Well, it’s done. The debate is over. California Avenue, Palo Alto’s “second downtown” will now become a permanent pedestrian mall. No cars allowed. Permanent decision, city officials declared.
Apparently, the city council will receive no updates in the future as to whether this car ban is working, how much the car closure has financially affected merchants, and whether more stores will now shut down as a result of the closure. That wasn’t discussed by the council, at least in public.
A council majority decided to make this permanent change, with full support from lots of residents, and with only Mayor Lydia Kou and council member Vicki Veenker voting against it (although Veenker still favors closing up the street, she said).
I feel like I’m swimming against a big wave of public support for the closure, but I fear the car ban and the yearly lessening of retail will eventually result in the loss of our second downtown.
Sorry to be such a downer.
Sure, when a small resident survey was conducted last year, the majority said yes, they liked turning Cal Ave into a pedestrian mall, because they could continue to enjoy eating outdoors instead of inside darker restaurant interiors. I understand, outdoor dining is quite pleasant – in the summertime, but 12 months a year?
Last winter, I saw empty tables in front of many restaurants; fewer people were eating outdoors, especially when it was windy and rainy. So, to make outdoor eating a year-round happening makes me wonder.
With a car ban in place, other issues arrive: How will delivery trucks cope? And how will farmers who bring in big trucks with food-filled crates for the farmer’s market empty their trucks?
Plans are to install a two-way bike/scooter lane in the middle of the street on our new “pedestrian” mall. That leaves people with strollers and wheelchairs to ride on the sidewalks, I guess. And I’ve read that pedestrians may be limited to sidewalks, too – how ironic. Can it possibly be true that the city is turning Cal Ave into a pedestrian mall and yet people will have to walk on sidewalks?
In addition, the bike mid-street lane may force the Sunday market stalls to face the stores, meaning customers would need to walk down one side of the market, make a U-turn, and then walk up the other side to see the other stalls. I go to the farmer’s market to buy food, not to take a long walk.
Already, a lot of the stores that made California Avenue over the years a real second downtown have left, the latest of which is Country Sun. Why would new merchants want to move there – when customers have to park a block away, and when many of us will not know if a new store has opened – we no longer can just drive by and check out the street.
Pedestrian malls have failed
Years ago, when I was living in Sunnyvale, city fathers decided they wanted to turn their main street into a mall. They hired a Midwest firm to help them accomplish this – Victor Gruen Associates, as I recall.
Their mall opened with a bang. And after a number of years later, closed with a whimper.
That city lacked a downtown for years to come. Sunnyvale is still working to have a real community downtown.
And I remember a decade ago talking to a Mountain View mayor about his downtown, then a restaurant row. He told me the city has valiantly tried to induce more retail to its downtown, but without any real success. Part of the problem, he said, was retailers don’t want to move into a city downtown that has only a few retail shops because more retail stores induce more people to shop downtown, and all Mountain View had was restaurants, which, he was told, don’t attract shoppers.
Merchants have tried
About 58 Cal Ave retailers, back in 2012, asked Palo Alto officials to invest in their street: improve the parking, retain four lanes, repave the street surface, create brightly marked pedestrian crosswalks, add more greenery, lights and trash cans, according to the Dailly Post.
But their request for four lanes and some other amenities failed.
Cal Ave became a two-lane street, and, slowly a number of businesses moved out.
Just last week, the council decided to have no lanes for cars. Most Cal Ave merchants were against the street closure, claiming they have and will lose money.
Many residents at the council meeting, however, wanted the car-free mall. One man said he wants a street where he can walk without worrying about cars hitting him (stay on the sidewalk, sir).
Some said shopping has changed; most people buy online now. Granted, many do, but Stanford Shopping Center is packed with cars and shoppers daily. Many women, myself included, still like the large selection at Macy’s and Nordstrom, the ability to try things on before purchasing them, and the special sales items.
Council member Pat Burt told merchants they have to keep up with the times, instead of trying to “turn back the clock,” suggesting they adjust to the changing habits of shoppers, and be open primarily during dining hours, and to coincide with events such as the Sunday farmer’s market.
I suggest the retailers in town know more about the retail business than council members, who, collectively, have had little, if any, experience in retailing.
Cars are bad?
There’s also a semblance of the Pennsylvania Amish view that cars are bad, that it is virtuous not to need or use them.
Maybe that’s why it’s easy for the council not to cater to cars. The council seems open to approving apartments that have fewer parking spaces than housing units, or having downtown parking lots converted to apartments.
It’s a delusion to think we don’t need cars, especially if you have to get to work, take your kids places, buy bagsful of groceries for your family, especially at Costco, take you and your kids for a doctors’ appointments, etc.
So here I am, still not convinced that the public wave of support for the permanent car ban is good for a healthy second downtown. And I fear University Avenue may be next to encounter that wave.