Almanac

News - May 19, 2010

Portola Valley: Nights likely to be less dark at Town Center

by Dave Boyce

Real darkness at night is rare in many Silicon Valley communities, but in Portola Valley, it's real, it's consistent and it's no accident. The residential design guidelines call for "a minimal approach ... to outside illumination of any use, site, or structure within the town."

After a discussion of the matter at the May 12 Town Council meeting, these guidelines are almost certain to be stretched in a revision to the lighting plan for the 18-month-old Town Center complex.

The complex, built with residential lighting guidelines in mind, needs more illumination of the unpainted asphalt wheel stops in the parking lot, the low beige walls near the courtyard, the porches and the pathways, as summarized in a report by Public Works Director Howard Young.

Security and safety concerns came from residents, visitors, library employees and town staff, Mr. Young said. Among the nighttime incidents: people have tripped and fallen five times, with minor injuries so far.

Councilwoman Maryann Derwin recalled walking from the Historic Schoolhouse to the community hall one night. "I felt like I may as well be blindfolded," she said.

"Even if you know the trail, you have to go slowly," added Councilwoman Ann Wengert.

Asked to comment, former councilman Richard Merk, who helped design the lighting, said, "It's really easy to carry a flashlight." On the other hand, noting that he himself has tripped over an unpainted wheel stop, he said that public safety is critical.

Town Manager Angie Howard, who has also tripped and fallen in the parking lot, said, "I think it's really essential that we do something and do it very soon." Public safety overrides town rules that keep light levels low, Mr. Young noted in the report.

Mr. Young proposed two plans for the path from the court yard to the Historic Schoolhouse and the side path that goes around the redwood grove near the schoolhouse: increase the number of bollards — short posts with downward-facing lights on them — or install 10-foot-tall light poles. Wattage levels may have to rise as well, he said.

Point-to-point lighting on strategically placed bollards can light paths without illuminating the entire complex, Councilman John Richards said.

"We have to strike a very careful balance," Councilman Ted Driscoll said, "between celebrating the darkness, like we do here in town, and making it safe."

Mr. Young told the council that he will be coming back soon with firmer plans.

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