Monday, March 30, 2009

City Expands List of High-speed-rail Concerns

California High-speed-rail update --

by Gennady Sheyner Palo Alto Online Staff

A century-old bridge, a row of "storybook" houses on Mariposa Avenue and the famous El Palo Alto redwood tree could all be imperiled by a proposed high-speed train system, according to a new city report.

These are three of eight historic sites that staff and the Historic Resources Board (HRB) said could be adversely impacted by the proposed rail line, which California voters approved in November.

The HRB discussed the rail line's potential impact on these sites during a Wednesday morning meeting. The board agreed to integrate its concerns into a letter the city plans to send to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the new system.

Cities and the public have until April 6 to submit questions and concerns that will be included in a comprehensive environmental-impact review of the Peninsula segment of the rail project.

The city's "scoping comments" to the authority list issues the city wants the agency to explore in upcoming Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the San Francisco-to-San Jose section of the 800-mile line.

The list has been swelling in recent weeks, as residents, City Council members and commissioners have come forth with a myriad of fears and anxieties over the controversial project.

A draft letter, presented to the Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night, included 47 items the city wants the rail authority to explore in its analysis, including the rail line's impacts on traffic, vegetation, the San Francisquito Creek and air quality.

And that's before the planning commission began contributing its own comments.

Both the council and the commissions said the agency should seriously consider the rail line's impacts on El Palo Alto. The draft of the city's letter notes that the tree is 1,100-years-old and that it has a life expectancy of 300 more years.

The tree -- the oldest living California Historic Landmark -- stands close to the Caltrain corridor, through which the agency plans to run high-speed trains at speeds of 125 mph.

"The tree is healthier today than it was 100 years ago," city Arborist Dave Dockter said. "It does, however, hang in a delicate balance.

"Because the rail authority is more than a year away from deciding whether the rail line would go underground or overhead, city officials don't know how the project could impact El Palo Alto or any of the other local historic sites.

But officials said they want to make sure the authority thoroughly explores these possible impacts before it chooses its preferred design.

Dennis Backlund, the city's historic preservation planner, and the HRB also pointed to seven other historic sites that could be impacted by the project: the steel railroad bridge next to El Palo Alto that dates back to 1902; the University Avenue and Embarcadero underpasses (built in 1941 and 1936, respectively); the downtown Caltrain depot, the Mariposa Avenue section of the Southgate neighborhood; a home at 3905 Park Avenue (built around 1905); and the "Hostess House" (designed in 1918 as part of the U.S. Army's Camp Fremont and currently housing MacArthur Park Restaurant) adjacent to the University Avenue Caltrain depot.

On Mariposa Avenue, the rail would threaten a row of storybook-style homes quaint, Tudor-style houses that date back to the 1920s. The rail line passes by these houses and could cut into their yards if the right of way were expanded.

HRB member Beth Bunnenberg said the entire Southgate neighborhood should be looked at as a historical site, not just the Mariposa Avenue stretch near the tracks.

"Southgate, I think, is an extremely important area," Bunnenberg said. "You don't just talk about one street, or one side of the street, being affected.

"Whatever change happens to the pieces along the railroad will affect also all of the district," she said. "The district has context.

"The board unanimously agreed to ask the rail authority to study the proposed rail line's potential impact on these historic sites.

The planning commission, meanwhile, had its own suggestions. At a Wednesday night meeting, commissioners offered a host of comments for the agency to consider in the EIR, including the rail system's potential impact on utilities, aquifers, noise and urban sprawl.

Commissioner Arthur Keller proposed a detailed plan for the line: a combination of trenching and tunneling that ascends around Redwood City.

Commissioner Lee Lippert argued in favor of sending the rail line underground.The city has to submit its comments to the rail authority by April 6. The rail authority expects to complete the EIR by summer or fall of 2010.

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