in Mountain View and killing pedestrians shows that too narrow sidewalks can be extremely dangerous.

Posted by Justin
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:32 am

Just another example of elected officials not doing there job. This type of building was erected a few years ago at the JCC building on San Antonio and Charleston. Terrible architecture, built right on the street, where were the objections then? Of course once this door was open developers were going to mimic this style and maximize profits. Large projects such as this need more public scrutiny and notice because you cannot count on the council or their appointees to know what the heck they are doing.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:47 am

Hey, I have an idea .... just declare a moratorium on any development that is not approved by over 50% of the citizens of Palo Alto in public referendum - PERIOD. Take the incompetent city process out of the loop except to verify things are up to code and done by the book, then let people vote on it.

Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

The corner of Mikki's was already hit by a car! Check it out when you drive by.
Apparently no one was walking, or we would have heard more about the accident. But had someone been walking, if there was time, they still would have had no where to run to get out of the way.

Posted by Residentialist
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:08 am

CrescentParkAnon has great idea-- just declare a moratorium on any development that is not approved by over 50% of the citizens
We need a moratorium on oversized buildings. Even if they are ugly, when they are smaller they are not so offensive.
It will be interesting to see how the remaining council people vote: Klein, Burt, Shepherd, Kniss, and Berman. We can see how closely they are tied to developers.

Posted by Vote "no"
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:26 am

Widening sidewalks is another of Jaime Rodriguez unnecessary and wasteful ideas. How about spending money to resurface our residential streets and fill the pot holes. No, that would be too easy!!

Meanwhile, widening sidewalks is much more expensive and will require it to be part of the infrastructure bond measure in 2014. The City won't do the easy and cheaper things because they won't be able to ask you for money for them.

If unnecessarily widening the sidewalks is part of the bond measure I'll be voting against it.

Posted by Kim S.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:36 am

I'm glad to know that part of the city council is listening. Wider sidewalks and a set back from the street on all new buildings will be most welcome. I, like many others hate the New Urbanism that's been taking over our city. I also agree with Residentialist, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the council votes.

Posted by RogueTrader
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I heartily endorse wider sidewalks and greater setbacks.

Here is an excerpt from a PA Daily article awhile ago that discussed the mistakes the city had acknowledged with "New Urbanism"

"City planners define new urbanism ... that translates into retail stores that abut sidewalks. No parking in front of stores, please, only in back.

Soon, the city’s planning department adopted some of the principles and began telling developers this is the way we do it now.

Alma Plaza developer John McNellis said his retail stores will be right next to the sidewalk because the city insisted on it.

Curtis Williams, the city’s planning director, admitted the new urbanism principles “were not implemented well at Alma Plaza.”

And Judith Wasserman, a member of the city’s Architectural Review Board, acknowledged the design elements for the JCC, Alma Plaza and Arbor Real “didn’t all work out well.” (end quotes from PA Daily article Aug 2012)

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:15 pm

At last some of the council are waking up to reality. The JCC, Mikis, Elks, Club, etc. etc. are awful. We know it. It's good to know that they are beginning to see sense before any more are approved. Is Edgewood going to be in time to prevent the same happening?

Posted by Long-time Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm

For some reason, I like the new Jewish Community Center building on Charleston. The design is pleasant to me, although it is very big. It seems to fit that location and architecturally, it's interesting.

I've not yet decided about how the shopping center on San Antonio in Mountain View will look. It too, doesn't seem massive, because it looks like storefront parking breaks it up, visually, and there is variety of roof lines, similar to the Jewish CC. The signage is good, even now. Counter Burger is going in soon.

However, Alma Plaza is another story. Whisking by, while driving, I never stopped. I did sometimes use that shopping center when it had a collection of other businesses there, years ago, and I knew what was there. It was easy to see, from the street. But I go to Mollie Stones on California Ave., for groceries. Alma Plaza, was a mistake, unless you can walk to it. It's not a driver's destination for most.

