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Call to action: support a PA pedestrian mall

Original post made by james thompson on May 15, 2009

please join our facebook group and voice your opinion there: Web Link

i posted here last week, but i wanted to reiterate:

Imagine this: University Ave-- from the CalTrain to Waverley-- transformed into a pedestrian-only urban park complete with outdoor restaurants, street performances, community events, trees and gardens, and bike-friendly infrastructure.

This Initiative seeks to do more than just block University Ave. We aim to tear up the road and create a unified and truly beautiful community space. Cities all over the nation and Europe demonstrate the success of Pedestrian Malls. They revitalize business, encourage alternative transportation, and reinforce a sense of community. It's an all-win situation.

So join our effort to transform University Avenue into Palo Alto's community gathering place. Start by joining this group!

Comments (30)

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 16, 2009 at 2:43 am

Ummm and people are supposed to get to Stanford from the downtown how exactly?

I like pedestrian malls, but not when they block one of the few streets going below the railroad tracks.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Ask Santa Cruz how the mall concept worked out for their downtown...(it didn't)

Posted by Peter, a resident of University South
on May 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Sounds like something that requires very careful implementation. Of course you'll need to learn from the mistakes of other projects and avoid common pitfalls such as traffic congestion.

Fortunately, there are numerous astonishingly successful examples of well-designed, well-implemented pedestrian malls in America and abroad. Just look at Charlottesville, VA.

Any well designed pedestrian mall will please merchants, local residents, drivers, bikers, and everyone in between. When it comes to design, there are no silver bullets. If you find a problem (i.e. the intersection with the CalTrain station, then you'll soon find a solution to address the problem.

I'm glad that this issue has been brought up again. Palo Also needs a community center. University Avenue, as is, is a complete failure: it fails for both drivers and pedestrians.

Just a thought.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Look at K Street Mall in Sacramento.

Posted by undrgrndgirl, a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2009 at 11:47 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by liberty, a resident of Downtown North
on May 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm

They tried this once for a day and there was so much uproar that nobody mentioned it again.. ..until now.

In my opinion, this would change downtown Palo Alto from the bay area's best downtown into another shopping mall. Stanford Mall is right down the street if you want to go to a mall.

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 18, 2009 at 2:14 pm

"liberty" calls downtown Palo Alto "the bay area's best downtown", so I'm curious: Can someone make some specific comparisons between University Avenue and Castro Street in Mountain View that would make one "better" than the other?

Posted by Vox Pop, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 18, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Followed Walter's suggestion and found this article about problems at Sacramento's K Street Mall and malls in other cities. Most are re-introducing automobile traffic. Worth reading: Web Link

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Charlottesville's downtown mall was a ghost town for years. It finally perked up in the real estate bubble of 2003-2007. I don't think the walking mall helped the area develop. Parking was tricky to find there.

I actually think that we should be considering making downtown Palo Alto more car friendly, rather than less car friendly in order to promote more consumer visits during drives through our downtown area.

I'd propose that we make University one way heading east, so that the evening rush hour more cars would take this route to 101 rather than Embarcadero or Oak Grove. By having a one way street, left turners would not block the throughput of traffic. It would encourage more people to use University. On their way home to 101, they could stop to buy take out dinner at one of our restaurants, make a stop at a drug store, or grab a gift at one of our many gift shops.

Hamilton could become the one way street heading west to carry the traffic that used to go west on University.

While we're at it, let's connect Alma to Sand Hill. This will encourage more traffic to come down University. It will also reduce the wait for southbound El Camino traffic trying to make a left onto eastbound University.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2009 at 4:24 pm


Do you really think people will spend a few circuits of driving along the various streets to find parking to call in and get take out dinner before driving home?

The last time I tried to quickly find a spot to part for a quick errand in the afternoon, I gave up.

The only satisfactory way to park in Downtown is to head straight for a parking lot. Once someone has parked they may stay for a while, but thinking that they will call ahead and pickup dinner is not going to happen.

Making this a destination street without through traffic will help. The reason it failed last year was because it was done very badly. Hamilton and Lytton will have to take up the slack and each become one way streets and both will have to have easy access to get to the tunnel at the end of University. But, this can be done.

On top of that, University has to become a desirable place to visit. Bicycle parking should be easy and the sidewalks and plazas must be pleasant enough to encourage lunch time business people as well as locals for evenings and weekends. Something for younger children after school such as a climbing frame or swings would also be helpful.

It could be done, but it has to be engineered properly, not just close the street and see what happens.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2009 at 4:34 pm


The problem with your plan is that you eliminate hundreds of parking spots that are close to the retailers. That's a disaster for shoppers. That would make downtown shopping more inconvenient for shoppers.

