Cal Ave Fight Shows Some Gifts Are Costly

Grant from VTA may cost Palo Alto millions.


The arguments and anger over the proposed narrowing of California Avenue are growing louder while the project cost to Palo Alto is growing.  The “gift” of $1,175,000 from VTA could cost us nearly $2 million, plus closure of some stores and restaurants and serious losses of shopping vitality.

This street narrowing proposal is becoming an exemplar of how not to respond to offers of grant money.

Improving California Avenue has been discussed since 2005 when $50,000 was appropriated for a design study. That money hasn’t been spent. In 2006 the CIP included $335,000 for improvements including replanting trees, new benches, newsracks and streetlights, and better bike access. Several other improvement projects were discussed in 2009 and 2010 that included .

In December 2010 staff proposed seeking a grant from VTA to improve amenities and the streetscape on California Avenue. Unfortunately a string that VTA tied to the grant was that California Avenue would have to be narrowed to two lanes.

The proposal for better amenities was welcomed by most merchants and property owners but when removing two lanes was revealed as a requirement in order to receive the grant, most businesses and property owners in the California Ave area objected. They pointed out problems with traffic, parking, and deliveries that such a narrowing would cause, but their objections were ignored or rejected.

Staff and councilmembers were eager to get the VTA grant money regardless of objections to narrowing the street. The assumption by staff and council was that Palo Alto would only have to spend $550,000 to get $1,175,000 from VTA. When the grant was approved, Council included widening sidewalks to encourage pedestrians.

Then reality intruded. Re-grading the street and replacing curbs, gutters and drains to accommodate wider sidewalks will cost at least $1,000,000.  Designing the improvements, addressing parking issues, and modifying the parking and traffic circle and mini plaza by CalTrain could easily exceed $150,000 to implement those modifications.

Instead of the VTA grant representing more than two-thirds of total cost, it would pay less than one-third of final costs. This is an excellent example of “free money” being very expensive. Considering our $41 million capital improvement shortfall we don’t need to add another $1.7 million or more to our strained CIP budget.

Impacts on traffic, parking, and business vitality are downplayed. Staff repeatedly says no major developments are planned for California Avenue, but it is the only place identified as Transit Development Area encouraging high-density residential and mixed-use development.

Last week the Architecture Review Board approved a past Council approval to add 50,000 sq. ft. of offices and five housing units at 2650 Birch. New developments on Cambridge continue apace. Final resolution of development at 195 Page Mill is uncertain, but some redevelopment on this vacant site is likely.

Narrowing California Avenue is repeatedly compared with two-lane University Avenue, Castro Street, and Santa Cruz, but those areas differ in several ways. 

None of them are identified as TDAs, or expect significant high density housing added on or near those streets. Another difference is the County Courthouse, just two blocks away, draws people unfamiliar with the area who often drive around looking for the courthouse, adding congestion.

S. Palmer April 12, 2012 at 07:25 PM
This is a very informative article. You explained well about the issues on California Ave and how the City is trying to accomplish this goal whether or not of the support of the merchants and residents. Well done.


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