News

Residents raise issues with Pope-Chaucer bridge project

Two design alternatives, offered by water officials, unpopular with Palo Alto, Menlo Park residents

Despite organizational difficulties and a gym with poor acoustics, Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents clearly voiced their opinion at a community meeting Wednesday night about the potential fate of flood-prone Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge: They're not happy with the options that have been presented to them, and they want more information.

Staff from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and Santa Clara Valley Water District fielded questions from an impassioned crowd that filled the East Palo Alto Academy gym, just blocks from the bridge in question. The meeting was pegged as an opportunity to gather early community input on four possible options for rebuilding the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge but took place before an Environmental Impact Report has been completed, leaving many questions still unanswered.

"How can we make a decision if we don't understand what the facts are?" one woman asked staff, to loud applause from others in the packed gym.

The four options presented for the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge – which of all the bridges crossing the San Francisquito Creek between Palo Alto and Menlo Park allows the least amount of water to flow under – are to leave the existing bridge as is, to take it out but not replace it, to build a raised bridge that allows more water to flow underneath or construct an at-grade bridge with minimal changes to roadway elevations.

Wednesday's meeting focused on the designs and impacts of the latter two options, which also include differing plans for longer term flood protection projects.

The raised-bridge alternative, referred to as the baseline project, would raise the roadway at the bridge and portions of Palo Alto Avenue and Woodland Avenue. The design calls for 4-foot-tall retaining walls at the four corner properties surrounding the bridge. The bridge railing would be a standard height of 3 feet. There would be no floodwalls immediately built – an element of contention with residents – and this design would protect the area from a large, once-in-50-years flood.

The raised bridge would allow more water to flow freely and is more convenient for maintenance, said Kevin Sibley, associate civil engineer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. This construction would be mainly funded by the water district, with most of the money coming from Measure B, a bond voters passed in 2012.

The raised bridge design also lays the groundwork for a potential future 100-year flood protection project, which when built would mean the bridge would be able to withstand a massive flood that happens on average every 100 years. The designs includes three possible placements for underground bypass culverts, which allow water to flow under roads. One alignment would run from Middlefield Road out to the San Francisco Bay, another from the creek under Hamilton Avenue and a third along the creek under Woodland Avenue.

For the 100-year project, the raised bridge design would also add 3- to 6-foot-tall floodwalls, extending up to 600 feet upstream and 100 feet downstream. (The height varies due to road alignment.)

Menlo Park resident Brielle Johnck took the microphone at the meeting to ask water district staff about the first community meeting, held Jan. 15, at which she said Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said, "Floodwalls are a nonstarter."

"We all just sat there and said, 'Well, this is the best piece of news we've gotten,'" Ms. Johnck said, expressing opposition to the construction of floodwalls. "So my question tonight is, is Kirsten on solid ground there? Can we honestly say there will be no floodwalls on either of these alternatives? Because I keep hearing the word 'floodwalls' over and over again."

"Floodwalls are one alternative," said Kevin Murray, project manager at the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority. "At this point in time, your input and Kirsten Keith's input obviously carries a lot of weight, so a future decision will be made."

The second design, for an at-grade bridge, requires no retaining walls at the four corner properties, no floodwalls and minimal changes to road elevations. It would also build a standard 3-foot-tall bridge railing.

The at-grade bridge "maintains the aesthetic of the current bridge without impacting the four corner properties," Mr. Sibley said.

It also can accommodate a potential 100-year-flood-protection project but with potentially higher floodwalls – up to 7 feet – that extend much further upstream – 1,800 feet – and 100 feet downstream.

"There's some serious negative with that floodwall issue, and I can appreciate that," Mr. Sibley conceded but said that the floodwall would not actually be 7 feet tall the whole way but rather taper off as it moves farther away from the bridge.

Mr. Sibley said maintenance is much more difficult with the at-grade bridge versus raised one.

Residents have also taken issue with the potential removal of trees along the bridge, starting a website called "Save the Oaks." The raised-bridge alternative would remove 25 to 35 riparian trees, or trees that grow between land and a creek or river, and up to 31 landscape trees (due to removal of landscape strips at the four corner properties). The at-grade option would remove the same amount of creek-side trees, but no landscape trees.

