Sunnyvale Continues Selling Cars on El Camino but Driving Fewer of them on Murphy and Tasman

On February 7, Sunnyvale City Council moved to convert Murphy Street into a Pedestrian Mall and to extend the temporary lane closure on Tasman Drive until December 2024. The council also clarified the zoning rules to conditionally permit auto sales along El Camino Real.

For African American History Month, Santa Clara County’s Poet Laureate, Tshaka Campbell, recited a poem, “Ally in Ten Octaves.” The final line resonated with your faithful reporter, given the task at hand: “10. We will hum the journey’s chorus to you on the way up, but you, my friend, must write in the words yourself.”

For Public Comment, Margaret Lawson spoke on the nature of Fremont Avenue. The street is built like a six-lane highway with dead landscaping. Lawson advocated for rebuilding Fremont as a four-lane avenue with landscaping and protected bike lanes, citing nearby San Antonio Road in Los Altos as a model. Eric Crock spoke against a proposed dog park beneath the PG&E line between Lois and Ramona, citing the need for children to access unmanicured natural areas. Sharlene Liu, with Bike Sunnyvale, and Jonathan Blum advocated for a newly-proposed study issue on Active Transportation metrics. Angela Hickson and Eileen Lai advocated for safer transportation options for Fremont High School students. Lai, a Sunnyvale School District Board member, also advocated for a new K-8 school to be included in plans to redevelop Moffet Park. Steve Meier voiced concern over a recently dismissed lawsuit involving a stalking incident within Sunnyvale Public Safety.

Permanent Closure of Murphy Avenue

Notice of Intention to Establish a Pedestrian Mall, Murphy Ave.

During the Pandemic, the 100 Block of South Murphy Ave was closed to through traffic. Staff explained that there was widespread support among the public and local merchants to keep Murphy St permanently closed and converted to a pedestrian mall. As a pedestrian mall, the street will require accessibility improvements. Staff recommended paying for those improvements from the city’s Community Benefits Fund, as many local merchants were still recovering from business lost during the Pandemic. Once modifications are complete, the cost of ongoing maintenance will run around $200 per month per business.

Councilmember Mehlinger commented that when it comes around to covering maintenance costs, instead of charging a flat fee per business, the city could look at “leasing” specific portions of the street to business use, making the costs for merchants proportional to their benefit.

Half a dozen residents and business owners spoke in support of the pedestrian mall. Resident Bryce Beagle asked that portions of the pedestrian mall be made available as a public amenity so folks could come and sit at a table and not feel obliged to purchase something. “Right now, there are only a couple uncomfortable metal benches hidden amongst the dining tables.” Beagle also highlighted the need for more and better bike parking. Leia Mehlman elaborated on the need for bike parking and seconded a comment to bring the Saturday Farmer’s Market back up Murphy, as it has been in the past.

Council unanimously signed off on the pedestrian mall plan. This sets a public hearing for May 16. City staff will work on a project to regrade the vehicle parking bays for accessibility.

Temporary Tasman Drive Closure Extended

Tasman Drive is a four-lane road with light rail running down the center and lacking consistent sidewalks. Owing to resident advocacy, one Eastbound lane was closed to provide an ersatz sidewalk and protected bike lane in June 2020. The closure was extended in August 2021. Dennis Ng of Public Works explained that while traffic was increasing about 1% per month, it was still well below pre-Pandemic levels, with no delays in traffic or emergency vehicle response. The city is spending around $1,300 monthly to maintain the temporary barriers. A consultant will join city staff in March to study the installation of a permanent pedestrian and bicycle facility.

Several residents of the Casa de Amigos mobile home park expressed how grateful they are for the temporary lane closure and their hope for a more permanent fix. It was noted that going Westbound, traffic can flow at 50 MPH around curves that limit visibility, which is terrifying for cyclists. In contrast, on the Eastbound side, with the temporary lane closure, motor vehicles travel at a lower speed, and people have room to travel safely.

Casa de Amigos resident Harfijah Oliver explained that before the lane closure, “a lot of residents felt trapped, and we would only walk within our complex. It was not safe at all to walk to the grocery store on the corner of Fair Oaks and Tasman, and now we can. I am very grateful.” Oliver explained that she drives to work at peak times and has never had congestion concerns, either pre-Pandemic or since the lane closure. “My son goes to middle school; he uses the bike lane every single day. It has improved his mental health tremendously. Now, he loves to bicycle. He loves to be outdoors more. It also prepares him for the school day, which is really important for parents and families. It is also sending the right message with reducing Carbon footprint.”

