Bikestation users scrambling for alternatives as closure nears

L.A. Cicero bikestation

Bikestation manager Larry Chinn said Stanford employees will be hardest hit by the upcoming closure.

If you've ever wanted to do something nice for Larry Chinn and his helpers who put away and pull out all those bicycles every day for free at the Caltrain depot on University Avenue, you have until Oct. 27.

That's when the Palo Alto Bikestation closes while the landmark art deco-style building next door gets a new roof, seismic upgrades and restoration of its retro design as part of a nearly $1.2 million project headed up by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

The fate of the beloved bike shop is about as storied as the depot itself. Rumors of closure first surfaced in March 2003, then again last spring. But the deal between VTA and the contractor that won the work bid fell through over the summer and pushed back the start of renovations.

All the while, Caltrain riders who store their bikes at the shop have been on the edge of their seats. Many of them are university employees who ride the train year-round for free with the Go Pass that Stanford issues to anyone who works on campus at least 20 hours a week. Stanford offers various alternative-commute incentives in order to keep solo-vehicle trips on and off campus under levels set by the General Use Permit issued by the county in 2000.

The closure is sure to have a wide ripple effect, with bikers scrambling to snatch up any lockers nearby that are still vacant. Those left out in the cold may end up hauling their bikes home on the trains, which already are experiencing a critical mass on their racks.

Caltrain is scrambling to move unused lockers from other stations to University Avenue. But a spokesperson for the agency said it is too soon to specify how many will be secured or if they will be installed before Oct. 27. (Passengers can get on a waiting list by sending an e-mail to jjbrown@amtrak.com.)

The city of Palo Alto has some available lockers scattered around town, and Stanford has a bike cage on the west side of campus, just off Stock Farm Road.

Marianne Arnautou, an administrative associate in the School of Engineering, snatched up one of the train station's 48 existing lockers in July, before they were all taken. The return of rumors about the Bikestation's closure last spring prompted her to pay the $58 fee to use the locker for six months.

"I had a feeling that everyone is going to be looking for a locker," said Arnautou, who began riding a bike when she got her Go Pass about a year ago.

Arnautou, like dozens of other university and Medical Center workers, leaves her bike at the shop at the end of the workday and hops on the train home. The next morning, the shop's staff pull out her bike when she arrives in Palo Alto.

"I try to bring them doughnuts every once in a while," she said. "I mean, they do this for free."

Chinn, the Bikestation's manager, said about 80 percent of the shop's 94 storage spaces are occupied by bikes that are parked overnight. Of those bikes, Chinn said 80 percent are owned by Stanford employees. The shop logs about 70 entries a day, and for all of September, counted some 1,300 entries.

"Regardless of what would have happened, people would not have been ready for this," Chinn said. "Frankly, there was really no good time for us to close."

He said the private operator of the Bikestation, Palo Alto Bicycles, does not have the money to relocate the shop and keep it open while the depot is being worked on. Once work is complete, the bicycle partnership will have to bid against other operators before opening again on the platform-although Chinn is confident that the Bikestation will return in some form.

The Bikestation is part of a nonprofit coalition headquartered in Long Beach, with sister shops there, in Berkeley and in Seattle. They are member supported and have a retail component consisting of product sales and bike-maintenance services. In order to promote no-car commuting, bike storage is free to the public.

The Palo Alto shop opened in 1999, with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District funding the first year of operation. The city of Palo Alto now partially subsidizes the business, although Chinn said the dollar amounts shrink yearly.

The depot renovation, part of the larger $7.5 million Palo Alto Transit Center project, will bring the structure up to California Historic Building standards and is expected to start in late November or early December and end in August. The work will include asbestos removal, one reason why Chinn said his shop next door must close.

Carolyn Helmke, Stanford's bicycle program coordinator, said the university has 20 slots at the bike cage and 10 lockers still available on the medical side of campus for $24 per year. She added that the Go Pass and Marguerite shuttles are still excellent transit options for employees.