Many audience members also continually asked staff why no Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has been completed yet. Staff said they're currently working on it, and one is due out this summer.

"I guess I'm just asking for a lot more information than you're giving to us. If the EIR isn't until summer, then maybe we should postpone these discussions until then," one audience member said, to a round of applause.

Comments

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Jan 30, 2014 at 10:30 am

Kiersten Kith appears to be violating FPPC section 18704.2. Her home is within 500ft of the creek and the walls to which she is objecting. She is abusing her power as an elected official for her own personal gain. Why isn't the press investigating this? Those who live upstream from her home should not have the future of their property rights affected by her bias as displayed in this article. Tax dollars should not be spent based on her own personal self gain. It is my understanding that she has been appointed to some sort of leadership position in the creek's JPA. This is wrong. I am livid. How could one argue she does not have a conflict of interest?


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Posted by Jim
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Jan 30, 2014 at 11:58 am

Kith lives within 500 feet of the creek. The walls near the bridge are more than 500 ft away from her home. But one of the issues is how fast the proposed walls will make the water flow in the creek including near her house. Kith should not be making any decisions about the creek period.


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Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 30, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The bridge redo is needed to prevent flooding which has caused considerable property damage in the area in the past and damage to upstream areas. Aesthetics should not be a controlling factor in getting the job done right. Yeah, I don't live near the creek but the safety and integrity of ones home should not depend upon a neighbor's aesthetic objections. Those who object bought their homes near the bridge and creek knowing of the flooding problems and the potential for work to mitigate the problem.

An insurance company should have the right to refuse flood insurance and payments for flood damage if the residents objected to and stopped legitimate flooding remedies. Those folks should also be responsible for paying their neighbors' continued flood insurance and flood damage costs.


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Posted by Save The Oaks
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:13 pm

A no floodwalls "Alternative 3" bridge replacement flood solution is proposed here Web Link


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Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 30, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Neither of the JPA's bridge replacement alternatives will provide enough flood protection to get people out of FEMA insurance. Even removing the bridge entirely won't do that. 100-year protection requires either floodwalls, which would destroy the natural character of 1/2 mile of the creek or solutions such as upstream diversion or conduits to the bay. What the Menlo Park residents were upset about is that they were being asked to provide input on only one small part of what might become a much more environmentally damaging project. Also absent from the discussion at the meeting was any mention of mitigation measures for the environmental damage that would be caused.


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Posted by Save The Oaks
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 30, 2014 at 5:01 pm

There are also some interesting comments of this same story at the Palo Alto Online site. Web Link