Councilmember Mehlinger moved to extend the lane closure until December 2024, pending the analysis of a permanent lane closure, and contingent on the roadway remaining un-congested and accessible for emergency vehicles. Mehlinger explained, “I mentioned that we were opening Murphy Avenue, not closing it. That comment applies here as well. What we are doing is we are opening a new route for cyclists and pedestrians that previously did not exist. Without this facility, there are no safe routes, on foot or on bicycle, heading southwest from the mobile home parks.” Mehlinger cited the Land Use and Transportation Element of Sunnyvale’s General Plan: “the order of consideration of transportation users shall be: 1) pedestrians, 2) non-automotive, e.g., bicycle, 3) mass transit vehicles, 4) delivery vehicles, 5) single-occupant vehicles.” The City Council agreed unanimously.

Zoning for Car Sales on El Camino Real

Council unanimously amended the zoning standards to clarify that auto sales could be allowed on El Camino Real with a conditional-use permit. Director of Community Development, Trudi Ryan, explained that due to a previous oversight while working on the El Camino Real Specific Plan, auto sales were not allowed. Ryan explained that there was an application pending for a mixed-use development that includes auto sales and that this modification would allow the city to consider allowing the applicant to continue selling automobiles as they add housing.

Council adjourned at 11:21 p.m.


Council Approves Community Center Renovation

Vice Mayor

In Sunnyvale, Vice Mayors serve one-year terms, elected by their peers on the City Council. Tuesday’s January 10 City Council meeting opened with outgoing Vice Mayor, Councilmember Alyssa Cisneros, praising the incoming Vice Mayor, Councilmember Omar Din. “I’ve known Omar for a very long time. He’s a fantastic public servant, very humble, extremely smart, and extremely dedicated. He’s ready for this challenge.”

Mayor Klein thanked Cisneros for her service. Councilmember Cisneros recounted that, not long ago, when she was at Homestead High School, she had no idea who the Vice Mayor was and that in the past year, she would hear from folks that “you don’t look like a Vice Mayor.” Cisneros went on: “and now, this is what a Vice Mayor looks like. Rather than elevate an ego, I really felt that this humbled me. It’s about serving the City, knowing that you’re the first line of defense.”

Vision Zero

Unlike Sunnyvale, Fremont tracks and publicizes roadway safety data on its Vision Zero website.

For Oral Communications, the City Council heard from residents Sharlene Liu and Mark Hlady on behalf of Bike Sunnyvale. Ms. Liu expressed concern about the progress toward Sunnyvale’s Vision Zero policy. She called for a permanent dedicated funding source and a ballot measure to fund bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. Ms. Liu also called for the City to create a page on the City’s website to track progress toward Vision Zero.

Mark Hlady elaborated on the web page request, citing Fremont’s Vision Zero page, which tracks the rate of harmful collisions over time. Mr. Hlady reminded the City Council that two of the best strategies to prevent severe injuries on our roads are to build separated bike lanes and to reduce vehicle speeds.

Block 20

The Council next considered a Specific Plan amendment to modify Block 20 of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), which sits on the East side of Mathilda Ave, between Olive Ave and El Camino Real. Some parcels were zoned residential, and others zoned commercial. Developers petitioned the City to adopt Mixed Use zoning, allowing more housing to be built on top of commercial services.

While the City wants to allow for more housing to be built, there is a reluctance to up-zone too aggressively due to state housing density bonuses. Staff recommended changes to permit an increase in commercial zoning from 16,400 square feet to 36,500 square feet and a potential increase from 51 housing units to 103, with no explicit increase of the 40-foot height limit. Developers are allowed by the state to exceed these limits in exchange for additional units of affordable housing.

Neighbors from the nearby single-family Heritage District expressed concern at the City’s inability to enforce firm height limits and at missing meeting notifications from the City. “The public is being played,” declared resident Ray Johnson in response to what he and other neighbors called “overbuilds” in the downtown area. Other residents expressed their support for increased housing. Jason Roberts pointed out, “the increase is on the order of 50 residents of our community. I would love for more people to be a part of our community.”

Staff accounted for the notification policy’s complexities, which differ for legislative changes versus development projects, and are further complicated when efforts, such as Block 20, get continued from one meeting to another. Director of Community Development, Trudi Ryan, conceded: “I think that we haven’t been consistent on whether or not we notice nearby tenants and property owners. I own up to that.”

Responding to questions from Councilmember Cisneros, Ms. Ryan gave an overview of available housing bonuses, from Sunnyvale’s modest Green Incentives program to state housing laws that allow up to 50% higher limits for a market rate project that has enough affordable units. Per state law, developers can request a concession or waiver of local regulations if they can not build a housing project within local limits. “There are not a lot of controls the city has when some of these waivers are requested,” explained Ms. Ryan. Ryan said that the City was proposing less than what the developers had requested to account for the developers’ likely application of density bonus laws. “When it’s a housing development, more recent state laws have taken away control from local agencies. So, I could not promise that they won’t build above the height limit or they won’t request a deviation from some other standard when housing is concerned. The City has a lot more control on the non-residential components.”

