Palo Alto chooses local artist’s fountain design to beautify neglected California Avenue

This grid shows the Town of Mayfield between 1850 - 1925. Palo Alto annexed Mayfield and its downtown street, California Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

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California Avenue hasn’t always been known by that name. A century ago it was Lincoln Avenue, the main commercial area of Mayfield, a rowdy, blue-collar farming town that was home to 13 saloons and two breweries.

Mayfield’s residents resented their upscale neighbors in Palo Alto, who tended to look down their noses at them.  Now, almost a century later, Palo Alto is finally trying to improve the look of its long neglected second downtown.  But once again the city is facing resentment and opposition from businesses and residents there.

In 1884, Leland Stanford asked Mayfield to close its breweries and bars so he could make Mayfield his dry college town.  But residents said no.  So Stanford’s friend Timothy Hawking bought the land now bordered by Alma Street, the San Francisquito Creek, Middlefield Road and Embarcadero Road as the site for a new college town, to be called Palo Alto, city historian Steve Staiger said.  Palo Alto incorporated in 1894.

In 1925, the young, growing city of Palo Alto annexed Mayfield, even though its 1,100 residents were reluctant.  Palo Alto also got a slew of speakeasies.  City leaders renamed the street California Ave.—they already had a Lincoln Ave.

But more than just the name changed.  As a part of Palo Alto, a larger, more sophisticated town with its own bustling main street, Mayfield’s former town center grew to become an overlooked backwater.

“Palo Alto is unusual—it has two downtowns because it once was two towns,” Staiger noted.

And while University Avenue thrived, California Avenue stagnated.  Although the four short blocks host a dozen restaurants and cafes, featuring such alternative cuisines as Cuban and Dim Sum, many commuters pass through the area without even stopping, on their way to the Caltrain station at the end of the street.

“California Ave. seems to have been neglected for years,” Palo Alto resident Frank Ingle said at the January meeting of the Public Art Commission—the City Council-appointed group in charge of selecting artists and approving designs for art installations in public places.

Local paralegal Leslie Rubinstein said, “I don’t think they’ve changed anything on California Ave. in 100 years.  Restaurants come and go, and they haven’t done anything to make it pretty.”

While the city dolls up University Avenue every winter with strands of glittering lights around the trunks and branches of a long row of trees, the city cut down the mature trees lining both sides of California Avenue in 2009 with little public input, citing disease and safety concerns and angering the businesses and residents there.  Most probably don’t even know much if anything about the old town of Mayfield.  But many still feel the resentment that animated Mayfield residents a century ago.

Palo Alto had tried to annex Mayfield before 1925, but the town fought back, fearing it might lose its identity, Staiger said.

Printer’s Inc. Café employee Monica Pinon said that her customers, standing outside with their food in the bright sun, complained that there weren’t nice places to eat.  “Sometimes when we’re really busy, people take their food, and they want to sit outside somewhere.  But there’s no shade.”

In an effort to revitalize the city’s second main street, Palo Alto’s Art Commission met in January to decide on a new sculptural fountain design to replace the street’s old vase-shaped basin fountain that stopped working years ago.

The city council plans to decide on larger development plans in the next week that could include additional parking spaces, a street-narrowing project and a new center median to make the street more pedestrian-friendly.  Some local businesses oppose the plan and have been trying to block it, fearing a lane reduction would discourage customers who come by car.  The new fountain is another part of the development plan.  The Art Commission doesn’t know the original fountain’s origins because it wasn’t put in under city guidance.

“I grew up here, I went to Paly and Stanford, and I don’t remember the fountain being much of a standout,” Art Commissioner and former engineer Ally Richter said.

In 2008 the commission solicited fountain designs, and Bay Area Artist Bruce Beasley offered to build a modern piece for material costs only—about $185,000.  A group of citizens opposed that, too, objecting to the price, Richter said.

So the commission put out a call for more fountain proposals, stipulating that they must cost less than $50,000, the standard price of an “off-the-shelf” fountain.  After receiving dozens of plans, the commission expanded the typical public process to choose proposals.  The commission consulted with a group of citizens to decide which three proposals should be submitted to the public in an online poll.

Although Richter realized that not everybody has access to computers, it “was the best that we could do under the circumstances,” she said.

“The fountain became some kind of symbol to people—tradition versus modern,” Richter said.

Palo Alto residents and city officials selected Michael Szabo's fountain design for California Avenue. (Photo: Georgia Wells)

After the poll results came in, the commission met to decide between the two most popular designs.  They chose local artist Michael Szabo’s modern design.

Born and raised in Palo Alto, Szabo said he’d always considered California Avenue the “alternative downtown.”

“Although $50,000 is a pretty small budget, with my connection to California Ave. and pursuit of public art, it was really important to me,” he said.  Szabo also designed the “Arch Cradle” sculpture in Mitchell Park in 2007.

He focused his California Ave. fountain design on water and movement, and the idea of the train station as the connection between Palo Alto and the outside world.  “I took this into the design by raising the fountain pool and putting in seating,” he said.

Ingle said he expected the fountain would become the “centerpiece” of the street, since so many people come to it from the Caltrain station.

Stanford University student Danny Smith said an attractive sculptural fountain near the Caltrain station could make a huge difference to the street’s image.  “If I was coming off of the Caltrain and I saw a big fountain, I would probably walk down the street to explore.”

Art Commissioner Terry Acebo-Davis hopes the fountain can become a strong statement for the city. “I think this will become an iconic piece, where people can take pictures in front of the Szabo fountain, and say ‘I’m visiting Palo Alto,’” instead of the more traditional photo of Hoover Tower at Stanford.

Eighty-six years after Palo Alto swallowed Mayfield’s town center, the avenue may finally be reasserting its identity — with street art instead of breweries.

To supplement the fountain, Caltrain and the Valley Transportation Authority have promised funds to develop the surrounding plaza, Richter said.

Rubinstein said she thought the street could use a pleasant plaza for people to sit and eat.  “On the weekends they have a great farmers’ market here, and there’s not really a place for people to sit and eat.  So that would be nice—on Sunday mornings to have some place to relax.”

The city has not set a timeline for installation of the fountain.

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