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File #: 2021-1321   
Type: Regular Agenda Item
Body: Planning Board
On agenda: 9/27/2021
Title: Request to Review and Comment on the Staff Recommendations to the City Council for a Commercial Streets Two-Year Work Program to Improve the Park Street and Webster Street Striping Plans; Improve the On-street Parklet Program; Maintain the Alameda Avenue Street Closure; and Resume Pre-COVID Parking Management, Fee Collection, and Enforcement Activities
Attachments: 1. Exhibit 1 Community Survey Summary, 2. Exhibit 2 Traffic Data: Alameda Commercial Streets Before and After Study, 3. Item 7-D Public Comment

Title

 

Request to Review and Comment on the Staff Recommendations to the City Council for a Commercial Streets Two-Year Work Program to Improve the Park Street and Webster Street Striping Plans; Improve the On-street Parklet Program; Maintain the Alameda Avenue Street Closure; and Resume Pre-COVID Parking Management, Fee Collection, and Enforcement Activities

Body

 

To:                     Honorable President and Members of the Planning Board

From:  Andrew Thomas, Planning, Building & Transportation Director

 

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 health risks to public safety and the safety of the business employees, owners, and customers. This program included the restriping of Park Street and Webster Street, permitting on-street parklets, changing parking management and fee collection to emphasize the use of on street parking for free, short term parking, and a citywide permit allowing use of private commercial land to be used for outdoor commercial activities.  The Council established these temporary programs to extend through October 2021. 

 

This report recommends a work plan for the next two years beginning in November 2021 to support the economic recovery of the business community from the pandemic and equitable, safe, and efficient movement of people walking, people with disabilities, people bicycling, transit, and delivery and other vehicles, on Alameda’s two main commercial streets.  

 

An earlier version of the work program proposed in this staff report was reviewed and endorsed by the Transportation Commission at its meeting on July 28th.  The Commission emphasized the need to continue to maintain adequate short term parking along Park and Webster Streets, to continue to work with AC Transit to minimize delays in transit travel times, and to consider the addition of significant bicycle parking at Alameda Avenue to support bicycle access to Park Street businesses.  At an upcoming meeting, the Transportation Commission will consider staff recommendations for the residential Slow Streets program, which will be on an agenda for City Council consideration in November or December. This report does not address residential slow streets. 

 

At this time, staff is requesting that the Planning Board review and comment on the draft staff recommendation to the City Council regarding continuation of the Commercial Streets Program. 

 

BACKGROUND

 

To support its business community and the health and safety Alameda residents, employees and visitors during the global pandemic, the City Council approved the Commercial Streets program in May 2020. The program objective was to support the business community’s needs for additional outdoor space to accommodate temporary changes in operations in response to the public safety threats of COVID-19.  Specifically, the program created more space for:

 

                     People to safely walk along the commercial corridors while physically distancing as more stores and businesses opened.

                     Customers to safely stand in lines to shop at businesses or pick up takeout food while also allowing enough space for people to walk along the corridor.

                     Restaurants to provide outdoor seating with adequate space between tables.

 

The program included five (5) primary components, which the City Council authorized to be in place through October 31, 2021.

 

1.                     Park Street and Webster Street Restriping.  Five blocks of Park Street (Santa Clara to San Jose) and three blocks of Webster Street (Lincoln to Taylor) were 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.

 

2.                     Parklets.  Thirty-two (32) parklet permits were issued to allow construction of temporary commercial areas for dining or retail activities within former parking or travel lanes. Twenty-seven (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 all businesses within DABA, allowing businesses to use a portion of the sidewalk for outdoor dining or retail.

 

3.                     Alameda Avenue Closure.  One half block of Alameda Avenue off Park Street was closed to auto traffic to allow space for outdoor dining, at the request of DABA. Pursuant to a Special Event permit, DABA installed and maintains the street furniture.

 

4.                     Parking Management.  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.  Outside of the Park Street and Webster Street commercial districts, approximately 30 spaces were dedicated to pick-up/drop-off parking spaces to support local businesses

 

5.                     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.

