Churchill Avenue project inches forward, aims to improve safety for students

Andy Robinson, Staff Writer

Project engineer Shahla Yazdy describes the current layout of Churchill Avenue as the school board listens at Tuesday’s virtual meeting. After restarting the project, Yazdy said that it is important to listen to local feedback as construction looms. “We are going out to the community again just because it’s been a few years and it’s good to remind everyone and bring them up to speed,” Yazdy said. Photo: City of Palo Alto Office of Transportation

The Churchill Avenue Improvement Project, which intends to protect local commuters — particularly Palo Alto High School students — is moving closer to approval after the new plan was presented at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. 

Improving safety and convenience for cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles, many of whom are commuting to neighboring Paly and the adjacent Palo Alto Unified School District office, are major priorities for the project, which has been in the works since 2014. The school board will revisit the issue in March to approve and authorize the design. 

Once completed, the current two-way bike path along Churchill will extend all the way to El Camino Real, allowing Paly students to safely traverse the often congested area by bike, according to Project Engineer Shahla Yazdy.

“For kids coming from College Terrace, as they take the Stanford Perimeter Trail, they now have a way to get to school using the bike path since it’s two ways and [reaches] the school,” Yazdy said. “Before they would come and [cross El Camino] and then somehow they’d have to get themselves over to the north side of Churchill.”

In addition, the project will add new crosswalks at the intersection of Churchill and Castilleja Avenue, as well as a speed bump to the Churchill-Madrono crossing. The city will also repave the road, re-landscape the surrounding area and add street lights.

At the El Camino Real-Churchill intersection, an isolated sidewalk for pedestrians that Yazdy called a “pork chop island” located halfway across Churchill will be removed, and to decrease traffic, the city will construct a right-turn lane for up to six vehicles turning onto El Camino.

Shahla Yazdy shows how students will be able to cross El Camino Real once the project is complete. Yazdy said that the original concept plan has not changed radically, but was altered to better suit the needs of the community.  “What we did… is just really some minor refinements… to make the drive for both vehicles and bicyclists and pedestrians smoother,” she said. Photo: City of Palo Alto Office of Transportation

“I know that [these additions] will help with congestion,” Yazdy said. “We’ve heard a lot of comments from everyone that cars are backing up way past the driveway of the school district building.”

The project — which does not address community concerns with the Churchill railroad crossing located just down the street — began in March 2014, when the city asked Sandis Engineering to design the project. By 2015, the council had approved the concept plan and begun the work; however, in summer 2018, the project temporarily stalled. It restarted in November 2019 with the same concept plan according to Yazdy. 

Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said she supported the changes, arguing that hazardous conditions for Paly students and other local pedestrians and bicyclists necessitate the plan.

“Unfortunately, in the past year alone, we’ve had a bicycle death of one of our students,” DiBrienza said. “We’ve had another student just last month hit while crossing the street, so we need to keep doing more. … I’m enthusiastically in support of moving this forward.”