Cal Ave’s permanent ‘pedestrian mall’ creates problems | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Almanac Online |

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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Cal Ave’s permanent ‘pedestrian mall’ creates problems

Uploaded: Nov 10, 2023

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.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 3:20 pm

Victor Bishop is a registered user.

Sunnyvale has a stretch of Murphy avenue that is closed to traffic.
It is a tow block stretch . I don't recall it ever having everyday shopping options that would make people flock to it. Of course, Palo Alto has never had many places where you can do every day shopping given their opposition to chains stores and anything that will compete with JJ&F was bad. Do people really do everyday shopping at the Stanford shopping center????

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 6:10 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Diana, if you were able to drive down Cal Ave, I would hesitate to say that you were busy looking to see if there were new stores as I would much rather you concentrate on your driving, other vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, etc. Driving is not to be taken lightly and looking for new stores is worse than looking for a parking spot.

Go park in the new garage, there is actually lit signs telling you where the parking spots are! That is what we have wanted in downtown for a decade.

I do agree that pedestrians should be walking down the middle of the street. I don't want to bump into or indeed be bumped by serving staff with plates of hot food! Keep pedestrians away from the dangers of collisions with hot food, and make cyclists walk with the pedestrians or at least ride at 5mph.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 6:57 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

I agree with Diana's logic. This will hinder the elderly, the disabled and the merchants are concerned about losing money.

Telling the merchants that they have to "keep up with the times" is an arrogant approach. Is he willing to pay the rent for the merchants if they lose money? Retailers do know more about the retail business than any council member. Any time you take cars out of the equation, you're looking at possible lost revenue. For the merchant's sake, I hope it doesn't happen.

Posted by mjh, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 9:25 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Council member Pat Burt reminded everybody that the decline in Cal Ave retail was a consequence of the rail road crossing being closed.

While I'm not sure when the Cal Ave rail crossing was closed to through traffic, it was certainly closed when I moved here in 1973. Yet for the next three decades I was still able to do much of my everyday shopping on Cal Ave, Cambridge, and Birch.

Approximately 2014 council had one of its periodic hand wringing sessions about the decline of Palo Alto retail, with much discussion about the erosion of Cal Ave business district retail with the number of applications for conditional use permits converting former retail to food services being approved by planning staff. As well as the number of hair and nail businesses. As I recall, council asked staff to return with information as to the optimal ratio of retail to food and personal services to preserve a critical mass of traditional retail necessary to continue to attract regular shoppers. However, I don't recall any follow up.

In the intervening years Cal Ave retail zoned spaces continued to be given conditional use permits converting retail spaces to more profitable food services for the growing number of office workers, while sending residents' sales tax dollars to adjacent cities. In addition council continued to respond to lobbying to add to the ever growing list of euphemistically called “ retail like" businesses that could replace retail. Look no further than the number of gyms that suddenly sprouted up along Cal Ave once they were added to the list. As council continued to prioritize commuting office workers over supporting resident serving retail, along with the rise in online shopping, Cal Ave has lost the critical mass of resident serving retail necessary to attract a viable customer base.

In contrast Los Altos prioritized resident serving retail and has a thriving critical mass of adjacent retail.

Posted by III, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 11, 2023 at 1:40 pm

III is a registered user.

Not a fan of the closure.
I never shop on California Ave, nor eat there anymore since closure.
Is a mess IMHO.

Posted by Seer, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 11, 2023 at 10:40 pm

Seer is a registered user.

I eat on CA Ave all the time. Parking is much easier to get there in the garages than near University Ave. It seems quite busy to me, I had a 30-minute wait last Wednesday night to get into a Sushi place.

The fact of the matter is, I shop mostly online, so do most of you. I'll drop in California Ave Hardware for an occasional item and spend some time in Gamelandia across the street. Mollie Stone still seems busy. Backyard Brew, Zombie Runners and Printers Cafe (with Art Gallery in back!) all seem busy. Starbucks was getting crowded out by Zareens but also never seemed to adjust its hours to when people were there.

I used to drop my kids at AJ Tutoring and hang at Backyard Brew or Mediterranean Wraps. The nature of businesses change, I don't see it dying there.

Posted by MiddleAged Menlo Parker, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Nov 14, 2023 at 4:49 pm

MiddleAged Menlo Parker is a registered user.

Sounds like the restaurants won (vs. the retail merchants) but I agree, Diana; how many folks are going to want to eat outdoors in the winter? I know I won't.
The opposite just happened down in Carmel; the retail owners lobbied hard to get rid of the parklets downtown on Ocean Ave. (and most of the side streets) to get parking back downtown. I realize this isn't really a fair comparison, though, as Carmel is more of a tourist town.

Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 15, 2023 at 11:53 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

After reading the many, many comments on the closure debate over time I can't help but think people are more concerned about not being able to park conveniently in front of a business they want to visit. In the 30-some years I attended Cal Ave before the closure I think I probably found street parking twice before I gave up and began parking in the lots behind the stores. It's about 50 extra feet of walking, comrades. Get used to it and enjoy the peace of the mall.

Posted by Hilde Mohn, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Nov 15, 2023 at 12:25 pm

Hilde Mohn is a registered user.

Being forced to park in an enclosed public parking garage just is dangerous.

Anything can happen including robbery, physical assault, cellphone theft, rape, and car-related burglaries.

Parking on California Avenue is far more visible where most customers and dining patrons will notice something out of the ordinary.

