City Council Planning

The Los Altos Downtown Visioning Scenarios – Version 0.9

Here a youth and a senior engage in downtown visioning
Written by lalahpolitico

Based on months of community outreach and an online survey, Jon Biggs will present 3 alternative Downtown Visioning Scenarios to City Council on August 22, 2017. Alternative 1 is meant to represent “staying pretty much the same.” Alternative 2 incorporates “more vibrancy.” And Alternative 3 offers “even more vibrancy.”

The public engagement process asked about what “look & feel” of downtown would make respondents use and enjoy downtown Los Altos more. It asked about the amount of activity people would prefer. It did not bring up who would pay for what.  The engagement was ultimately about desired amenities and activity levels…indirectly about zoning, permitting, planning…not about funding and economics.

UPDATE: July 19, 2017 — A citizen has contacted me and has a good point.  Alternative One is not really a “staying pretty much the same”  alternative, NOT ONLY  because of the restriping of Parking Plazas to crowd in more stalls –as this post explains previously —  BUT ALSO because  Alternative One allows First Street to return to the 2010 First Street height of 45 feet… from the recent de facto ‘moratorium’ height of 30/35. That is NOT staying the same.  In our original post, we fail to mention that Alternative One assumes the current First Street ‘moratorium’ ends and that the heights for First Street return to 45 feet.  IMPT: even if City Council at its meeting of Aug. 22 instructs staff to amend Alternative One to specify First Street heights of 30/35 feet permanently,  the State Density bonus laws could results in projects downtown on First Street which are residential or mixed use which are 45 and higher. Sadly, local zoning is being overridden by State Laws.  See SB35 which allows lobbyist to have “legal standing” and sue us for having lowered heights to 30/35.

Los Altos Downtown Visioning Activity Balance question

The in-person engagement asked people to indicate with a blue dot the level of activity they would like downtown. A comment could be made on a yellow postit. CLICK photo for LARGER, readable version in a new browser tab.

Building Heights

ALTERNATIVES ONE and TWO don’t seem to change building heights – 1 and 2 “stories” on State and Main… up to three on First Street or other zones. ALTERNATIVE THREE would allow up to 3 “stories” on State and Main …up to three on other zones.  [There is no clear mention of height in “feet”. Does 3 stories mean 45 feet as in the online survey? ]  See UPDATE above heights above.. 

Lalahpolitico: At some point we have to tell the people what this language in the Downtown Visioning Scenarios actually means in feet. It is easy to predict that Alternative 3 will be quite unpopular because it suggests 3 stories are ok on State and Main.

Map of Alternative One –
stay pretty much the same
except with plaza restriping

This alternative almost keeps things pretty much the same. It seems to exclude the proposed LACI office building. However it does restrip all the parking plazas which seems to allow a parking plaza to be replaced by a permanent central park. CLICK image to get a larger 1200 image.


ALL THREE Downtown Visioning Scenarios
increase parking stalls downtown.

This is very interesting because downtown property owners on State and Main will now be able to add second stories and acquire the necessary parking for their second stories through a PLIP – parking in lieu program. This redevelopment of State and Main can now conceivably occur even without  our current City parking ratios being reformed/relaxed. But downtown property owners would like that reform as well as this increase in parking stalls in the core of downtown.

ALTERNATIVE 1 increases stalls by restripping all the plazas. [Lalahpolitico:  This is not quite the “stay the same” that some people were expecting to represent their point of view which is “keep the big stalls; don’t reduce the number of parking plaza trees, etc.”]

ALTERNATIVE 2 does it with public underground parking — a) under the proposed LACI bulding and plaza 7 and b) and under plazas 2 and 3 – where a live theater building could be constructed.

ALTERNATIVE 3 does it with two parking structures and some underground parking — a) Structures on plaza 2 and 8 and b) with underground parking on plaza 3 [under a proposed movie theater!] and on plaza 7 [under a proposed live theater].