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Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Let me start out by saying that I totally agree with those who are opposed to flood walls. Any 100 year flood solution to San Francisquito Creek must be done by using upstream flood retention basins, and/or underground conduits. It is too bad that the folks who showed up at Wednesday's meeting did not exert similar energy back when Stanford requested permission to expand the hospital. As you may recall, they had absolutely no right to carry out this project without Palo Alto's permission. It was, and is, the largest construction project in the area's history. At the hearings, I proposed that, as a condition for allowing the expansion, the city require Stanford to drop its opposition to making its land available for flood retention. At that time, and today, Stanford has categorically rejected the idea that any of its land could be used for that purpose. And there is no other land suitable for that purpose. But the City of Palo Alto did not push for that concession – an opportunity of a lifetime lost forever. So maybe we can now persuade Stanford to change its mind, but I'm not counting on it. As for underground conduits, I am not optimistic, because it is far more costly than flood walls, and the people that would come out of the woodwork opposing it would dwarf the current groundswell against floodwalls. So the bottom line is: we probably will never get 100-year flood protection.
But the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association (CPNA) has always had a more realistic view, to the effect that, at least for the present, we should concentrate on relieving the affected properties from the danger of 1998-level flooding – about a 50-year flood event. True, that will not get everyone out of the flood plain. But it will get quite a few people out, and it will protect everyone from the largest flood event so far in our recorded history. After years of inaction, the responsible officials (i.e., the Joint Powers Authority, etc.) are finally about to embark on what they call an "interim" solution to solve the 1998 flood problem. This is precisely what the CPNA has been pushing for over the past 15 years. Therefore, it is quite alarming and infuriating that folks who previously ignored this issue are suddenly trying to destroy this effort.
One argument posed by these Johnny-come-latelys is that homeowners were on notice that they were in a flood plain, and that therefore they have no ground for seeking flood control measures to protect them from floods, is a rather nasty and unwarranted position. In the first place, as has been pointed out, many people (including myself), were not in the flood plain when they bought their house. But aside from that, the universally accepted public policies of the federal and state government for at least the last 100 years of this nation's history have been to support public works projects to relieve folks from floods. Is it OK to say to the victims of Hurricane Katrina that it was tough luck for them because they knew that they were in a flood plain? Closer to home, is it ok to tell East Palo Alto that it is OK for them to drown when the next flood comes? Even closer to home, the homes in Palo Alto near 101 and Greer Road could easily be inundated with 6 feet of water during even a 50 or 70 year flood event. Lives could be lost as a result of that. And of course hundreds of millions of dollars damage would result from the next flood, which, despite the current drought, is inevitable. In light of this, how could anyone in good conscience try to block efforts to correct this situation just because some trees might have to be cut down?
I was astonished at the misinformed statements made Wednesday night by Menlo Park residents in their weak attempt to justify their positions. In the first place, they collapsed the issues regarding the interim solution with the issues regarding the 100-year solution. The interim solution does not require flood walls, unlike the non-retention-basin, non-underground-conduit, option for 100-year relief. But many of the participants at the meeting seemed to oppose everything based on the opposition to flood walls. Forget about flood walls. They will never happen, and have nothing to do with the solutions for 1998 level floods.
Others argued that we should leave the bridge alone until other projects, such as the 101 bridge renovation, are completed. This is just a delay tactic. There is absolutely no doubt that the Chaucer Avenue Bridge is a critical constriction that causes the most severe flooding problem. There is absolutely no doubt that the bridge must be rebuilt in order to solve 1998-level flooding. (Perhaps some are arguing that the upstream retention basins or underground conduits could solve 1998 level flooding, even if the bridge is left as is. But there is funding in place to renovate the bridge; there is no funding for these theoretical approaches. Plus, as mentioned above, Stanford will not allow retention basins, and the underground conduit idea is years away, if ever).
I was amused by arguments to the effect that we should mandate permeable driveways and parking lots, and that will absorb enough water to prevent floods. A related comment was to the effect that we should build reservoirs for drinking water, and that would solve flooding. It just ain't so. Take a look at the watershed for the creek. Web Link. It is almost entirely in undeveloped land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Imposing regulations regarding permeable surfaces, while desirable for other reasons, have nothing whatsoever to do with the flooding problems of the creek. As for reservoirs, as discussed above, there is no practical way to construct flood retention basins, let alone the much larger basins need for reservoirs.
Some argued that we should just tear down the bridge. I personally would not be bothered if that were done. But politically there is simply no way, no how, that this could be accomplished. It is an absolute nonstarter. Quit wasting our time with that hopeless suggestion.
So we are left with the argument that the new bridge will require cutting down trees. Given that extensive mitigating measures will be taken to compensate this (new trees, measures to help the trout, etc.), I fail to understand how this argument could possible justify blocking the needed fix – rebuild the bridge now.


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Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 31, 2014 at 11:31 am

Norman

You make some very good points that I don't think were brought up in the discussions among the Menlo Park residents concerned about the project. First, I was not aware that the CPNA was willing to accept a 50-year flood alternative - what I heard is that the only acceptable solution is one that removes all residents from FEMA insurance. Second,I completely agree with your assessment of the feasibility of the various alternatives. The one thing missing from the JPA's presentation that I think might tone down some of the angst is any promise from JPA to mitigate environmental damage. That is part of the CEQA process - if there is an unavoidable negative impact, they need to propose mitigation measures. If they must cut down trees, they should replant afterward, or elsewhere along the creek. Also, I think the SCVWD made an error in presenting drawings of a basic, functional bridge that doesn't fit the natural character of the creek. A wider bridge with room for a native plantings to hide the headwall, and a design with more sensitivity to using natural colors might be more acceptable. I realize these are considerations for down the road, but there's no overstating the power of first impressions.


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