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File #: 2021-1179   
Type: Regular Agenda Item
Body: Transportation Commission
On agenda: 7/28/2021
Title: Recommendations for Commercial Streets (Action Item)
Attachments: 1. Commercial Streets Community Survey Summary, 2. Correspondence: Bike Walk Alameda, 3. Correspondence: Ronald Mooney, 4. Presentation

Title

Recommendations for Commercial Streets (Action Item)

Body

Transportation Commission

July 28, 2021

Item #6B

(ACTION)

 

Recommendations for Commercial Streets

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

In May 2020, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the recommendations of the West Alameda Business Association (WABA) and the Downtown Alameda Business Association (DABA), the City Council authorized staff to proceed with a full slate of efforts, called the Commercial Streets program, to support the survival of Alameda’s businesses through the pandemic and to minimize the risk to public safety and the safety of the business employees, owners, and customers.  This program included the travel lane changes to Park Street and Webster Street, allowing parklets and sidewalk seating, the addition of short term parking, and a citywide permit allowing dining in private parking lots.

 

This report makes recommendations regarding the actions and decisions that should be made over the next two years by the City of Alameda to support the economic recovery of the business community from pandemic and to support equitable, safe, and efficient movement of people walking, people with disabilities, people bicycling, buses, delivery trucks and vehicles, on Alameda’s commercial streets.  

 

Staff is requesting that the Transportation Commission review and comment on staff’s five recommendations regarding the five primary components of the Commercial Streets program.     Staff will then present the Transportation Commission’s recommendations and the staff recommendations to the City Council in September. Separately, staff is developing recommendations on the future of the residential “Slow Streets” program to come to the Transportation Commission in September. The Slow Street program recommendations will then be presented to the City Council in October 2021.

 

BACKGROUND

 

To support its business community and the health and safety Alameda residents, employees and visitors during this global pandemic, the City Council approved the Commercial Streets program in May 2020. The objectives were to:

                     Support business needs for additional space to meet temporary changes in operations to address public safety and COVID-19, as articulated in County Health Orders.

                     Create more space for people to safely walk along the commercial corridors while physically distancing as more stores and businesses open.

                     Create more space for customers to safely stand in lines to shop at businesses while also allowing enough space for people to walk along the corridor.

                     Create more space for well-separated (6 feet or more) dining and shopping.

                     Create more space for convenient customer pick-up of products and to-go meals from outside the building.

 

The program includes five (5) primary components, which Council authorized to be in place through October 31, 2021. Each of the five components is described below. Staff has included specific recommendations for each component under the “discussion” section of this report. 

 

                     Park Street and Webster Street Reconfiguration.  Five blocks of Park Street (Santa Clara to San Jose) and three blocks of Webster Street (Lincoln to Taylor) were reconfigured and restriped to reduce the automobile travel lanes from four lanes to two lanes to create more space for pedestrians and outdoor commercial services, including outdoor dining.

 

                     Temporary Parklets.  Thirty-two (32) parklet permits were issued to allow construction of temporary commercial areas for dining or retail activities within the former parking or travel lanes. Twenty (27) are currently active, with some parklets serving multiple businesses. In addition, six (6) sidewalk usage permits were issued, including one for all of the businesses within WABA and one for DABA, allowing businesses to use a portion of the sidewalk for outdoor dining or retail.

 

                     Temporary Parking Reconfiguration.  Almost all of the parking along the reconfigured sections of Park Street and Webster Street was converted to 15-minute pick-up/drop to support take-out services.  Upon request, the City also converted approximately 30 spaces to pick-up/drop-off parking spaces to support local businesses outside of the Park Street and Webster Street commercial districts. 

 

                     Temporary Alameda Avenue Closure.  A half block of Alameda Avenue off of Park Street was closed to auto traffic to allow space for outdoor dining, at the request of DABA. The City issued a Special Event permit to DABA and they installed and maintain the tables and tents.

 

                     Temporary citywide Use Permit.  The Planning Board approved a citywide, temporary conditional use permit in June 2020 to allow businesses to use their outdoor areas and parking lots for commercial purposes and outdoor seating. At least 15 business are using their private parking lots for outdoor seating under this permit.

 

As of the date of the writing of this report, Alameda County has lifted the shelter-in-place order and lifted social distancing and capacity limits for indoor retail and restaurants. At this time, 71% of the eligible Alameda County population, and 76% of those in Alameda, are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. 

