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[whitespace] Last Straw Estates

Los Gatos--At an Aug. 26 planning meeting here, many local citizens showed up wearing home-made pins with a piece of straw glued to a picture of a camel, with its back broken in half. Many live near a proposed development on one of the last undeveloped pieces of land near downtown. Apparently, the local Planning Commission heard them.

Developer Bill Hirschman says he's perfectly happy with a denial he later received from the commission. The refusal means he can appeal to the Town Council instead of continuing to wrassle with the commission. This will save him from having to do more redesigns, make more changes, or spend more money and more time. Instead, he must try and convince at least three of the five councilmembers.

The commissioners were unanimous in their denial to of the 22-unit plan for the four-acre site, which is bounded by University Avenue, Highway 9, Los Gatos Creek and the town's historic Edelen District.

Hirschman originally came to the Planning Commission in October 1997 with two different plans: one for 54 units and one for 32 units. He says planning commissioners and staff pushed him toward higher density on the site back then. They only asked that he fix traffic problems associated with the one access point on University Avenue.

But that was last year.

Since then, the political winds in Los Gatos have started blowing against developers. An unscientific survey sent out by the General Plan Task Force in January showed that most people had turned anti-growth.

At a June meeting, and a lot of neighbors showed up to decry the plan as too dense. And some commissioners--including some who had asked for more units--agreed. So Hirschman came back last week with the 22-unit plan, which is at the bottom end of the zoned density for the site, at about 5.3 units per acre. The site is zoned for between five and 12 units per acre.

Although the new plan hovers near the bottom of the density scale, neighbors aren't having any of it. Even though the traffic report prepared for the project concluded that it would have no significant impact, the project--and all the other developments that didn't have a "significant" impact--neighbors fear that it's part of a bigger picture that would turn the town into a car-choked traffic nightmare.

Hence the broken-backed camel.

Town traffic engineer Mark Wessel, whom commissioners asked in June to do a second, more comprehensive study of traffic at the intersection, concluded after a week-long count of all traffic through the intersection that "the project is not expected to cause any significant traffic impacts on nearby intersections." The project would add another 225 car trips per day to the intersection, which handles about 31,000 cars per day.

Hirschman wants to widen and re-stripe part of University Avenue in front of his project, which he says would not only take care of the current traffic problems, but also improve circulation through the intersection.

Neighbors don't buy it. Many disputed Wessel's conclusion, citing horror stories of frequent accidents and near-misses, dangers to pedestrians on sidewalks and in crosswalks, and afternoon gridlock on the two-lane, tree-lined University Avenue. And, they said, there's more traffic on the way when the Old Town shopping center down the street re-opens later this year after its remodel and expansion is completed.

"Are we all crazy that we're having these problems, and yet the traffic engineer says there isn't a problem," said Edelen Avenue resident Barbara Specter, who said that she now uses an alley behind Safeway as a shortcut to get home during rush-hour traffic.

Connecting the development to Highway 9 is not possible because Caltrans regulations prohibit access to a highway close to a freeway on-ramp, and because the agency has purchased the access rights, Planning Director Lee Bowman said.

Planning Commissioners had different beefs with the proposal.

Laura Nachison said she couldn't vote for the project because she felt that the main benefit the plan offered was at the intersection near the project, where Hirschman proposes re-striping and widening University Avenue just south of Highway 9 in order to improve traffic circulation.

Hirschman says the development is a community benefit for a town where housing is expensive and hard to find. But he'd be happy with a consistent town policy on development.

"We've been trying to get a handle on what they want us to do, and we're still struggling with that," he says.
Jeff Kearns

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