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By Dana Hendrickson

Can Street Closures Save Downtown Restaurants AND Retailers?

Uploaded: Jul 22, 2020

This post provides an update on the temporary outdoor dining program that was proposed by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, approved by the City Council on June 19 and revised on July 16. It is the fourth post in an on-going series about how Covid-19 social distancing measures, city decisions and human behavior impact the vitality of our downtown businesses and retail district.

"That downtown retailers are so uniformly opposed to the closure makes it a failure already, (Councilman Drew) Combs said. "There's no way we can end this in its current state and say it's a success. … A key stakeholder has already said it is not working for them."

In the July 16 the Council reviewed two propose changes to the street closures on Santa Cruz Avenue that are responses to complaints from eight retailers and four residents about the significant loss of foot traffic and revenues and the deserted “look and feel” of empty lanes. The Council considered three options and selected the latest Chamber recommendation.

Read the staff report

The adopted new street closure pattern opens a couple of one-way lanes.

Staff Recommendations

City staff recommended that street closure configurations remain as originally adopted under the urgency ordinance. “Staff is concerned that this different traffic pattern may confuse people and may impact the ability to adequately assess the success of the pilot program.” It also presented an alternative that would eliminate ALL street closures and permit businesses to “request the usage of public right of way areas such as sidewalks and parking spaces.” It would also eliminate all on-street parking spaces. (Note: it is not clear why the loss off all street parking was recommended as part of this alternative.)

My Observations

1. Social distancing measures and human behavior determine the actual benefits from closing downtown streets, and both are impossible to predict, especially when they are changing. While city program projections are often optimistic and disappointment unsurprising, this program is particularly vulnerable. For example, some retailers expected that street closings would generate more foot traffic and increase sales but many now report the opposite effect.

2. The initial closure of three sections of Santa Cruz was decided hastily with little understanding of potential benefits and negative impacts. This is a common shortcoming of Menlo Park city pilot projects. If this pilot program is extended, clear success criteria and thresholds should be established, and an individual should be assigned responsibility for making it as successful as possible. Otherwise, no one in the city actually owns the program.

3. The fact that the Chamber recognized the extent of retailer opposition within a few weeks is positive. However, it is not clear that additional traffic lanes and twelve more street parking spaces can make a significant difference. Note: Santa Cruz still has 38 fewer parking spots.

4. I continue to believe more outdoor dining areas are needed and that the needs of retailers and restaurants could be satisfied without permanently closing any sections of Santa Cruz. Instead, eating establishments could use public sidewalks and parking spaces as long as they show the benefits are meaningful. (Note: I submitted a possible plan before the pilot was approved but it was ignored. The Council apparently decided that the Chamber would be its sole source of advice.)

5. Whatever form the pilot program takes, it should continue far beyond 90 days. The experiences of dining outdoors and simply visiting downtown will be much more appealing IF the dining areas are aesthetically inviting. Unfortunately, few restaurant owners can justify making an investment in a temporary platform, patio shades, heaters, and planting that together can easily cost more than $25,000. Therefore, the pilot should last at least to mid-2021, and likely a lot longer. (Note: Palo Alto has already extended its temporary outdoor dining program until the end of 2020 and restaurants are now investing in attractive dining areas.)

6. My biggest concern: the Council will declare the pilot program a failure and simply end it. This will further disadvantage downtown eating establishments, ignore the needs of retailers, and potential Menlo Park customers will simply go elsewhere, e.g., Palo Alto, Stanford Shopping Center, and Redwood City. So this would be a terrible decision.

7. The evidence is unmistakable: the City of Menlo Park is NOT serious about saving its downtown business district. It addresses this HUGE challenge as a public works project rather than a complex marketing program that deals with not only promotion but defining and implementing the "product". It is not surprising that it is ill-equipped to do these things; it is surprising that it has not recognized this shortcoming and sought help. The city does not need a consultant study. It needs to create a team of creative and resourceful and Menlo Park residents who have the strong relevant knowledge, skills and experience required to create and adjust the program. The members need to display tremendous initiative and the ability to work quickly, collaboratively and flexibly. Our community has plenty of talent willing to help on a volunteer basis but our city does not know how to take advantage of this resource. So it will continue to stumble along. Sigh!

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