Menlo Park Grade Separation Recommendation


Overview

Like other Peninsula cities Menlo Park is now developing a grade separation strategy for its major east-west vehicle corridors. Without separations motorists will experience unbearable traffic congestion when the number of daily trains grows significantly in the next 20 years. Our Council strongly dislikes both grade separation plans that have been studied. “Alternative A” would lower Ravenswood and keep the tracks roughly at current grade, and neither Oak Grove nor Glenwood would have grade separations. This likely would produce huge long-term traffic circulation problems on El Camino, Oak Grove, Glenwood and possibly Ravenswood. “Alternative C” requires Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood be lowered and tracks raised on an unattractive berm that is ten-feet high between Oak Grove and Ravenswood. This barrier would further physically divide Menlo Park neighborhoods, and the concurrent construction of three new grade separations would severely disrupt east-west and El Camino traffic for at least three years. The Council feels pressured to select one of these alternatives soon as it believes delays might jeopardize future government funding if other cities were to apply for assistance before Menlo Park.

Recommendation

View the grade separation challenge as wonderful opportunity to transform the area bounded by El Camino, Alma, Ravenswood and Oak Grove into a community-enriching commercial district, one that energizes our downtown. This central area is already changing rapidly. The BBC at 555 Santa Cruz Avenue was renovated in 2015. A three-story office building will be completed at 1020-1026 Alma in 2018, and Station 1300 will open in 2019. Also, a builder has proposed a multi-use development that replaces existing old buildings at 1125 Merrill Street, and 506 and 556 Santa Cruz Avenue.  These private investments should be complemented by a civic project that integrates them with a central pedestrian and bike-friendly public space that seamlessly connects destinations on both sides of the tracks. This project could include a large plaza, attractive landscaping, and the existing train station. A fully elevated and open rail structure between Oak Grove and Ravenswood would make this possible. And perhaps, the Caltrain parking could be expanded AND relocated underground to create even more public space. A fully elevated and open rail structure provides another important benefit. It would not create severe traffic disruptions.

Plaza Area = Red Line             Train Tracks = Green        Fully Elevated Open Rail Structure = Orange     

New Developments (2015-2019) = Yellow Dotted Line  

 

Existing Buildings:

1 => 1165 Merrill – Restaurant (formerly BFD)          2 => 1155 Merrill –  Menlo Square            3 => 1160 Alma – Axis        4 => 525 Oak Grove & 1170 Alma – 7 Eleven & J&J Hawaiian BBQ

Description

  •  New central plaza extends from Alma to Merrill and Oak Grove to Ravenswood.
  • Train tracks on a fully elevated open rail structure (FEORS) between Oak Grove and Ravenswood with wide openings between structure supports
  • Beautiful architectural design integrates plaza, FEORS, existing train station, landscaping and public amenities
  • Resurface Merrill and Alma with complementary surface materials
  • Ticket purchasing and seating located on elevated train platform
  • Public amenities: seating, fountain(s), trees, convenient access to train platform, rest rooms

Potential Options:

  • Expanded Caltrain parking relocated underground
  • Purchase land at 525 Oak Grove and 1170 Alma and convert to a park/plaza

Benefit Summary

  • Creates an attractive central plaza that connects the east and west sides of Menlo Park.
  • Bicyclist-friendly: enables riders to easily and safely.

(1) bypass the challenging Ravenswood-El Camino Intersection when traveling in an east-west direction.

(2) travel in dedicated bike lanes on Alma between Oak Grove and Ravenswood.

  • Less traffic disruption during construction than alternatives that require street(s) to be lowered.
  • Likely much less costly than lowering three streets: Glenwood, Oak Grove, and Ravenswood.

Almanac Guest Opinion (January 2018)

Grade separation is a golden opportunity for Menlo Park

Imagine yourself in an awful predicament when an unavoidable future event will have a large negative impact on you and many others unless you can identify a way to greatly minimize its consequences, but the most promising solutions also create big new problems. Plus, you doubt there is enough time to carefully evaluate additional options. Feel anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated? The Menlo Park City Council is now in this unenviable position as it attempts to prepare our city for the electrification of the Peninsula Rail System, a major Caltrain construction project that threatens to severely disrupt future traffic in Menlo Park. The Council has studied two alternative plans for grade separations, acknowledged both are “bad”, and is leaning towards the least objectionable one with three hybrid grade separations. I recommend the Council instead evaluate a fully elevated and open rail structure (FEORS) for at least the section of track that runs from Oak Grove to Ravenswood. The grades on either side could be any combination of this structure and simple berms. The superior value of this alternative becomes clear when one views grade separation as an extraordinary opportunity for our city – rather than a dreaded problem.

Like other Peninsula cities Menlo Park is now developing a grade separation strategy for its major east-west vehicle corridors. Without separations motorists will experience unbearable traffic congestion as the number of daily trains grows significantly in the next 20 years. Our Council strongly dislikes both grade separation plans our city has studied. One would lower Ravenswood and keep the tracks roughly at current grade, and neither Oak Grove nor Glenwood would have grade separations. This likely would produce huge long-term traffic circulation problems on El Camino, Oak Grove, Glenwood and possibly Ravenswood. The other requires Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood be lowered and tracks raised on an unattractive berm that is ten-feet high between Oak Grove and Ravenswood. This barrier would further physically divide Menlo Park neighborhoods, and the concurrent construction of three new grade separations would severely disrupt east-west and El Camino traffic for at least three years. The Council feels pressured to select one of these alternatives soon as it believes delays might jeopardize future government funding if other cities were to apply for assistance before Menlo Park.

So what should our Council do? First, take a deep breath. Our situation is not as bad as you think. There is little to no risk funding for Menlo Park grade separations will be jeopardized by taking another three to six months to define its grade separation strategy, and the potential reward is a solution that becomes a source of civic pride rather than disdain. Next, view the grade separation challenge as wonderful opportunity to transform the area bounded by El Camino, Alma, Ravenswood and Oak Grove into a community-enriching commercial district, one that energizes our downtown. This central area is already changing rapidly. The BBC at 555 Santa Cruz Avenue was renovated in 2015. A three-story office building will be completed at 1020-1026 Alma in 2018, and Station 1300 will open in 2019. Also, a builder has proposed replacing existing buildings at 1125 Merrill Street, and 506 and 556 Santa Cruz Avenue with a multi-use development. (Note: the proposed public area is illustrated at XXXX) These private investments should be complemented by a civic project that integrates them with a central pedestrian and bike-friendly, public space that seamlessly connects both sides of the tracks. This project could include a large plaza, attractive landscaping, and the existing train station. A fully elevated and open rail structure between Oak Grove and Ravenswood would make this possible. And perhaps, existing Caltrain parking could be expanded AND relocated underground to create even more public space.

I encourage the Menlo Park City Council evaluate the FEORS alternative. It is technically feasible, construction will be much less disruptive and likely less costly than lowering three streets, and the city has sufficient time to ensure it has selected the best possible solution. In the meantime, Menlo Park can monitor Palo Alto’s pursuit of an underground rail and consider this popular alternative IF Palo Alto is successful.

Dana Hendrickson

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