Plans to revamp Shoreline Boulevard and add a reversible bus lane to the median are facing growing opposition after it was revealed that a growing number of significant trees would need to be cut down to make room for new traffic lanes.
In a rare move, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-0 last week to oppose a plan that would fell 11 heritage trees so that left-turn lanes at the intersection of Shoreline and Middlefield Road could be constructed. Commissioners questioned how badly the traffic improvements were needed, and whether it was worth the loss of tree canopy in a pedestrian-friendly city.
"If we're talking about turning Mountain View into a walkable pedestrian and bike-friendly environment, this project goes exactly in the opposite direction," said Commissioner Ronit Bryant.
Plans to build a bus lane on Shoreline Boulevard date back to 2014 as city officials considered ways to ease traffic woes heading into and out of North Bayshore, which is slated to grow substantially with thousands of new homes and residents in the coming decades.
The project includes a 12-foot-wide dedicated bus lane in the center of the road from Middlefield Road to Pear Avenue, as well as 6-foot bike lanes with a buffer from vehicle traffic.
The City Council has since backed the project, and committed $4.3 million to acquire properties to widen the road.
Though it was clear early on that the project would require the city to chop down trees in the median and along the edges of Shoreline, commission members said they've been surprised by the growing number of trees earmarked for the ax in the name of traffic improvements. When the council approved the project in 2016, the total was 11 heritage trees, and it's gone up incrementally since then. At the Sept. 8 meeting, commissioners were asked to approve the removal of 11 additional trees -- most of them towering coastal redwoods -- to make room for new left-turn lanes onto Shoreline from Middlefield. That would bring the total number of heritage trees for removal to 26.
City staffers called the left-turn lanes an "essential part" of the project, and that pre-COVID traffic was horribly congested at the intersection. But commissioners questioned whether it was worth giving up tree canopy and losing one of the defining features of Middlefield Road.
"It ruins this part of Middlefield, which is one of the most wonderful tree-lined experiences in the whole city," said Commissioner Sandy Sommer.
Bryant, who proposed formally opposing the plan, said she does not want the commission to act as a rubber stamp for projects, and that in this case, the price is too high and the return is too low. She also criticized the idea that planting new trees elsewhere somehow fixes the loss of large trees lining Middlefield Road.
"The crux of the problem is if we take out those heritage trees, that cannot be mitigated. Planting trees in San Veron park is wonderful and should absolutely be done, but that in no way mitigates what will happen if this moves forward at the intersection of Middlefield and Shoreline," Bryant said.
Residents attending the virtual meeting also questioned the need for extra left-turn lanes and whether traffic will really be as bad as predicted. Resident Bruce England said employers in North Bayshore are still actively discussing whether employees will fully work from home or commute to the office on certain days of the week, and that it's too early to say where traffic patterns will land.
Albert Jeans, who lives near the intersection, called the city's justification a red herring, and that the debate boils down to whether the city wants mature redwood trees or "marginally" useful traffic improvements.
"I think it's premature to cut down these 50- and 60-year-old redwood trees," Jeans said. "Then we'll be left with nothing there but empty lanes that won't be used."
The commission does not have decision-making power, but took an opposition stance to removing heritage trees at the intersection of Shoreline and Middlefield on a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Jonathan Herbach abstaining. The motion signaled that the project takes a "car-first" approach that will create a heat-island effect for those walking and biking through a critical intersection of the city. It also calls out the loss of tree canopy coverage and biodiversity.
The proposed tree removal is expected to come before the council in October.