 

In anticipation of the upcoming October 2021 program end date, staff worked with the business community and the larger Alameda community to develop a plan for the next two years to support the business community recovery and ensure safe, efficient, and equitable use of the public right of way. Sources of information that inform this work plan include:

 

                     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 data is included (Exhibit 1) and the full compilation of general comments is posted on the program web page (www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets <http://www.alamedaca.gov/commercialstreets>). DABA and WABA also separately surveyed their businesses and jointly held two virtual forums.

 

                     Collision Data.  Staff compared 12 months of collision data on Park and Webster Streets from July 2018 through June 2019 with data from July 2020 to June 2021, to compare collision numbers from before the shelter-in-place orders (March 2020), with after the roadway reconfigurations on Park and Webster were installed.

 

                     Auto Traffic Data. Auto volumes, speeds and travel times were compiled from anonymized GPS and cell phone data for Park and Webster Streets and for nearby streets where some traffic may have moved. 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 is included as Exhibit 2.

 

                     Stakeholders. Input was solicited from AC Transit, DABA and WABA. 

 

DISCUSSION

 

As of the date of the writing of this report, Alameda County has lifted the shelter-in-place order.  Alameda County currently requires everyone, including fully vaccinated people, to wear a mask in indoor public settings <https://covid-19.acgov.org/covid19/face-masks.page?> to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but has lifted social distancing and capacity limits for indoor retail and restaurants. Approximately 75% of the eligible Alameda County population, and approximately 80% of eligible Alameda residents, are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. Despite these high vaccination rates, new variants are posing new public health threats, which continue to impact and influence business practices and customer activities on Park Street and Webster Street.   

 

Staff is recommending that the City Council, the business community, and staff use the next two years to continue to improve and make changes to the program components to address current issues and problems and to continue to monitor regional and local transportation and health conditions. 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.”

Over the next two years, the public health risks will change and the staff and the community will learn more about evolving travel patterns and work schedules resulting from the pandemic. These changes may result in new vehicle and commute patterns throughout the Bay Area and on Park Street and Webster Street. AC Transit will develop a new service plan over the next two years, and the City Council will be considering the draft Vision Zero Action Plan in December 2021, and the draft Active Transportation Plan in 2022.   All of this work and information will and should influence the final decisions about the design and use of commercial streets in Alameda.   

 

During the next two years, staff recommends the following work program for the five (5) program components:  

 

Continue Current Park Street and Webster Street Restriping. 

 

Staff recommends that the Park Street and Webster Street restriping be maintained and continue to be improved for at least the next two years. During the next two years, changes should be made 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 people with disabilities (blue zones), and improve transit speeds along Park Street and Webster Street.

 

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, a plurality (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 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!”

 

The program evaluation found that automobile volumes on Park Street and Webster Street continue to be below pre-pandemic levels. (The traffic study is attached as Exhibit 2.) A comparison of automobile volumes in March and April 2019  (pre-pandemic) to March and April 2021 reveals that morning (6 - 10am) volumes on Park Street and Webster Street are 10-55% lower than in 2019, depending on direction. On both streets, midday (10am - 3pm) volumes are 0-15% lower than in 2019, depending on the direction of travel and street. On Park Street, afternoon (3 --- 7pm) volumes are about 25% lower. In the afternoon on Webster Street, northbound volumes are approximately 10% lower and southbound traffic (the commute direction) is more than 40% lower.  On weekend afternoons, traffic volumes were the same or slightly higher than 2019 on Webster Street and about 10% lower on Park Street than in 2019.

 

A review of volumes on the parallel streets that might be experiencing increases in volumes as the result of diversion from Park and Webster Streets indicates that there may be some diversion in some directions, at certain times of day, though overall it is not significant. 

