Once again, I hear that old refrain that California Avenue needs our attention. This time the Palo Alto City Council will consider in August what to do to the street itself – open or close it to traffic. It has been closed for the past three years because during the pandemic, restaurants wanted to expand outdoors into the street to allow for more outside dining -- and customers enthusiastically responded.
Renovating Cal Ave., “Palo Alto’s second downtown,” has been a frequent occurrence. Remember several years ago the “beautification” project was to install new sidewalks with small blue glass chips embedded in the cement. But people complained about the rough sidewalks.
The sparking stones remained, and pedestrians got used to them.
Retail merchants along the street are finally complaining now because after three years of street closure to cars, their businesses are suffering financially. “For lease” signs are increasing, daytime pedestrians are fewer, although the restaurant crowd is increasing.
But I am glad the merchants are complaining.
Why? Because Cal Ave. is restaurant row, with retail stores hidden from view hidden behind the umbrellas and tables the eateries have placed on both sides of the street; no parking is allowed on most of the avenue.
At first, the city encouraged this expansion outdoors, as did residents, who enjoyed the expanded ability to dine al fresco.
So, what to do about he retailers concerns about a traffic ban?
One suggestion is to have a vote of all Cal Ave. merchants (including restaurant owners) to see whether they want the street opened or closed. The street will definitely be closed to cars until the end of the year. And, of course, the city has hired a consultant to help the council decide what to do by December. Seems like city fathers can’t so anything without a costly consultant.
But I don’t think this city has thought all this through. There doesn’t seem to be any strategy or goal, despite the fact that Cal Ave.‘s future has been before the city officials for years. A big question: should the city cater to restaurants and forget about retail?
Consider the following:
• The brand new big four-story Public Safety Building is expected to open next year and will house the police and fire department headquarters. Will our public safety officials be able to cope with a closed Cal Ave.? I would think their goal would be to get to a fire or crime site as fast as possible. If so, why is closing the street to cars still even under consideration?
• Mountain View had turned Castro Street (its main drag) into a restaurant row years ago, and the result is the area was not a vibrant place to go during non-dining hours. According to MV mayors I talked to, years later they searched and searched for retail to relocate to Castro, but small businesses refused, because the daily pedestrian traffic was so low with so little retail. So, Mountain View was forced to remain restaurant row, and its downtown lacks the variety and vision of being a real downtown.
Do we want Cal Ave to continue its pursuit of more and more restaurants? I don’t.
• When residents were asked after the first year whether they liked the restaurant expansion into the street, most said yes, it’s fun to eat outdoors. But that question did not hint at any harm the closed streets caused merchants. So sure, I would have responded yes, too.
• If the city asks Cal Ave merchants to vote whether streets should be closed, it will be a battle. Feelings are strong. Merchants say that now that restaurants have taken over, so to speak, the issues that merchants are facing are something restaurant owners need not worry about, i.e. they’re selfish. And the restaurants say they are flourishing, the public likes the new arrangement, and the city has to look forward, not back.
• The now-closed Cal Ave. has really ugly street barriers closing off both ends, without any detour signs suggesting that motorists should use the adjacent streets north and south. I’m not convinced proposed bollards to close the street at both ends will turn into an enhancing entrance. Can’t we do? something more? At least try greenery to block the street!
But, not to worry, the city has hired a consultant to come up with a better way to block the street. I wonder how much that will cost?
I think the city’s role is to keep a vibrant business district in our community, a real “second downtown,” with a variety of stores, and gobs of greenery.
However, now is the time for a city economic development director to go out and find retail suitable for the Avenue – not two or three years from now. The search can take time, and building permits take a lot of time in Palo
Cal Ave. is an important spot on El Camino where the city should showcase its second downtown by an elegant entrance.
Let’s spend some real money to beautify this street. It would help in establishing a new ambience for this avenue.We can do better than before.