Since the new police department building is on California Avenue, perhaps the PAPD can provide parking garage security officers and/or armed escorts for those either apprehensive of this new parking arrangement or in fear of being cased and potentially robbed or attacked by undesirables from outside of our community.

Posted by Frank Jessup, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 15, 2023 at 12:40 pm

Frank Jessup is a registered user.

@Hilde Mohn...I don't think you will have to be overly concerned about public safety in the California Avenue district.

The police department is nearby and most of the Palo alto crimes occur in the more upscale Palo Alto retail venues such as Stanford Shopping Center and Town & Country Village where the more prosperous customers tend to shop and dine. Like Midtown, California Avenue is small potatos and hardly worth a second look if one has criminal aspirations.

Even the Palo Alto homeless do not reside in this immediate area because the PA downtown district and SP station offer far more amenities and opportunities.

Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Nov 15, 2023 at 4:38 pm

Victor Bishop is a registered user.


A number of comments

There was very limited parking on California avenue before the closure
There are open parking lots in back of California. There is also street parking
No one is forcing you to park in the closed structure. But please enlighten to the crime rate in said enclosed structure.
I assume you have the same complaint about univeristy avenue

Posted by Evergreen Park Observer, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Nov 16, 2023 at 12:48 pm

Evergreen Park Observer is a registered user.

I agree with Diana. I am sad so many arrogantly dismiss the concerns of the retailers in their rush to provide support over support to restaurants. The City never provided any support to the retailers �" no good signage, no help in making the back of the stores informative as to where businesses are located, no help in constructing convenient back entrances so that people don't have to walk around the block to get to the store.

Apart from the inequity (providing free real estate to restaurants but nothing of use to the retailers except Coucilman's lame advice to just adjust with the times) , I am most disturbed by the Council using expensive consultant after expensive consultant and still winding up with so little good, usable data upon which to base decisions and craft a strategy. Here we are, three years later, and we have no good, thoughtful plan about what to do other than a tiny miniature golf course (locked up on Sundays when most people are on Cal Ave). I understand it is difficult to reach a consensus, but having good data and a well thought out plan would be a big help. It's like ‘ready, fire, aim."

I think we should just acknowledge that some people have enjoyed tinkering around with Cal Ave., have decided they want a mall (not car free is everyone drives there), and are just plunging ahead based on their personal preferences. One former mayor was heard to lament about the failed effort to have people live and work in Cal Ave district (data shows that most who work there do not live there), “oh, well . . . Maybe we can get that (failed) strategy to work in midtown."

It is just really sad and puzzling to me.

Posted by Leslie Bain, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Nov 16, 2023 at 12:55 pm

Leslie Bain is a registered user.

I often feel that we are playing SimCity with government planning decisions today. I never really played that game, but I understand that the player gets to experience the consequences of the decisions that they make as mayor of the town. Some consequences are good, some are quite bad. I see a lot of bad decisions being made today that will lead to nightmarish consequences.

The council decided to make this permanent change, with full support from lots of residents. I wonder how much deep thought those residents gave to the REAL consequences, as opposed to their ideas that might be based in fantasy. Most Cal Ave merchants were against the street closure, claiming they have and will lose money. Ignoring that feedback appears to be a recipe for losing merchants. Is that what resident truly want? Once upon a time there was a movement to ban Wal-mart from towns, because the company has a reputation for being a small-business killer. Once the mom and pop stores failed, Wal-mart was the only game in town, and the only place that certain employees could go for employment. Wal-mart does not have the best reputation for treating their employees well. Similarly, once the mom and pop stores are gone from our cities, the only game in town will be online, which mostly means Amazon. Amazon also does not have the best reputation for treating their employees well. Is that the world that most of us truly want to live in? And once Amazon has a de facto monopoly, it will essentially be "too big too fail", the government will have no choice but to make certain distasteful decisions in order to keep it in business regardless of Amazon's questionable behavior ... because if Amazon was shut down, then where would "the people" buy the stuff that we need? Under capitalism, consumers benefit when companies must compete for their business. Without such competition ... it is easy to predict that such a move will be bad for consumers. But awesome for Amazon!

Posted by Geri Ross, a resident of Palo Alto Hills,
on Nov 18, 2023 at 12:16 pm

Geri Ross is a registered user.

The Amazon business model is a highly successful one and outside of occasional UPS return hassles, it beats parking and stranding in line with other customers to purchase mundane items.

As more retailers turn to Amazon to ship their goods, retail shopping centers will gradually follow the path of the dinosaurs and go extinct which will eliminate many nuisance shopping excursions.

And what's wrong with that unless one has nothing better to do than go window shopping or browsing among the masses?

California Avenue like downtown University Avenue, Castro Street in Mountain View, and Murphy Street in Sunnyvale have become restaurant rows because local commerce is dwindling and rents have increased.

Local shopping districts that only offers dining and nail/hair salons is all we need because Amazon does not offer those services.

Posted by Krotos, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Nov 21, 2023 at 11:01 pm

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Web Link

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 22, 2023 at 3:03 am

Bystander is a registered user.

It looks like there could be hundreds of new residents in high rises living adjacent to Cal Ave if the new Mollie Stones development goes ahead. It also looks like those hundreds of new residents will be fighting over parking spaces and needing to drive parallel residential streets to get home.

Apart from what it is like when it is finished, has anyone thought about what the construction will do to the ambience of Cal Ave during the long construction time?

Does the right hand ever talk to the left hand in Palo Alto?

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