 

Traffic speeds are generally lower on Park Street and Webster Street as a result of the restriping. On Park Street, during the week, speeds dropped 14% from an average of 11.9 mph in 2019 to 10.3 mph in 2021. The biggest reduction in speeds is in the afternoon commute direction (southbound) for the reconfigured section of Park Street (Lincoln to Encinal), with speeds now averaging 8.8 mph.  On Webster Street, average speeds are slower in some directions during some periods, but the average of all speeds (both directions, for all periods), from Central to Buena Vista Avenue, is the same in 2021 as it was in 2019 on weekdays: about 12.5 mph.    

 

A review of collision data for the two commercial streets does not reveal any significant changes in the frequency or severity of collisions since restriping. 

 

About 25% of community survey respondents reported that the streets feel safer since restriping.

 

AC Transit data reveals that during the afternoon peak period on Park Street, bus travel time is getting close to pre-pandemic levels. Work was recently completed to coordinate the traffic signals along both corridors, and transit signal priority technology was recently installed on Park Street which, once implemented, should improve transit speeds.   

 

Based upon the response from the business community, the larger Alameda community, a review of the existing traffic conditions and the ongoing public health threats, staff recommends that the current striping plans for Park Street and Webster Street be maintained and further enhanced for at least the next two years. Over the next two years staff will continue to monitor the travel conditions on Park and Webster Streets, and staff believes that post-pandemic travel patterns will become clearer. The City Council will complete its review of the citywide Vision Zero Action Plan this year, and the Active Transportation Plan next year. Over the next two years, AC Transit will be undertaking a service planning study for all of their services.  These planning efforts, in addition to a city sponsored planning effort with the business community, will influence a final recommendation for a final striping plan for the commercial streets. 

 

With the information gathered over the next two years, the City’s appointed and elected decision makers will be in an excellent positon to make decisions about the final configuration of Park Street and Webster Street to meet its active transportation, vision zero, economic development, greenhouse gas reduction, transit first, and public health goals.  

 

From a cost perspective, maintaining and improving the existing striping for two more years is less expensive than re-striping Park Street and Webster Street back to their prior configuration with four (4) travel lanes. Some costs will be incurred over the next two years improving and maintaining the existing configurations, such as painting additional yellow zones (for loading), blue zones (for disabled parking) and adjusting parking striping and signage in some areas to improve efficiencies and transit speeds, but many of these parking improvements were already needed, and the costs will be significantly lower than the cost to restripe the two main streets back to their original configuration. 

 

Continue the Parklet Program.  

 

The restriping of Park Street and Webster Street provided the opportunity for the City and the business community to work together to allow for temporary outdoor “parklets” for the use of individual businesses and restaurants. There are currently 27 parklets on Alameda’s streets, approved through the City’s temporary COVID parklet permit process. Since staff is recommending continuation of the current striping plans, and due to the continued need for outdoor dining space to allow for business recovery, staff also recommends continuation, with improvements, to the parklet program.  

 

In the community survey, 68% of responses were in favor of maintaining the parklets, while 36% would like to see the parklets removed. DABA and WABA would like the parklet program to continue.

 

Staff recommends that the temporary COVID parklet program be continued for another two years, with modifications made to improve safety, accessibility, and aesthetics and to reduce city costs.  The proposed modifications include requiring an annual encroachment permit and a signed agreement for the use of public space by each business owner with a parklet.  Each parklet (both existing and future) will be reviewed for appropriate traffic safety, building code (especially roof and walls), ADA access, minimum aesthetic design standards, and insurance requirements. All parklets will be required to meet new, comprehensive adopted safety standards to be prepared by the City Engineer.   

 

Staff recommends that the City reserve the right to revoke or deny an encroachment permit and agreement for any parklet that does not, or is unable to meet the above criteria, or for any parklet that utilizes public on-street space that is necessary to improve safety, transit efficiency, loading, provide parking for the disabled, or to allow for street and utility repairs. 

 

Staff recommends that local business cover the City’s costs to process and inspect the parklets for compliance with the minimum requirements. And, in order to more comprehensively address traffic safety risk and liability, staff will recommend an increase in the amount of required insurance that each parklet owner be required to maintain. 