Posted by Frank
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Sidewalks in suburban California are absurdly narrow. You practically need to turn sideways when you pass another person! I understand that land is expensive, but we should be able to afford a little more space for walkers. It really would make everyday life nicer for so many of us who do now walk our streets.

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Article: ... the memo states, noting that critics often erroneously blame the "planned community" zoning process and the principles of New Urbanism for creating buildings that are being characterized as "unfriendly and overwhelming."

This is indicative of how Council is unwilling to face history or reality.
1. Most of these "unfriendly and overwhelming" projects would not have been built without the "planned community" (PC) zoning exception.
2. The "New Urbanism" is repeatedly cited by Staff, Council and developers in justifying these developments. When residents object and cite the purported basic principles of "New Urbanism", such as walkable destinations, that is dismissed by City. That is how walkable destinations such as the Alma Plaza shopping center get effectively replaced by housing, and how high density housing gets built where there are no/few walkable destinations, such as Arbor Real (which is not a PC, but was zoned for high density under "New Urbanism"). For years, residents have repeatedly raised the issue of over-sized projects negative impact on walkability, only to be dismissed by staff and Council. In Palo Alto, the "New Urbanism" means providing excess profits to developers by allowing, even encouraging, them to overbuild their properties. No other aspect of the purported "New Urbanism" principles matters.

Posted by Cheese is Riced
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Hey, how about taking care of the emergent issues first, such as potholed streets, flood zones, crumbling infrastructure.

Also, abandon the new urbanism altogether. It is depressing and cheesy looking. It is obviously very cheap to build, and looks it.

Seems like the city council is just looking for ways to spend the money they claim the city does not have. If you are going to spend money you do not have, take care of the urgent things first

Posted by Good idea
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 7:04 pm

I appreciate that CM Holman and a few of her colleagues have brought this proposal forward. The city will continue to be pushed toward more dense development. That's a given. The State is driving that. They've given ABAG some teeth. Higher density is not going to work if everyone is driving everywhere--and they will continue to drive if the walking environment is uncomfortable. Narrow sidewalks don't leave adequate room for tree canopy which provides the comfort of shade to walkers. Narrow sidewalks make it impossible to walk side-by-side with friends to make a walk enjoyable, or manuever a stroller or wheelchair. They don't leave room for street furniture where someone can rest for a moment. These amenities change the character of a city. They bring LIFE to the street environment. They INVITE people to actively engage with neighbors and the environment, including spending money in retail stores.

We are talking about standards for NEW developments here--not existing neighborhoods. We give so much space to cars--and lip service to walkers and bicyclists. This would really help.

Good idea. This is a good conversation. It's high time. Alma Plaza is a disaster. Let's create complete streets that serve all users.

Posted by long-time resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 11, 2013 at 8:26 pm

How about at least a moratorium on rezoning single-family residential areas to high density unless at least 2/3 of the surrounding neighbors agree?

Posted by Keep Trees
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:15 pm

Must still Keep the Trees!!
Eight feet seems wide enough I'd say.

Posted by Get-Rid-Of-The-Trees
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 6:03 am

Get rid of the trees. They are a massive maintenance headache, and cost far more than they are worth.

Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2013 at 6:59 am

Nothing wrong with wider sidewalk or new urbanism if just planned in the right way.

Also we don't have to allow ugly buildings because that is new urbanism. Wide sidewalks, better use of pedestrian, bike and transit options. Liveable cities, better use of space for housing and better created park space, more neighborhood centers.

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

That Miki's structure must have had a variance from the 12-foot sidewalk ordinance, or maybe we can get it torn down now. My tape measure shows 10 feet 11 inches; being 5.0 ft from gutter curb to walkway edge, 5.0 ft of cement walkway, then just 11 inches to the building. Even generously looking at the recessed areas of the building wall adds only 10 inches.

