Three downtown street segments in Menlo Park will remain closed to encourage outdoor dining until the end of January 2022, following a unanimous vote by the City Council Tuesday night.
The northbound lane of Santa Cruz Avenue headed toward El Camino Real will remain closed on both the 600 block and the 800 block, or from Curtis Street to Doyle Street and from Evelyn Street to Crane Street. In addition, Ryan's Lane will be closed in both directions from Crane Street to Escondido Lane to provide a new outdoor dining area between Ann's Coffee Shop and Ristorante Carpaccio.
The outdoor street dining area has received widespread support from local residents, many of whom emailed the City Council to tell members how much they've appreciated the option of outdoor dining during the pandemic. The council received at least 155 emails expressing support for continuing the street closures to permit outdoor dining where it is now, and only a handful opposing the street closures. That opposition came primarily from downtown retailers who said that the closures have harmed business.
Karsten Iwers, who owns Harvest Furniture at 639 Santa Cruz Ave., which has operated in the city for more than 20 years, said that the street closure has been devastating for the business.
"We have experienced a 30+ percent reduction in revenue over the past seven months in Menlo Park compared to the same period a year before while our other Harvest Furniture locations have seen an increase in sales over the same period," he wrote in an email to the City Council.
Stephen Miller, who runs the Stephen Miller Gallery, also supported reopening the street. "We have endured the closure for far too long," he wrote in an email. "The number of vacant storefronts has only increased during this time of pandemic, and it’s hard to imagine that our street presents much of an appeal to anyone considering locating a retail business here."
But many others in the community expressed that the downtown closures and outdoor dining had brought a deeply craved sense of vibrancy – particularly on the 600 block, where live music performances often accompany dining – representing a small silver lining in an otherwise very difficult time for the community.
Tim Watson, business owner of a downtown law firm, said that even though the street closures have made it a bit harder for clients to visit, he still supported the street closure and outdoor dining. "It adds to the vibrancy and feel of the downtown, which has been dying a slow death for many years. It’s been a joy to see the downtown come back to life as people slowly make their way back out," he wrote.
"What a breath of fresh air to walk down this street with the bustling sound of chatter, smells of good food and laughter now that the street is partially closed to accommodate the survival of our local restaurants," wrote Paula da Cruz Griffin. "With so many stores closing down this is much needed... . California has such a wonderful climate that not using it for alfresco dining is almost criminal."
"Having Santa Cruz (Avenue) open is a wonderful enhancement to our town. Please keep it open – it creates such a wonderful sense of community," wrote Sonya Mehta.
Colin Skinner, who wrote in as a band leader in the group Almost All Khaki, which performs on Sundays in front of Bistro Vida, said that he too wanted the street segment to remain closed.
"We've been playing in front of Bistro Vida since August, and Sundays have been one of the only music opportunities to play with other people due to the amount of space in the streets. It's amazing being able to make music with friends, and we would all miss that if the streets were closed again," he wrote.
In their deliberations, council members noted that the pandemic is far from over, and promoting social distancing and additional precautions like the option to eat outdoors instead of indoors, would continue to be important for some time.
"We are still in the middle of a pandemic," said Councilman Ray Mueller. "It's far too premature to say we can ... stop these precautions. We are going to need precautions in place for a very long time, and there will be flare-ups again."
The council raised some concerns that perhaps just the 600 block should stay closed, and the 800 block, where Galata Bistro has on-street seating, could be reopened for vehicle traffic, but the council ultimately agreed to keep the existing closures in effect. Vice Mayor Betsy Nash noted that the block has parallel parking, rather than angled parking, so there's less space to take over parking areas while leaving the street unimpeded for vehicle traffic than on other downtown blocks.
"It's not as well-used," she said. "I'm hoping that will change as more people feel comfortable coming out."
In addition, Councilwoman Jen Wolosin asked that the Walgreens owners who sought 10-minute parking spots at the rear of the store be permitted to install those to make it easier for customers to easily pick up pharmacy items.
"I think most of the impacts are more pandemic-related than street-closure-related," she said. "The more people that come out and enjoy the music, the more they'll go to the stores. I think this can be a win-win."
There have long been visions for creating a type of "paseo" or downtown area where vehicle traffic is barred and pedestrian activity encouraged to add vitality as part of the city's "Downtown Specific Plan."
But in recent years, a pilot project to create a car-free parklet by laying down astroturf on a side street downtown fell flat when faced with widespread opposition to the noise generated there and its blocking of vehicle access. One business owner at the time paid to have an outside firm test the cleanliness of the turf carpet and found elevated bacterial levels, and the pilot ended shortly thereafter.
But now, with the pandemic-driven street closures, Chamber of Commerce President Fran Dehn said, the city has a "working model for a successful pilot."
"This is an ideal time to study the public appetite for a future paseo," she said.
In the long-term, Mueller added, he continues to encourage the idea of building a downtown parking structure that would include a small movie theater and possibly housing on top. The mixed uses could help to pay for the project, and having a family-friendly entertainment venue downtown could help add vitality, he argued.
In addition, he said that he and Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor are looking into assembling a request for information that would invite consultants or architects to weigh in on what it would take to renew the architectural and hardscape aesthetics downtown.