By Joshua Alvarez | Special to the Almanac
The Menlo Park City Council has approved a plan to install sidewalks along Santa Cruz Avenue between Olive Street at Hillview Middle School and Johnson Street at the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and the beginning of the downtown area.
The council voted unanimously March 10 to install sidewalks and buffered bike lanes on both the north and south sides of Santa Cruz Avenue, which would eliminate parking on both sides. City staff will work on the design and come back to the council to refine components, such as the width of the sidewalk.
The council prefers a design that creates 6-foot wide sidewalks wherever feasible; keeps the 5-foot-wide bike lanes; creates a 2-foot-wide bike lane buffer zone; and conserves heritage trees, hedges, and permanent landscaping improvements.
The council asked the staff to explore maintaining parking on the south side of Santa Cruz Avenue between Fremont Park and Fremont Street or potentially Arbor Road. Church-goers often use the parking spaces to attend services at St. Raymond Catholic Church and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.
The existing sidewalks along the St. Raymond property and on the south side between Johnson Street and Arbor Road would be improved to comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The proposed 5-foot wide sidewalks were considered too narrow by the council and some residents. Hillview students often walk to school in groups and parents would like their kids to be able to walk side by side. Parents also complained that they wouldn't be able to fit their stroller past a pedestrian.
City staff asked the council for guidance on whether added safety for bicyclists should take priority over saving heritage trees and other landscaping. Mayor Catherine Carlton said she considered it a false choice, noting nowhere would the bike lanes be narrower than their current width of 5 feet, which meets minimum safety requirements.
The proposed 2-foot buffer zone for the bike lane should be added wherever feasible but not at the expense of heritage trees, she said. Councilmen Peter Ohtaki and Richard Cline agreed, but councilwoman Kirsten Keith disagreed, though she ultimately relented.
The spirit of the convoluted resolution that passed was to provide as much flexibility as possible to the public works and planning staff in order to maintain character and safety on every block. "There is a uniqueness on every block," said Mr. Cline. "I would like to see some flexibility and some humanitarianism in the staff's decision process. I do think that every crosswalk on Santa Cruz should be lighted, as well."
Councilman Ray Mueller was unable to attend but was recognized in public comments for his efforts in meeting with residents. Mr. Mueller submitted a letter for the record urging passage of the preferred alternative. "It is time to move this project forward, we owe it to our residents and kids," he wrote.
The council also encouraged staff to begin discussions with PG&E about undergrounding utilities. The council would like design plans to assume compatibility with future undergrounding projects. "We don't want to waste money by installing the sidewalk, then having it torn up by PG&E," said Mayor Carlton.
Dozens of residents, including many with property on the affected area of Santa Cruz Avenue, attended the meeting and provided public comment. While the majority of residents agreed that Santa Cruz Avenue should be made safer, particularly for the students of Hillview Middle School, they pointed out that the biggest hazard was the excessive speed of traffic. According to city staff, cars travel at an average speed of 37 mph on Santa Cruz Avenue. The council made note of that and expressed interest in lowering the speed limit.
Many residents proposed that the center turn lane be done away with, but Public Works Director Jesse Quirion cited a federal study that warned that removing the turn lane would significantly increase the chances of accidents. The council agreed the center turn lane was a different matter that was not on the table for discussion.
In 2008, the City Council had voted to make installing sidewalks on Santa Cruz a priority, but the financial crisis effectively placed a moratorium on the project. "I was there in 2008," recalled Mr. Cline. "It was like serving a tour of duty. We had a window to accomplish this then, but then it closed. Moving on this as quickly as possible is critical."