California Avenue’s redesign is set for this fall despite local opposition, lawsuits

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Palo Alto’s redesign of California Avenue will include revamped sidewalks, seating areas and landscaping (Caroline Davis/Peninsula Press)

The Palo Alto City Council’s controversial proposed redesign of California Avenue has sparked outrage from the street’s merchants and residents for several years now. Nonetheless, construction is to begin this fall.

In January 2011, the council voted to pursue a redesign project to revitalize the street with a new look, mimicking that of University Avenue. The proposed California Avenue Streetscape Project, stretching from El Camino Real to the Caltrain Station at Park Street, would include reducing the four lanes to two, improving intersections, redesigning sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

“People are fond of California Avenue, but not because of its physical environment,” City Council member Patrick Burt said. “If you want a great pedestrian oriented street, you don’t want four lanes on it.”

City council members said the project would make California Avenue more aesthetically appealing and would attract more business for the street’s stores and restaurants.

But several merchants were immediately opposed to the project. Among them the owners of Mollie Stone’s market, Antonio’s Nuthouse, Keeble & Shuchat Photography, the California Paint Company and others have voiced their concerns at numerous public meetings over the past several years.

In 2011, some of the businesses joined forces to sue the city over the plan. They filed two separate lawsuits arguing that reducing the lanes would slow down traffic and hurt business. The merchants also claimed the city violated state law in its environmental analysis of the project, by not including information from business owners about the impacts of the construction, among other factors.

The lawsuits succeeded in one respect: slowing the development process. But the courts ultimately threw out the suits.

For many long-time California Avenue businesses, the controversy sounds surprisingly familiar. The redevelopment project has opened old wounds that date back to the late 1800s, before the city of Palo Alto even existed. California Avenue and El Camino Real formed the heart of the business district for Mayfield, a thriving, raucous town made up of two breweries and 13 saloons.

Downtown Mayfield, now California Avenue, was once the site of many breweries and brothels. (Photo/Palo Alto Historical Assocation)

This was when Leland Stanford was developing the plans for his new school, Stanford University. In the interest of creating a proper atmosphere for his students, Stanford asked the town to petition to close its breweries and saloons. Mayfield refused.

As a result, Stanford developed downtown University Avenue which later became the center of Palo Alto. As time passed, Palo Alto grew much faster than Mayfield and by 1925 the town Palo Alto annexed Mayfield. The city called this newly adopted area South Palo Alto.

“Most people don’t even realize we had two separate towns until the 1920s,” said Palo Alto Historical Association historian, Steve Saiger. “There’s always been this battle between north  and south” Palo Alto

The battle between the two was reignited in the fall of 2009 when the city cut down 50 holly oak trees lining California Avenue. Angry merchants and residents along the street said they were never consulted on the project.

That illustrates the larger problem. To the Palo Alto City Council, California Ave is just another city street under its jurisdiction.  But many on California Avenue still feel as if they are a separate entity deserving consultation, at least, before the city decides to make changes.

“California Avenue’s retail area has always considered themselves number two to University Ave.,” Saiger said. “They get the leftovers. They don’t feel they have ever been treated in the same regard as the city government treats University Ave.”

Peter Emberton, who has been the owner of Hotel California on California Avenue for the past 10 years, still opposes the changes. He said the redesign will destroy the street’s ambiance, which has always preserved some of the original character of Mayfield.

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Merchants and area residents say they like the quirky artwork and colorful murals that give California Avenue its distinct character (Caroline Davis/Peninsula Press)

“I like it just the way it is,” Emberton said. “I wish they’d leave everything alone.”

Yet despite some continuing opposition, the city is moving forward with the redesign as scheduled. The city has budgeted $1.7 million for the project and recently secured county grants for additional funding.

Burt said he thinks merchants and residents are coming around to the idea.

“A number of the local merchants who had been against it are now either in favor of it or are less apprehensive,” he asserted.

Burt pointed to Mollie Stone’s, one of the original businesses involved in the first lawsuit, which is now very positive about the developments.

“We’re at the end of a dead end street, so we were initially concerned with inhibiting traffic to the store,” said David Bennett, owner of Mollie Stone’s, which has sat on the street’s largest parcel of land on the street since 1990.

“Now I’m fine with it. We had a lot of concerns, but really the city has addressed all of them.”

Bennett said he thinks the beautification and street modifications will raise the standing of the street and bring in additional business.

But Saiger is not so sure about the change of heart.

He asked: “Are they giving in because they realize it’s a good idea, or because they know they’re not going to win the battle.”

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