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Civic center, traffic and public safety at top of Atherton's priorities list

 

Concerns over funding for the civic center, traffic and public safety are of greatest importance to Atherton City Council members over the next two years, they said at a goal-setting meeting on May 28.

The council discussed seven main areas of focus during the meeting: the civic center revamp; Caltrain station plans; traffic and circulation; public safety; housing; water treatment/drainage; and construction. At the end of the discussion, each council member listed his or her top two priorities for the town.

Civic center

Funding sources for the new civic center complex became an area of focus during the meeting. When the project is completed, estimated to be in 2021, a public courtyard will connect a new mission-style building housing police offices, town administration, building and planning offices, and a council chamber/emergency operations center to the new modern library.

Council members expressed concerns that Atherton Now, a nonprofit created to help fund the civic center project, may be shutting down because its co-founder, Didi Fisher, moved away. But Mayor Bill Widmer said on June 3 that he spoke with Atherton Now co-founder Sandy Levison, who said the organization will continue.

An informal report to the town in March indicated that Atherton Now has $2.6 million in various cash accounts and that it hopes to collect another $1.9 million in pledges. Levison confirmed Atherton Now has raised a little over $6 million, and so far the nonprofit has given the town $2.1 million Rodericks said. All remaining funds would go toward construction efforts, he said.

Public safety

Police Chief Steven McCulley said at the meeting that the number of residential burglaries each month is back to normal following an uptick dating back to late 2018. Burglars may have been arrested by other police departments or left the area because their crimes were drawing too much attention, he said. There have been 13 residential burglaries so far this year, McCulley said in a June 4 email. There were 26 home burglaries in 2018.

Traffic

Council members also said they'd like to explore how to alleviate traffic coming through town. Traffic has increased because of the growth of neighboring towns, Widmer said. He noted that mapping apps such as Waze are directing commuters to cut through town to avoid backups on El Camino Real and Alameda de Las Pulgas.

Council member Cary Wiest said the town could install more "no left turn" signs and add stop signs to deter people from cramming Atherton's side roads. Wiest noted Atherton could work with Waze to avoid routing people through town. DeGolia noted speed bumps would also help to deter commuters.

Staff will present a townwide traffic study at a July council meeting, but this study focuses on traffic lights rather than traffic calming solutions, said Rodericks.

Town staffers can determine where traffic calming changes should happen once they know where traffic accidents are happening, Widmer said.

Train station and housing

Council members have expressed concerns about a potential expansion of Caltrain service in town as Caltrain reviews and plans its service schedules in advance of rail service electrification. Currently Caltrain only stops at the Atherton station on weekends.

Caltrain has indicated that rather than adding a stop in the overall train schedule, it might eliminate a stop in either Redwood City or Menlo Park to accommodate an Atherton stop, according to a staff report. Caltrain has the final say on the schedule.

In the fall, the Atherton Rail Committee recommended that the council restore full weekday train stops in Atherton, but it backpedaled on the recommendation at a Jan. 9 joint council and committee meeting before going back to its original recommendation to expand train service. The concern: Senate Bill 50, legislation introduced in December by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. The bill, which is now on hold, would require cities to allow new apartment buildings in any place that is within a half-mile of a rail transit station, within a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop, or within a "job-rich" neighborhood.

Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia said he met with Caltrain the week of May 20 and that Caltrain wants to make a decision on train service in Atherton in the next couple of months.

Council members reiterated their preference to keep Atherton the way it is and limit growth, saying the town shouldn't be responsible for housing employees from the growing number of businesses in nearby Redwood City, Palo Alto or Menlo Park. These cities aren't building the sufficient amount of residential space to house new employees who will live there, said council member Mike Lempres.

"I don't want to feel like we should be anxious to change our character in this way or feel responsible for a lot of decisions that I believe others are making that are trying to force externalities on us," he said.

There has also been concern about the safety of the station because of its "holdout designation." Atherton's station has this designation because it only has a center boarding platform, meaning passengers can cross the tracks in multiple places to reach the center boarding platform. To change this, Caltrain would have to build separate platforms for northbound and southbound passengers and a fence separating the tracks, estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million, DeGolia said.

The council also touched on other housing-related topics. Although the town isn't updating its housing element -- the portion of its general plan that lays out housing policies -- until 2023, Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders noted that some residents would like to age in place and have expressed "quite a bit of interest" in building a senior center in town.

"Rezoning the town (for more construction) is a Pandora's box," Widmer said.

Costa Sanders also noted that the town could use state grant funding to study building teacher housing on school campuses. School officials from Menlo School and the Sequoia Union High School District have expressed interest in building teacher housing on their campuses, Costa Sanders said. Council members said they would be interested in pursuing the grant funding, and Costa Sanders noted going forward with a study would require a council resolution.

Construction

Council members noted that there is a substantial amount of construction at homes, leading to noise and more traffic from construction vehicles. Council members questioned if they could limit the number of building permits in town, but staff informed them that it would be difficult to do.

Construction and construction-related deliveries are allowed between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays except for certain holidays, according to the town's website. The limited hours make construction more palatable, but can also make projects take longer, Lempres said.

Council member Elizabeth Lewis suggested amending the town's limits on construction on weekends to allow quiet indoor work like painting. Wiest warned that this could open the door for people to sneak in other work on the weekends.

DeGolia noted that it can be unsafe to walk in town because of big trucks on the roads. He said he'd like to see more code enforcement and education of contractors in general.

Watch a video recording of the goals meeting here. Staff will present a final version of the council's 2019-20 goals to the council in July, Rodericks said.

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