During the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant urban-design philosophy was to segregate homes and businesses. This resulted in massive housing tracts that came to be regarded as sterile.
Part of Palo Alto's considered response to this was to recognize that certain types of businesses — termed "neighborhood-serving" businesses — should be integrated into residential neighborhoods, and we reversed amortization schedules that would have forced businesses out of Midtown and other centers.
There are multiple benefits from having the businesses that people visit most be closer to where they live. Convenience is obvious, but the most important benefit is social — routine interactions between neighborhood residents are key to creating and maintaining a sense of community. As people's lives became busier, scheduled social interactions became fewer, causing chance meetings — such as at these businesses — to become increasingly important.
Having such businesses be closer to people's homes also has the positive effect of reducing automobile trips, affecting both distance traveled and congestion on major arterials. Being able to walk or bicycle to these stores benefits people's health, and enhances spontaneous contacts with neighbors.
The ascendancy of the large shopping malls provided numerous lessons for the smaller shopping areas. The importance of the "pedestrian experience" and places for loitering (to "see and be seen") led many cities to convert some downtown streets into pedestrian malls.
A key strength of shopping malls is a unified, active management that works to leverage the contributions of the individual stores, dealing with issues like the best mix of stores, appropriate locations for each and providing critical mass.
While strip malls offer easy access by automobile, they routinely fail to provide the other desirables for shopping areas. They arose in response to, and as a workaround to, planning mistakes by cities, or leftover commercial areas along thoroughfares that predated community planning or zoning.
Neighborhood centers represent an adaptation of lessons learned from larger shopping areas in the best way to create a cluster of neighborhood-serving businesses.
The current proposal for Alma Plaza would have most of the site sold off for single-family houses, with a small strip mall along Alma (with apartments on upper floors). There would be a small market and one to three other tenants, including a coffee shop.
There is serious concern that this lacks critical mass: People like to be able to combine trips and isolated stores suffer.
The developer's argument for converting Alma Plaza to a small strip mall is that all the stores must be visible to passing drivers. But the core customer base is not the people who drive by, often using Alma as a speedway to or from work, but the neighborhood. With enough stores and amenities, people will come to the center and discover the other stores.
Think about Stanford Shopping Center and Town and Country Village: Few of the stores are visible from the street. Yet Stanford is flourishing as an upscale regional center and Town & Country is reinventing itself while retaining its more intimate "human scale" feeling.
In other centers, such as Charleston Plaza in Palo Alto and Costco Plaza in Mountain View, smaller stores may be visible from the street but are too far away to be readily identifiable. And businesses along El Camino have complained for decades that they don't get noticed — speed and traffic congestion forces drivers to stay focused on the road. In earlier decades, efforts to be noticed resulted in a horrible clutter of huge signs until the city began to scale them back.
The developer's statements about difficult traffic access to Alma Plaza do not take into account that many of the competing locations have their own difficulties plus the disadvantage of distance. The strong neighborhood support for significant retail at Alma Plaza demonstrates the viability of the location.
It is understandable that the developer would like to capitalize on the region's high-priced housing market, but allowing the vast majority of one of Palo Alto's few remaining neighborhood shopping centers to be converted to housing is an irreversible decision. We should be absolutely sure that there is enough area left for a viable commercial area that benefits the neighborhood and follows our community plan.
Alma Plaza used to be a thriving center, but suffered from years of neglect. The previous owner — prematurely anticipating rebuilding — deferred maintenance and emptied out most of the smaller shops. The center failed because of the combination of a poor business plan and poor execution of that plan, not because of inherent problems with the location or with the concept of a neighborhood center.
The reasons to create and maintain Alma Plaza as a neighborhood center not only remain valid, they are important to the fabric of Palo Alto.
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