 

In anticipation of the upcoming October 2021 program end date and further reductions in the risk of infection in Alameda, staff has been working with the business community and the larger Alameda community to develop a set of recommendations for the transition from temporary improvements implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to more permanent improvements that will continue to support the business community and ensure safe, efficient, and equitable use of the public right of way.

 

To inform future actions, City staff and the business community have gathered information from a variety of sources:

 

                     Online Surveys and Virtual Town Halls:  Over 1,750 individuals provided feedback via an online survey, and the City offered two virtual town halls and two in-person events where additional input was gathered. A summary of the survey responses is attached (Exhibit 1) and a full compilation of general comments will be posted on the program web page (www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets <http://www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets>) by Friday, July 23. DABA and WABA also surveyed their own businesses and held two virtual forums.

 

                     Collision Data.  Staff reviewed collision data on Park and Webster Streets for the 12 months before the pandemic and 12 months of the pandemic. 

 

                     Auto Traffic Data. Auto volumes, speeds and travel times were compiled from anonymized GPS and cell phone data for Park and Webster Streets and nearby streets where diversion may have occurred.  Staff compared conditions over a two-month period (March and April), between three separate years: pre-pandemic (2019), during pandemic (2020), and this spring, after the commercial streets program was implemented (2021). A summary of the data will be posted on the program web page (www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets <http://www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets>) by Friday, July 23.

 

                     Key stakeholders. Staff also considered information provided by AC Transit, Alameda Fire, Alameda Police, Alameda Public Works, DABA and WABA. 

 

DISCUSSION

 

Staff recommends that the City Council and the community prepare for two more years of economic recovery and the elimination of on-going threats from COVID-19 and its variants. The highly-transmissible Delta variant has resulted in the mid-July County Health Department recommendation to again wear masks indoors, and some predict that COVID cases will rise even more in the colder months. As well, many people are still hesitant to dine indoors and limit their time shopping indoors.  As stated by a respondent to one of the online business surveys:

 

 “The city of alameda NEEDS to extend this program to allow for the business to recoup their investments AND losses from the last 16 months. It will take years before we can regain our footing again and have a confident and healthy business district.”

 

During the next two years, the City and the community will also learn more about future travel patterns and how they will change as the result of changing work schedules resulting from the pandemic experience. These changes will likely impact vehicle and commute patterns throughout the Bay Area and on Park Street and Webster Street. 

 

In addition, the City Council will be considering the citywide Vision Zero Action Plan by the end of 2021 and the Active Transportation Plan in 2022. And, AC Transit will develop a new service plan. These three plans will help inform decisions about priorities for the modifications to Park Street and Webster Street.

 

Given the still changing conditions, staff recommends that the City Council, the business community, and the city staff use the next two years to continue to improve and make changes to the program components to address current, known issues and problems and also use this time to continue to monitor regional and local transportation and health conditions, which will be used to inform future decisions. Specific changes that staff recommends for immediate implementation are described below. 

 

Park Street and Webster Street ReconfigurationStaff recommends that the City maintain the existing striping on Park Street and Webster Street for at least the next two years. 

 

During this period, the striping, bollards, water-filled barriers and some parklets should be adjusted to address specific issues related to on-street parking, loading, and AC Transit access.  

 

Sixty six percent (66%) of the respondents to the DABA business survey stated that they would like to see the street changes continue beyond 2021, with another 16% responding “maybe.” Forty eight percent (48%) agreed that “Park Street is now a more enjoyable space and there is less traffic noise.” The WABA survey had only a limited number of business respondents, but WABA has stated that overall their businesses support the lane reconfiguration on Webster Street.

 

In the community survey, for both streets, the majority (42-43%) of the 1759 respondents stated that they support keeping the current reconfiguration; while about one third like the lane reduction, and also want to see safe bicycle facilities added to the street; and another third prefer to have the street be returned to 4 lanes. (Note that the percentages add up to more than 100% since multiple responses could be selected.) As stated by one respondent:

 

 “As a driver I definitely try to avoid using Park Street now, including parking for pick-up. As a diner and pedestrian I love it!”

 

Staff recommends that changes to the striping and barriers be implemented immediately and where necessary to improve the efficient and effective use of on-street parking, to add loading (yellow) zones, add a limited amount of short term parking (green zones), add parking for the disabled, and improve transit efficiencies along Park Street and Webster Street.