 

Further, to protect the public as much as possible from moving vehicles, staff recommends a new approach to the parklet barriers. Staff will present two program options to Council: (1) the individual business is responsible for designing, purchasing and maintaining the traffic safety measures; and (2) the City purchases, installs and maintains the devices. With the former, staff will recommend a new grant program, to cover the additional costs to the business.

 

Finally, staff recommends a citywide, six (6) month “grace period” for all existing parklet encroachments that are currently scheduled to expire on November 3, 2021.  During the six month period (November 4, 2021 through May 1, 2022), the businesses will have time to bring their parklets into compliance with the new standards or remove their parklets from the public right of way.   

 

Restore Pre-Pandemic Parking Regulations. 

 

Staff recommends that the City generally return to the parking regulations that were in effect before the Commercial Streets program was implemented. 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.

 

At this time, staff is actively working with DABA and WABA to modify and remove some or most of the 15-minute parking along the reconfigured sections of Park and Webster Streets. Community members and business owners have been vocal about the lack of parking enforcement and regular abuse of the 15-minute time limits.

 

Maintain Half-Block Alameda Avenue Street Closure. 

 

Staff recommends that the City maintain the half block closure of Alameda Avenue until the street is repaved (anticipated in 2024) 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 temporary murals on the roadway.  Sewer repairs and repaving are planned for 2023 and 2024. The repaving project will require a final decision at that time about the final design and use of Alameda Avenue. 

 

Alameda Avenue was closed to through traffic and transformed into a community gathering space for people to walk, bike, eat to-go food and gather informally. An open, 20-foot wide emergency access lane is maintained through the closed half block. DABA manages this space, purchased the tables, tents and other amenities, and pays for regular cleanings and patrols of the area.

 

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. There have been objections from some immediate neighbors on Alameda Avenue to the noise generated by people using this space late at night, and people socializing without masks. DABA has been working to address these concerns with the patrols and closing the space at night.

 

Temporary Citywide Use Permit to Expire November 1st. 

 

Staff recommends maintaining the current expiration date of November 1, 2021 for the existing short term citywide conditional use permit allowing outdoor dining and commercial activities in private parking lots, and that interested business owners pursue individual, business-specific use permits to maintain these uses into the future. 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, the 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.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

 

The Commercial Streets Two-Year Work Program is exempt from the requirements of CEQA pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15061(b) (3), where it can be shown with certainty that the proposed amendments will not have a significant effect on the environment. On separate and independent bases, the program is also exempt from CEQA Guidelines Sections 15301 Existing Facilities, 15304(e) Minor Temporary Use of Land, and 15305 Minor Alterations to Land Use Limitations, and none of the exceptions apply.  No further environmental review is needed.

 

CLIMATE IMPACTS

 

Supporting walking, bicycling, and transit use will help the City meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by supporting mode shift away from automobiles. The City’s 2019 Climate Action and Resiliency Plan found that transportation accounts for 70% of the City’s GHG emissions, and that moving people out of automobiles is paramount to reducing transportation-related emissions. Creating streets focused on people, rather than cars, encourages these modes of transportation, and can reduce emissions from people driving to their destinations, and help the community develop lifelong habits of walking, bicycling and taking transit.

 

RECOMMENDATION

 

That the Planning Board review and comment on the staff recommendation that the City Council approve the Commercial Streets Two-Year Work Program to Improve the Park Street and Webster Street Striping Plans; Improve the On-street Parklet Program; Maintain the Alameda Avenue Street Closure; and Resume Pre-COVID Parking Management, Fee Collection, and Enforcement Activities.

                      

Respectfully Submitted by:                     

Andrew Thomas, Planning, Building, and Transportation Director

Rochelle Wheeler, Senior Transportation Coordinator

 

Exhibits: 

1.                     Community Survey Summary

2.                     Traffic Data: Alameda Commercial Streets Before and After Study