Map of Alternative Two – more vibrancy

Los Altos Downtown Visioning moderate vibrancy

With underground parking… some of it subsidized by a proposed LACI office building, and the two popular park ideas, Lalahpolitco predicts this alternative will be most popular, getting strong  support. CLICK image to get a larger 1200 image.

And the Most Popular Scenario is..

No Surprise here. Of the three Downtown Visioning Scenarios, this is one that most likely will garner the most support and the least opposition–ALTERNATIVE TWO.

ALTERNATIVE THREE is going to sink for three reasons… in order of strength of opposition.  1) Foremost because of the two above ground Parking Structures. Too many people hate them, and putting one on Plaza 8 right next to residential condos will bring out the pitchforks. 2) Because of the movie theater on plaza 3, which most people know is totally economically infeasible and unrealistic. Imagine the City subsidy to keep that afloat! 3) Because of the Roundabout at Edith/Main/San Antonio, not because it is infeasible, just because it would be so hard to re-educate our older local automobile drivers. And quite a few of the young ones too.

Lalahpolitico: However, I am sincerely interested in the idea of a roundabout … in about 30 years … at that intersection… with one or more underground pedestrian tunnels. But how?  Where does/(do) the tunnel(s) come up to ground level? The best location there – the old gas station triangle – has the new Enchante Hotel on it. Overwhelmingly, pedestrians don’t even realize the hotel patio IS also the public sidewalk.  Having already permitted the hotel there, the City should not try to cram a pedestrian tunnel stairwell on the sidewalk at the hotel, should it? And stairs are not ADA compliant.  Where can the tunnel ramps come up? Maybe the City should acquire the Sorensen property at 40 Main? Village Park could be part of a solution…How, how how?

How would you modify
Downtown Visioning Scenarios
Alternative Two Map?

The majority of the public will prefer Scenario 2, but many will want to customize it by omitting items (eg., please hold the LACI office building and parklette as shown in Alternative 1 map)  and including items from other alternatives (eg., please add bike improvements on Third Street as shown in Alternative 3 map.)

Live Theater.

Keep or omit?  It is included in Downtown Visioning Scenarios Alternative Two.  Its underground parking has been made part of the “parking solution” –the increase in number to stalls — that downtown property owners need to gradually redevelop State and Main with 2nd floors.  This would be the future home of the Los Altos Stage Company which now produces shows in the funky Bus Barn across next to the History Museum at the Civic Center.

Lalahpolitico: I think few people would oppose zoning FOR the live theater in this location, but many more might not want to pay FOR it. If the zoning is approved, taxpayers will have to keep eyes on the private project’s construction funding.

Pedestrian Overcrossings coming to Downtown Los Altos

Overcrossings might not be well used unless the ground level crosswalks are removed. They aren’t usually very attractive either.

Two Pedestrian Overcrossings.

Keep or Omit. These are included in Downtown Visioning Scenarios Alternative Two. First let’s visualize an over crossing. They typically are steel and concrete, painted red,  and have stairs and VERY LONG ramps that go up 16 or is it 20 feet?

 Lalahpolitico: Putting one between State Street/Safeway, up and over to Lincoln Park seems unnecessary.  The nearby plain old crosswalks at Foothill and Main aren’t particularly dangerous, are they?  I know I would rather reroute my walking to the ground level crosswalks at Main&Foothill than mount 20 feet of stairs of an overcrossing.  Perhaps the overcrossing would get occasional intense use during the infrequent events held in Lincoln Park. And we can be sure that the home-owners there at Lincoln Park do not want to see a big uptick in the number of events held on Lincoln Park.

The second proposed overcrossing between Village Park and the Civic Center seems superfluous too. Although that crosswalk at San Antonio on the Edith side can feel dangerous, I don’t see a lot of people choosing to mount the stairs or traverse the ramps of an overcrossing rather than just use the ground level crosswalk. Of course the City could force use of the overcrossing, by removing that crosswalk. Ditto for Foothill. Oh, and the immediate neighbors of both these overcrossings will probably  squawk about these structures being ugly. And it spoils the view of the mountains from along that stretch of San Antonio.