 

AC Transit data show that during the afternoon peak period on Park Street, bus travel time is getting close to pre-pandemic levels, and they are concerned it will get worse in the Fall. On Webster Street, and during the morning peaks for both streets, their buses are still able to move efficiently. Work was recently completed to coordinate the traffic signals along both corridors. As well, transit signal priority capabilities have been installed, which once implemented, should improve transit speeds. 

 

Comparing March and April 2019 to the same months in 2021 (the most recent available data), the traffic volumes for Park and Webster Streets were found to be as follows:

                     Mornings on weekdays and weekends: Averaged 10-50% lower than in 2019.

                     Midday on weekdays and weekends: 0-15% lower, so closer to pre-pandemic normal.

                     Afternoon:

o                     Weekdays:

§                     Webster Street varies with northbound volumes only slightly lower (around 10%), and southbound traffic (the commute direction) much lower (more than 40%).

§                     Park Street averaged 25% lower than in 2019.

o                     Weekends:

§                     Traffic volumes were the same or slightly higher than 2019 on Webster Street, possibly attributable to the events at the “Healing Garden” on Webster and Taylor.

§                     On Park Street, volumes still averaged about 10% lower than in 2019.

 

The traffic volume data for the streets studied for possible diversion shows some possible diversion on certain streets, in some directions, at certain times of day, though overall it is generally not high. This data, along with the travel speed and travel time data is still being analyzed as of the writing of this staff report, and will be posted by Friday, July 23 to the program web page: www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets <http://www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets>.

 

A review of collision data for the two streets comparing conditions before the re-striping and after the restriping do not reveal any significant changes in the frequency or severity of collisions.  Even though there is a lack of noticeable change in collisions, about one quarter of community survey respondents reported that the streets feel safer to them.

 

Over the next two years staff will continue to monitor the travel conditions on Park and Webster Streets, and will prioritize completing the Vision Zero Action this year, and the Active Transportation Plan by next year. AC Transit will conduct their service planning starting later this year and finishing up next year. After this policy direction is established and the post-pandemic travel patterns become clearer, staff will work with the community and stakeholders to develop plans for the long term future of these two commercial corridors, with the goal of bringing plans to Council at the end of the two year period.

 

Temporary Parklet Program. Staff recommends that the temporary parklet program be revised to allow for semi-permanent parklets that meet a higher safety and aesthetic standard. 

 

Staff believes that parklets will continue to play an important role in business recovery over the next two years. However, staff also believes that the program needs to be adjusted to recognize that parklets in the public right of way are no longer temporary structures to address a short term emergency, but are instead, semi-permeant structures that must be appropriately designed to meet all building, ADA, storm water drainage and aesthetic criteria. 

 

There are currently 27 approved parklets on Alameda’s streets. Under staff’s recommended revised parklet program, each parklet will need to maintain a valid, annual parklet permit. A parklet permit is an encroachment permit to build a structure on the public right of way. To qualify for an annual parklet permit, a parklet shall be constructed or altered as necessary, if existing, to meet:

 

                     minimum building safety requirements (especially for walls and any roofs), 

                     minimum storm drain requirements (to ensure adequate drainage on the street),

                     minimum ADA access requirements, 

                     minimum aesthetic design requirements, and

                     minimum traffic safety and engineering requirements (to ensure the safety of the users).

 

Safety is the top priority. Over the past year, there was one collision with a parklet, with no one seriously hurt. Staff recommends revising the barrier placement protocol, further restricting where parklets are allowed, and the selective use of concrete (“jersey”) barriers at key locations.

 

Staff recommends that the City of Alameda reserve the right to revoke any existing encroachment permit for any existing parklet or deny a permit for a new parklet that:

 

                     does not meet the above criteria;

                     is utilizing space that staff determines is necessary to improve safety, transit efficiency, loading, or provide parking for the disabled; or 

                     is not open and made available for public use when the store or restaurant is closed.  

 

Staff recommends that the City establish an annual permit fee for the right to occupy public right of way space for use by a local business. In light of the pandemic’s continuing impact on businesses, staff recommends the annual fee be set in year one to only cover the City’s inspection and permitting costs (roughly $500) and that the annual cost of the permit increase annually thereafter. 

 

Staff’s recommended changes to the encroachment permit for parklets (structures in the street) also include changes to the encroachment permit for use of the sidewalks (chairs and tables, or retail wares displayed or sold, on the sidewalk). Staff is recommending the continuation of district wide encroachment permits for use of a narrow portion of the sidewalk for sidewalk seating or merchandise display. The permit will ensure that a minimum amount of sidewalk space is maintained clear for pedestrian access at all times.  

