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Intersection of public opinion & planning: Los Altos crosswalk improvement project demonstrates impact of residents’ input


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A couple passes the new medians installed as part of the Crosswalk and Intersection Improvements Project, above, approved by the Los Altos City Council in 2018. Designed to provide “refuge to pedestrians,” according to city officials, the raised concrete barriers and pathway come with a side effect: garbage and landscape bins being pushed into the street.

After residents organized to thwart the installation of flashing stop signs at Los Altos and West Portola avenues in January, another group of neighbors is paying close attention to an intersection where construction is well underway.

Changes to the junction of Covington Road and Riverside Drive, one of six projects falling under the city of Los Altos’ Crosswalk and Intersection Improvements umbrella, are all but complete and the intersection will soon be landscaped. Residents, however, are questioning why the addition of street striping, raised medians and traffic delineators were necessary in the first place.

Nicknamed “pork chops,” the new medians are by and large the most contested element of the “improvements” at Covington and Riverside. Since their installation, the raised concrete barriers have caused more confusion than good, argued Robin Chapman, who lives nearby.

“Cars have already run into it – some drivers think it is a traffic circle,” Chapman wrote of the concrete island in an email to the Town Crier. “Garbage trucks can no longer reach the curb, so neighbors have to push their bins into the road. Weeds are coming up in the ‘island.’ We all want our roads to be safe, but I’m struggling with the logic here.”

Los Altos resident Pat Marriott filed public record requests to determine whether an accident spurred the changes. The results showed none had taken place.

“The original layout of this intersection had a very wide area covered by drivable surface, which provided no refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists while crossing the intersection,” explained Gaku Watanabe, assistant civil engineer for the city of Los Altos, providing context for the project.

Marriott then reached out to the Los Altos City Council in an effort to understand why the original design – which solely involved street striping – was altered to include various traffic-calming elements.

“Why the change? I’ve searched through commission documents and can’t find any resident feedback on this project,” Marriott inquired in her communication with city leaders.

Turning thoughts into action

According to Watanabe, meeting minutes reflect that feedback from residents was in fact the driving force behind the final adjustments.

When CSG Consultants presented the six intersection projects to the Complete Streets Commission Feb. 12, 2018, residents and commissioners alike requested that more than just striping take place at Covington and Riverside.

Consultants and staff returned to the commission April 25, 2018, with an updated design that included more “pedestrian protection,” Watanabe said.

After city officials approved the design, a crew installed the safety features. But aesthetics “weren’t considered,” Marriott noted.

“The original (traffic) poles were very tall,” she said. “It took our acting traffic engineer, Jaime Rodriguez (who is working part time for the city and was not involved with the project back in 2018) to get them lowered.”

After construction commenced early this year, city representatives continued to work with consultants to adjust the fine points of the project, like the signs, responding to “resident complaint,” Watanabe acknowledged.

What’s next?

Now, residents are asking when landscaping will be installed at the intersection. According to Maintenance Services Director Manny Hernandez, when the contractors finished the framework of the design recently, it was turned over from the city’s engineering department to his department.

Hernandez’s guess as to why the project was turned over: “I only assume to save money.”

“Now that the project is essentially done, it’s been handed over to us,” he said in a phone call with the Town Crier. “Now we are trying to put a plan together, so we have no timetable yet. It depends on getting a meter from Cal Water.”

While engineer and resident Jerry Clements was encouraged last week to hear news of a landscaping plan in the works, he said coordination of the project was faulty and without purpose.

Another example of “improvements” being made where Clements considered them unnecessary is the east entrance to Rancho Shopping Center.

“There a pit was dug to do the work and left open for weeks,” he said, adding that his wife was nearly hit by a car when she walked around the pit and stood on the pavement to cross the street. “When the work was finished, I approached the crossing guard one afternoon, while he was standing on the island, and asked him what he thought of it. ‘They built it wrong.’ While we were talking, a young man about 20 came by on his bicycle and I asked him if this was an improvement. He said, ‘no’ – it was worse, because the island forced him closer to the traffic.”

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