Map of Downtown Visioning Scenarios
Alternative Three – 3 stories on State and Main

With 2 above ground parking structures and permitting 3 stories on State and Main…Lalahpolitco predicts this alternative will be least popular, getting very limited support. CLICK image to get a larger 1200 image.

Gateway to Downtown Visual Enhancements.

Keep or Omit.  These are proposed at Foothill and Main and at San Antonio and Main/Edith in Downtown Visioning Scenarios Alternatives Two and Three. Alternative Two includes something described as “arches.” Alternative Three has something called “columns.” FYI: The City has just completed it’s multiyear project of installing and paying for over $680,000 worth of wayfaring signs, many, many around the downtown triangle.  These are those grey wood and green paint signs (and stone/steel ? monuments in some cases) you may have noticed.

Lalahpolitico:  For those people, like me,  who thought the new wayfaring signs were wretched excess at the price paid, these proposed gateway enhancements really sound over the top. First issue: what do they look like? If they are not ugly and distracting to traffic, I suppose most people would say ok.  Second issue: who pays? If you ask people if they want the City to pay for it out of the public works funds, many will NO. How about more bike safety improvements instead! On the other hand, if the downtown property owners want to form a “business improvement assessment area” and tax themselves to pay for it, that’s OK, if they are not ugly.

Central Green Plaza.

Omit or Expand? Plazas 4, 5, 6?

Alternative ONE and TWO of Downtown Visioning Scenarios both do convert plaza 5 to a central plaza green.

Alternative THREE converts not only plaza 5,  but also plazas 4 and 6 to greens, creating a narrow central park that runs all the way from Veterans Plaza to Skips Pizza.

Lalahpolitico: Construction of the small green on plaza 5 in the case of Alternative TWO is probably contingent on expanding the plaza parking.  That means both the construction of the LACI office project underground parking AND construction of  the live theater underground parking at plaza 2 and 3 may need to occur.  It seems ok to zone for a small central green it, but not to start setting aside City funds to pay for it until the parking replacement path is known. Is it restripping or these two buildings – LACI and theater? What are the numbers?


KeepWho wouldn’t want them? These don’t exist now.  I suppose the City will declare these as a public benefits it would like to see when property owners redevelop their property at the locations shown on the maps.

Multiple San Antonio Intersections paving.

Keep.  For home owners in the Hawthorne/Pepper/Lyell area, these fancy paving treatments along San Antonio should help make pedestrian crossing to downtown safer. Good for Foothill too. Let’s do all of them.

Los Altos Downtown Visioning Map of the Triangle

People made suggestions about downtown by attaching postits to the map. CLICK the image to get a larger view to read the posts.

Ideas We’ve Ever Heard and
are NOT Included in the
Downtown Visioning Scenarios

Improve with width of sidewalks on State and Main.

Remove street parking on State and Main.

Add traffic signals to State and Main at Second and Third.

Close off all vehicle traffic on State and Main. Make it just a pedestrian&bike way as is common in European downtowns. Second and Third street also to be closed off for a couple of blocks.  Use retractable bollards to block.

Make State and Main a Historic District.

Lalahpolitico: OK.  I guess those ideas are all too radical.  And the current property owners don’t like a lot of them I guess.


Lalahpolitico Conclusion

The City Council better hurry up and create a Business Improvement Assessement Area and also PLIP – parking in lieu program — so the true beneficiaries of proposals in these Downtown Visioning Scenarios can pay for these proposed downtown enhancements.

Can the City acquire new land downtown for an above ground parking structure in a different location than those imagined in these alternatives?  There are some very underutilized parcels within our downtown triangle.  In Campbell, the downtown parking structure is about a block or two away from the action.

These three Downtown Visioning Scenarios are pretty good.  What will the next step in public engagement look like?  Some more face-to-face?  Somehow the maps become part of an online survey?

On Aug. 22, what will our City Council members want changed, if anything, in the scenarios? What will they want to see for further public engagment?

Resources: City Website

Scenario Maps .pdf 

Downtown Vision Questionnaire Results

The survey results suggest that a middle-of-the-road approach to increasing activity downtown is the most popular.

About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.