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Council backs big El Camino Real plans

This article was originally published on September 26, 2014 by the Mountain View Voice.

City plans for buffered bike lanes, new bus stations and six-story buildings

By Daniel DeBolt

In a study session Tuesday, council members began finalizing the precise plan that is to guide future development of El Camino Real. Members showed support in a series of straw votes for bike lanes on key portions of El Camino Real and six-story buildings in “village centers” at major intersections, among other things.

With Mayor Chris Clark and vice mayor John McAlister having to recuse themselves because they own property on or near El Camino Real, the remaining five members shaped the draft “precise plan” for the El Camino Real of the future, which is set to be approved by the end of the year. It focuses development at “village centers” where ground floor commercial space would go under housing or offices.

Planners introduced a new feature of the draft plan: buffered bike lanes along El Camino, including a stretch of six-foot wide bike lanes — with a two to three foot buffer — from Calderon and Phyllis Avenue all the way to the Sunnyvale border. With no side streets connecting through in that area, planners said the buffered lanes would be key to allowing safer riding on that portion of the El Camino Real corridor. At Calderon Avenue, the buffered bike lanes would connect to a bike boulevard along on Church and Latham streets, which runs parallel to El Camino Real from Calderon Avenue to San Antonio shopping center, where bike commuters find Palo Alto’s own El Camino Real-adjacent bike boulevards not too far away.

When the council was asked whether they’d support even more bike lanes on El Camino Real as space became available during redevelopment (council members say too much of the street is now used for parking), the only member vocally opposed was Jac Siegel, who says El Camino Real is too dangerous for bikes. John Inks also voted no, saying the draft plan had specified sufficient bike lanes.

“I am against bicycles on El Camino — I don’t think that should be major path,” Siegel said. “I don’t know where we’d get space to make improvements like protected lanes all the way through.”

Several resident praised the bike lanes in the plan, along with representatives from the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition and the Greenbelt Alliance. “We like the design guidelines,” said Colin Haney of the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition. “It shows that we’re really pushing for bike lanes that will accommodate all users.”

The plan describes the way a bike boulevard on Church and Latham could look, with “in-street bicycle stencils, vehicle traffic diverters, in-street planters or bollards, meanders, and other techniques to create a bicycle priority street.”

The plan also specifies green bike lanes, saying “green colorized pavement” should be used for bike lanes along El Camino Real, and may be used for turn lane boxes at intersections and other “high conflict areas.”

Resident Jack Miller called for stronger language in the plan to make sure that the bike infrastructure aren’t just “amenities allowed” but are “amenities to be installed.”

All five council members passed on implementing “mode shift” car trip reduction goals from developers, such as what is in the works for the North Bayshore area, though car trips will have to be monitored and reported and there are requirements for membership on a transportation management association.

“We should definitely have a mode shift goal,” said resident Jarrett Mullen. “The EPC (environmental planning commission) discussed at length that cumulative impact and actually wanted to do something about it.”

Council members struggled with a clear community desire to have affordable housing in the plan, but couldn’t find a way to require it from developers, even though it is listed as a top community benefit that would be asked of developers who want build to maximum densities, along with bike and pedestrian amenities, parks and public parking facilities.

A group of residents, along with the SVBC and the Greenbelt Alliance, supported having developers build 25 percent of housing projects on EL Camino Real as affordable housing. The city’s inclusionary zoning requires 10 percent of rental and ownership housing be below market rate unless in-lieu fees are paid, but court decisions have made that requirement unenforceable for the rental housing that is favored by developers on El Camino Real.

“If we put a 25 percent requirement there, nobody is going to build it,” said council member Jac Siegel.

Planning director Randy Tsuda said that the plan’s environmental report projects that 800 units of housing will be built on El Camino Real

“At 10 percent, that’s 80 units,” Tsuda said. “Look at that over the long term of the precise plan, 10 percent in my view is not that big a number. I don’t think you should feel that 10 percent is unattainable.”

Buses get attention

Bus station improvements are key feature of the plan, with bus bulb-outs proposed, allowing bus stops to protrude a short distance into the street to allow buses to pick up riders without having to pull over. There would be benches under roofs to protect riders from the weather, Clipper card stations that allow fares to be paid before boarding, and electronic signs with real time bus information.

Resident and transit planner Cliff Chambers called on the council to make sure that bike lanes are separated from the bulb-outs, creating a sort of bus island in the street so bicycles don’t have to contend with buses and traffic. Planner Eric Andersen said that would be allowed by the plan, but is not specified in it.

“What the EIR says is over the next 20 years, El Camino is going to get really congested, that’s the way it is,” said council member Ronit Bryant. “If we don’t want to sit in congestion, we can use the train or we can use transit.”

Council member Margaret Abe-Koga advocated for dedicated bus lanes to avoid the day when buses will be stuck in traffic too. A majority of the council has opposed it, along with most of the council candidates running this year.

“I think our precise plan goes pretty well in line with the dedicated lane option,” Abe-Koga said. “Most people know I’ve always supported the dedicated lane option because, exactly as Ronit said, El Camino will be congested and we cannot build more lanes on El Camino. Having faster (bus) service that runs every five, maybe 10 minutes, is really the only option at that point. Maybe it will turn into light rail at some point. In San Jose, that’s the hope. That’s what we have to look at, alternative transportation to cars.”

Council member Siegel was the only council member who wanted fewer than six stories as the maximum height at village centers, saying he was concerned about the “canyon effect,” echoing concerns of several residents in the area. He also was the minority in supporting a planning commission recommendation for fourth floors to be set back by 5 feet, which Abe-Koga said would cause a “wedding cake effect.”

“When you have one-story buildings and six lanes of traffic, I feel completely lost,” said Ronit Bryant, defending the six-story limit, adding that she needed taller buildings “to make me feel like I’m in a human environment.”

Council member Inks wasn’t satisfied with the height and density limits in the plan.

“It doesn’t give us the flexibility we need to accommodate growth without impacting other areas of the city,” he said.

==I This story corrects errors in the print version about transportation management requirements and the terminology used for inclusionary zoning.==

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