The walkway narrows to a ridiculous 3' 10" at the Starbucks corner where it jogs to accommodate the 10-inch diameter stoplight pole. The curb at the edge of the 35-mph traffic lane is just 26 inches from the walk. Visibility to the right exiting onto Alma is terrible.

@KP, we'll see how long it takes, if ever, to repair that damage at the south corner of the building.

Posted by Dan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:22 am

Wide sidewalks are a nice idea, but not if the street isn't very wide. Makes for even more dangerous driving. Standard sized sidewalks are fine for most locations.

Also, tell the garbage men not to leave the bins blocking the sidewalk, which they do all the time.

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:35 am

The sidewalks at the Empire State Building are at least 20 feet wide.

Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Problems I see with sidewalks in Palo Alto:

1.) University Avenue cafes use them for seating, often blocking 2/3rds of the sidewalk. How can they get away with that?

2.) Palo Alto residents grow very large bushes that overhang sidewalks making them very difficult to walk on. How can I get them cut back?

Posted by pa-rez
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 12, 2013 at 9:22 pm

It's not only the width of the sidewalks, it's the structures built out TO the sidewalk. This changes our streetscapes for the an indefinite period of time. Look at what the JCC has done to San Antonio and Charleston -- a fortress built out to the max. Look at Charleston and El Camino, the former Rickey's -- built out to the max. Look at Miki's on Alma -- built out to the max. What are our planners thinking? We have to make pedestrian/bike friendly neighborhoods (including shopping and other resources) that do not depend on cars. El Camino should be a grand boulevard -- complete with side walk cafes.

Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 13, 2013 at 8:30 am

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Musical writes:
"That Miki's structure must have had a variance from the 12-foot sidewalk ordinance ... "

Thanks for the measurements, Musical.

Not sure about a 12-foot sidewalk ordinance, but Alma Plaza III (i.e., Alma Plaza under McNellis Partners) was granted a huge variance from the required setback.

Senior Planner Beth Bourne, on 3/8/07, when the PC was first presented to the Planning & Transportation Commission:

"Alma Street does have a special setback of 30 feet and that is for an arterial in the city having a special 30-foot special setback. So any encroachment within that special setback would require a variance." (Commission Minutes, Page 7)

The extent of reduction of the required setback (i.e., from 30 feet down to 11 inches) is a valid overall measure of how far things went wrong on this project.

Posted by Judy
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2013 at 11:38 am

What bothers me about this proposal is that widening sidewalks means taking the necessary land from the roadway. It is a way the Transportation Department can narrow down lanes of traffic and widen the sidewalks. It has nothing to do with setbacks, that's another issue entirely.

The sidewalks they are proposing to widen are hardly used. It's going to end up with traffic jams on narrower streets and wide sidewalks that nobody uses. This is another dumb idea from our Transportation Department.

Posted by Room for trees and sidewalks, please.
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

This is for NEW development. That means they can require a setback that permits room for trees and wider sidewalks if they do it right.

Posted by Kismet
a resident of University South
on Apr 16, 2013 at 1:20 am

Wider sidewalks? How about simply repairing the sidewalks we have now?

Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on May 11, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Among RogueTrade excerpts from an August 2012 PA DAily News article regarding city-acknowledge mistakes with New Urbanism:

"Alma Plaza developer John McNellis said his retail stores will be right next to the sidewalk because the city insisted on it."

Not sure what city insistence Mr. McNellis is referring to, except possibly the final approved building plans well after all the public hearings were completed in 2009.

However from the very first 2006 preliminary review of the Alma Plaza PC (under McNellis & Co. ownership) through the final city approvals in 2009, the applicant team continually pressed, and with success, not only for a variance to the required special 30-foot setback on Alma Street, but to bring the commercial frontage up to the property line. And then for "good measure," they pushed the envelope further, as Musical has documented above, by slipping through plans for encroaching at least an additional foot within the 12-foot mandated "effective" sidewalk (i.e., curb to building face) when the approved PC framework came back to the Planning Commission and then to the Architectural Review Board for Site and Design Review in 2007.

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