Ryan explained a general strategy: “one of the tools we have is to not prepare our zoning codes to the maximum that we are comfortable with, but cutting that back some, which is what we did recently on El Camino Real. We built in that opportunity for density bonuses.”

Councilmember Richard Mehlinger clarified with staff that if the City denied the proposed plan amendment, developers could still build beyond the City’s 40-foot height limit by leveraging density bonuses and that Mixed Use development would be off the table. Councilmember Russ Melton confirmed with staff that the state prohibits residential downzoning, so the City has no power to lower the height limit. Councilmember Linda Sell asked about notifications that would follow from the modified DSP. “Neighbors will receive a mailed notice of a public hearing, or, prior to that, to a community meeting,” for the individual development projects, answered Ryan.

In support of the proposal, Councilmember Mehlinger explained: “This is a highly walkable neighborhood. It is well served by retail, by transit. It is within easy walking distance of Target, Whole Foods, and our downtown. This meets a serious community need for more housing.” Mehlinger addressed the state density bonus: “it is not something the developers get for free. To utilize the density bonus, developers must provide affordable units at restricted rents. These units are desperately needed in our community. Affordable units often have waiting lists 50 or 100 names long for a single unit. Every single one of those units means that someone who would probably be forced out of our community would be able to stay.”

Councilmember Sell added her support: “I know it’s difficult to consider the heights, but for some in our community, it is more difficult to stay in a home.”

The Specific Plan Amendment for Block 20 passed with 5 votes. Councilmember Murali Srinivasan opposed it, and Mayor Klein, who lives nearby, was recused.

Community Center

Jennifer Ng, Assistant Director of Public Works and City Engineer, presented a plan to renovate the grounds of the Sunnyvale Community Center on Remington Drive. The most visible change will be to reduce the size of the pond, to make room for picnicking, playgrounds, and an amphitheater. The fountain on the upper level will be rebuilt smaller to make room for a tree-covered plaza with more seating. The new grounds will also incorporate a series of walking paths and a new restroom. Community feedback revealed that the biggest complaint with the current Civic Center grounds was goose droppings. Staff explained that the geese were attracted by the short-cut grass with easy access to the pond. The new plan seeks to remove about 1/3 of the turf and most of the pond, making the grounds less desirable to our avian neighbors. Since seniors expressed that they enjoy looking out over the water when visiting the Senior Center, a smaller pond will be retained.

Sunnyvale Community Center Preferred Concept Plan, via file 23-0088.

Councilmembers Cisneros and Mehlinger asked if all turf adjacent to the pond could be removed to further deter the geese. Ng said that switching out some grass was possible but cautioned that “generations of geese have established themselves in this location. So despite all of our mitigation measures, we aren’t going to completely eliminate the geese from living here.” Director of Public Works Chip Taylor added: “if we do have some sort of pond or water body, I think we’re going to have some sort of waterfowl.” Councilmember Melton confirmed with staff that it was feasible to move the fountain sculptures safely.

Councilmember Sell and members of the public asked whether more grass turf overall could be converted to native landscaping and mulch. Staff explained that landscape conversion has been limited to keep the capital expense of the renovation within the allotted budget and that public lawns are an amenity for residents in higher-density housing. Staff also explained that, due to historical reasons, water metering at the Community Center is not straightforward, making it difficult to assess the water use and potential savings of landscape conversion. Councilmembers requested that staff look into improved metering as part of the renovation project.

Mayor Klein recommended designing walking paths into 1/3 mile segments, as that is a convenient measure for folks who track their exercise. (1/3 mile is 536 meters.) Resident Steve Scandalis echoed Mayor Klein’s suggestion: “.33 and .66 routes are very conducive to supporting an Orienteering course for the Scouts.” Resident Diane Bracken complained that Sunnyvale has 22 parks for children. “You’re taking away the only adult park. A normal park has a lot of noise because of children. This park has been used by seniors for reflection. And that is going away.”

The preferred concept plan proposed by City Staff to renovate the Civic Center grounds was unanimously approved by the City Council.

Answering to Nature

Mayor Klein made a budget proposal to fund increased trimming for street trees over the next two years, to address a backlog in trimming. City Manager Kent Steffens reported that the city had thus far weathered the rain storms without property damage or injuries, but city staff has been busy responding to downed trees and minor street flooding. “We’ve given out more than 3,000 sandbags.” Council adjourned at 10:41pm.