City plans renovation of avenue

For more than two years, Palo Alto has been planning the California Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project that will transform the section of California Avenue between El Camino Real and the Park Boulevard Plaza into a more pedestrian and transportation-friendly area. Some of the changes involved include new street furniture, street touch-ups and separate turn lanes at all-way stop intersections.

Written by: Emily Yao

For more than two years, Palo Alto has been planning the California Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project that will transform the section of California Avenue between El Camino Real and the Park Boulevard Plaza into a more pedestrian and transportation-friendly area. Some of the changes involved include new street furniture, street touch-ups and separate turn lanes at all-way stop intersections.

According to the Palo Alto City Council website, the future of California Avenue is one of the top three priorities the council will focus on in 2013. The ambitious project was unanimously approved by the City Council approximately two year ago on Feb. 14. “The California Avenue Streetscape project was formed when City Council staff identified specific details like streetscape improvements and lane reductions,” Palo Alto City Council member Gail Price said. “The detailed concept was submitted as a grant application to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.”

One of the most debated proposals in the project has been the decision to switch from a four-lane street to a two-lane street. The idea has been faced with lawsuits from complaining merchants  and business owners, including those of Mollie Stone’s supermarket, Antonio’s Nuthouse, the California Paint Company and Keeble & Shuchat Photography. Terry Shuchat, the owner of Keeble & Shuchat Photography on California Avenue, believes the lane change would actually create more traffic problems. “I feel traffic movement is very good on the street now,” Shuchat said. “There’s no reason to make it two lanes.” Though he opposes the lane reduction, Shuchat supports many of the other components of the Streetscape Project.

Those who support the change argue that the two-lane street include will improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as provide additional on-street parking. “We also thought this type of project would be a good contender for securing a grant,” Price said. “We look forward to these improvements.”

The controversy has simmered down with a few additional changes, including wider sidewalks and an additional plaza. A multi-functional plaza between Birch and Ash streets will be able to convert from a regular street to a location for public events, like the farmer’s market. A quieter plaza will be located at Park Boulevard near the  Caltrain Station and will feature tables, benches and a sculpture. “The current plaza will be widened and enhanced,” project manager Shahla Yazdy said. “We’re adding trees and landscaping, and the fountain will be replaced.”

Recently, the council also unanimously approved of a plan that would delegate $1.2 million for the installion of at least 37 streetlights from El Camino Real to Caltrain Station. “The lights, along with other changes, will create a safer and more aesthetic street for the business district,” Yazdy said.

In total, the cost of the project, including the costs for lights, will be over $4 million. The project has already received $1.8 million in grant money, $1.1 million of which was provided by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), partially paid for by VTA’s car-registration fees. With the grants it currently has, the city will continue to progress with the plan; construction will begin this fall with the ultimate goal of dubbing California Avenue the “second downtown” in Palo Alto.

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