 

Staff is also recommending significant limitations on the construction of permanent barriers or fences for outdoor seating or for parklets, which block the use of the public sidewalk by the general public even when the restaurant, store or parklet is closed.  

 

Parking Regulations.  Staff recommends that the City generally return to the parking regulations that were in effect before the Commercial Streets program was implemented, with the changes described above under the street reconfiguration section. At this time, staff does not recommend keeping all of the 15-minute parking along the reconfigured sections of Park and Webster Streets. Through surveys and events, both the community and businesses have consistently complained about the lack of parking enforcement, the abuse of the 15-minute time limits, and the free parking.

 

Staff recommends that the City re-establish pre-pandemic parking rates and limitations for public parking along Park Street and Webster Street and re-establish parking enforcement as soon as feasible to ensure an equitable use of available on-street parking and strive to achieve the City Council-adopted policy of 85% occupancy on any given commercial block.

 

Alameda Avenue Street Closure.  Staff recommends that the City maintain the half block closure of Alameda Avenue until the street is repaved (anticipated for 2023) or until DABA no longer wishes to manage the space, whichever occurs first. Staff also recommends that the City allow DABA to enhance the street by painting murals on roadway. It is likely that sewer repairs, and then repaving, will take place in 2023, given the very poor condition of the street. The repaving project will provide an opportunity to re-envision how this street looks and is used, and to either make the closure permanent, or discontinue it.

 

Alameda Avenue has been transformed into a community gathering space without cars for people to walk, bike, eat to-go food and gather informally. DABA manages this space, and has invested in the tables, tents and other amenities, along with paying for regular cleanings and patrols of the area. There have been objections from the immediate neighbors on Alameda Avenue to the noise generated by people using this space late at night, and people socializing without masks. DABA has attempted to address these concerns with the patrols and closing the space at night. They continue to look for ways to address the neighbors’ concerns.

 

DABA and the businesses overwhelmingly support this use of Alameda Avenue (80% of respondents to the DABA survey support maintaining the closure). The community survey showed that 54% of respondents support the closure, 20% are neutral, and 25% would like to see the street re-opened to cars.

 

Temporary citywide Use Permit.  Staff recommends that the existing citywide conditional use permit allowing outdoor dining and commercial activities in private parking lots expire on November 1, 2021. Individual businesses that wish to continue to use their lots for commercial uses may apply for a site-specific permanent use permit. The site specific, permanent use permit allows for the consideration of site specific requirements that may need to be imposed on the use to ensure compatibility with adjacent uses, such as residential buildings. Specific issues that are typically addressed in these site specific use permits are hours of use and use of amplified music and noise. 

 

In recent months, the Planning Board has considered individual use permits for the use of a rear yard and patio at the Clubhouse Bar on Park Street and the use of the Taylor Street parking lot on Webster Street.

 

MUNICIPAL CODE/POLICY DOCUMENT CROSS REFERENCE

 

Actions to preserve the health and safety of Alameda residents and business customers and actions to support the health and economic survival of the Alameda business community are consistent with General Plan Land Use, Transportation, and Safety Element goals and priorities.   The Council’s adopted Street Design Resolution (#15648) states that “when designing, redesigning or resurfacing streets consistent with this policy, improvements and right-of-way space shall be allocated based upon the following principles and priorities…Provide safe and convenient access for vulnerable users including children, seniors, and people bicycling and walking..., and Safety for people walking and bicycling shall be the highest priority.”

 

ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

 

Pursuant to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines section 15301(c) Existing Facilities, Section 15304 (h) Minor Alterations to Land and the creation of bicycle lanes on existing public rights of way, and CEQA Section 21080.20.5, the proposed reconfiguration of these existing streets to increase space for pedestrians and bicyclists is categorically exempt from further environmental review. 

 

RECOMMENDATION

 

That the Transportation Commission review and comment on staff’s recommendations regarding:

 

                     The reconfiguration of Park Street and Webster Street;

                     The redesign of the parklet program;

                     The termination of the COVID-era parking regulations and return to pre-COVID parking regulations, with enforcement;

                     The Alameda Avenue street closure; and

                     The termination of the citywide temporary use permit and return to individual, permanent use permits. 

                      

Respectfully submitted,

Andrew Thomas, Director, Planning, Building, and Transportation Department

 

By,

Rochelle Wheeler, Senior Transportation Coordinator

 

Exhibit: 

1.                     Commercial Streets Community Survey Summary