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The New Urbanism and Palo Alto

Original post made by Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Apr 7, 2013

I'm not sure when it happened, but, clearly the City Council and Planning Commission have tried to embrace "The New Urbanism". I actually like the New Urbanism in general, when done right, but, I think recent local developments are getting it wrong.

First of all, the New Urbanism embraces walking and bicycling to nearby businesses and services. While some of the downtown developments haven't been too bad, developments like Alma Plaza and the new JCC very unlikely locations due to the lack of public transportation and enough nearby housing density (including the on-site units) to support on-site businesses or services without most customers driving.

Secondly, one of the goals is reducing traffic volume, and traffic speed. Sometimes through adding a little local congestion. That makes a primarily arterial location such as Alma or San Antonio generally illogical. Reducing traffic speed is certainly laudable, and, one of the ways advocated by the New Urbanism is to use street trees adjacent to the street where slowing is desired. Unfortunately, in many some recent developments and proposals, the trees have been adjacent to the buildings, not the streets.

In order to encourage walking, wider sidewalks (on the other side of the street trees away from the street) are advocated. At least 1.5m/5ft, rather than narrower single-user sidewalks. Unfortunately, this configuration has not generally been followed.

I would like the city council and planning commission to return to basics: street trees adjacent to streets, with wider sidewalks away from the streets. And, higher density projects should be close to public transportation (CalTrain stations, El Camino buses), not in more distant locations where it is certain that most people will drive anyway.

Here is a design reference for New Urbanism from the U.S. Government Department of Transportation (of all places):

Web Link

P.S. There are style problems with the new developments also. The JCC building at the corner at San Antonio and Charleston is a perfect example of Ugly Postmodernism. Arts and Crafts and Art Deco may be passe' stylistically, but, the worst of them usually look better than the best Postmodern. Until someone comes up with a better new style, lets stick to Arts and Crafts and Art Deco, even if that seems derivative and imitative today.

Comments (5)

Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 8, 2013 at 9:17 am

While I agree with walking and biking to local businesses, some of these buildings are just plain ugly, All new construction needs to have setbacks from the sidewalk, leaving enough space for trees. If Alma Plaza had had a decent setback, there would have been no need for the extra traffic light on Alma. As far as the new construction on Alma and Homer, the only way to improve the look of those new buildings is to put the black construction safety netting back up on them.

Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I think Alma Plaza and the JCC buildings are ugly and disappointing. Trees and landscaping can help improve the appearance of stark buildings, but I have been underwhelmed by the landscaping at the JCC. It's just too minimal.
I think that a part of the value of Palo Alto in general, citywide, is owing to the lush landscaping and trees, and these should be included in new projects. This really makes a difference.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Marie is a registered user.

As a senior, who walks in my neighborhood near Loma Verde and Alma frequently, I make it a point to spend as little time as possible walking on Alma. It is very unpleasant due to the high traffic plus speeding bicycles. Although I shopped frequently at Miki's, I never would have walked there. I do walk to midtown. Alma has a purpose - it is a major thoroughfare for Palo Alto. Let's not mess with it any further.

The Alma plaza development is an example of everything that is wrong about PC zoning and New Urbanism. The zoning should never had been changed. I don't know if there could have been a law keeping Albertson's from adding a deed restriction to the sale of the property restricting the size of the grocery store, but if possible there should have been one. A 30,000 sq. ft. grocery and additional small stores with reasonable parking would have been perfect and I expect very profitable, conforming to the existing zoning, as long as rents weren't set as if it could be office or residential. This is the reason for zoning! It is not so developers can buy property zoned retail at that price, get the zoning changed for nothing, and sell it at a huge profit.

If you want to look at a very successful New Urbanism development, look at the SOFA development downtown, which is a wonderful combination of houses, condos parks and retail and offices, that encourages walking and biking. It's scale enhances both the city of Palo Alto and those residents who live there. I would guess that the number of residents exceed the number of new employees, meaning it did not throw us further out of compliance with ABAG. Unlike the ugly poorly constructed and designed 3-story townhomes at Alma plaza which are apparently not selling well, SOFA residences have soared in value and are very much in demand. It can be done right.

The other really successful developments, IMHO, have been buildings with retail on the first floor, offices on the second, and a couple of stories of residential above it, ideally providing enough places to live to offset the people working below. That would make sense. I think there have been a number of these downtown, although probably not in the right residential/office ratio. 50 feet is the right height.

I visited Rome last year. One of the reasons central Rome is so charming and liveable, is that the Romans made a law that no building could be higher than St. Peter's basilica. What a great decision. Compare this to the mediocrity of downtown San Jose.

Alma street is a vital transportation artery in Palo Alto. As long as we have far more people working here than living here, and continue to encourage this pattern by building more and more dense office space, we also have an obligation to provide efficient traffic patterns for people getting to work, which don't require people to sit traffic, producing excess exhaust fumes just outside my home on Alma. I much prefer fast moving traffic. I don't know why people complain about the speed of traffic on Alma as I've lived here for 17 years and am just fine with it. The light at East Meadow always means there is a break in traffic for me to get into my driveway. How many accidents have there been on Alma in the last year? I can't remember any. It isn't how I would design it from scratch today, but it works, as long as we can keep any new urbanists from reducing the lanes to help us slow traffic, it will continue to work. I want traffic smoothing not stopped traffic.

Posted by Yecccchhhh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

The new urbanism is visually and psychologically oppressive. It looks and feels like these ugly, blocky, institutional-looking buildings are bearing down on you as you walk, bikeride, or drive by.

Due to the fact that they abutt the sidewalk, there is no room for landscaping to soften the harshness of the hard, austere buildings. Palo Alto is a suburban city, and people move to the burbs to get away from such things, as they are generally known to be psychologically depressing, especially to children.

Please stop this now, nip it in the bud before our city is permanently ruined. It is becoming less and less desirable to live here.

Or is that the ulterior motive, to make this an urban center by making it uninhabitable???

Posted by A Walker
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm

The new urbanism is now old, it's time to change the comprehensive plan again and allow for a 15ft or 20ft. seback from the street or sidewalk. This experiment of building right up to the street has gone on long enough. As an older walking Palo Alto resident I want these ugly walls to be setback at least 15ft.

When building up to the sidewalk first appeared at the JCC I was told by the Administration that it could not be changed until the comprehensive plan was re-written and that would be in 8 to 10 years, they weren't kidding!!!

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