You call in the food order before you leave work.I agree with you that no one would on the spur of the moment stop in a restaurant only to wait 20 minutes for them to cook the meal. CPK has a booking takeout business. The difference is that the current traffic patterns make navigating Palo Alto from Sand Hill and Stanford a freaking chore.

By reducing the bottlenecks (left turners) on University, it will increase traffic on the road. Higher traffic leads to more stops. Ask someone in the real estate division of national retailer - car traffic and foot traffic are two of the key metrics in predicting a store location's level of business.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm


I agree that your idea is another workable plan.

But, I disagree with your opinion about parking spaces outside retailers. If I want to go to say Borders to pick up a book which I have ordered and I know has arrived, I very much doubt I could find a spot to park on University right outside. No, I would probably find a parking spot in one of the lots or garages and walk there - possibly choosing a time to stop for lunch/dinner or coffee. Alternatively, if I wanted to peruse the shelves and choose a book at leisure, I would probably still look for a spot away from University and possibly still spend more time in the vicinity.

Shopping in downtown PA is not like stopping at Safeway on the way home to pick up dinner and toothpaste. I would never expect to find a convenient place to do either on the spur of the moment or on my way to somewhere else on University. If people coming from Sand Hill en route to 101 want to pick up dinner and toothpaste, I feel sure that they would do it nearer their post 101 destinations rather than stop mid-route. However, if they wanted to meet friends or spend a little time unwinding before getting caught in traffic then University Mall could just be the place.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Good point on the stopping closer to home.

With your plan we'd need to build a couple of more parking structures though.

Posted by Roger, a resident of Downtown North
on May 20, 2009 at 3:16 am

Keep in mind that Facebook just moved from University Avenue to California. That frees up 900 spots. 900 SPOTS! (Yes, I confirmed this with Facebook). Also, there are only 120 street-side spots along the proposed pedestrian zone. And finally, according to a member of the transportation committee, the parking garages are currently quite underutilized-- more than enough to displace the 120 spots along University (especially now that FB has moved).

Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Palo Alto
on May 20, 2009 at 11:33 am

Paul Losch is a registered user.

A couple other examples that come to mind are Portland, OR and Boulder, CO. The Pearl Street mall in Boulder is very comparable to University, with traffic using adjoining streets. Last time I was there in 2008, it was very busy and the store fronts were largely occupied, unlike what we have on University in its present state.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of College Terrace
on May 20, 2009 at 11:35 am

I would agree to this plan if all the traffic that now uses University would be diverted to Embarcadero Road. That street does not handle it's fair share of traffic due to undo influence from certain council members.

Posted by JustMe, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 20, 2009 at 1:14 pm

I have always felt that downtown PA would be better off if cars were removed. I hate driving there anyway, it is a nightmare. When I go downtown I drive down Hamilton and park in one of the many lots there or on the side-streets heading towards University. I hate actually getting ON University.

The underpass by the train station is a problem, we need access across the tracks to El Camino. The one that is there is not up to the task anyway, why not just build a larger and better one to the side and let Alma be the way to drive past University on that end?

I vehemently disagree with the idea of re-routing traffic to Embarcadaro. Embarcadaro is already over-utilized with traffic, speeders, and people getting killed. I would prefer to route cars elsewhere. Embarcadaro is STILL a residential street with a 25 MPH speed limit, and people make it a problem.

Posted by Dorothy Black, a resident of another community
on May 20, 2009 at 2:22 pm

From 1950 to 2000 I was a resident of your community. I stay in touch by subscribing to the Palo Alto Weekly. With the economy beating us broke, how can money go into a project like this. What are your priorities in Palo Alto?

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of College Terrace
on May 20, 2009 at 2:34 pm

"I vehemently disagree with the idea of re-routing traffic to Embarcadaro. Embarcadaro is already over-utilized with traffic, speeders, and people getting killed. I would prefer to route cars elsewhere. Embarcadaro is STILL a residential street with a 25 MPH speed limit, and people make it a problem."

Where do you suggest the traffic go? Do you think that if we close University to traffic that it will just disappear? Remember the ill fated experiment to turn Middlefield into 1 lane in each direction? Embarcadero is a major artery from 101 to El Camino and Stanford.
When have people been killed on Embarcadero? Almost every street in PA is a "residential" street. Everyone must share in the burden despite the fact that certain city leaders live on Embarcadero.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Just how much would this cost and where would the money come from? With the city budget in tatters and likely to get worse, this is not a high priority.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Taking car traffic away from these properties would mean death for many of the businesses. A storefront is a billboard of sorts.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on May 20, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Palo Alto --- out of touch with reality again. Where's the guy who wanted a monorail a few years ago? Or, the person who suggested covering University Ave. with grass!

Does PA have some sort of "surplus" in its coffers to pay for these "plans?" I know...the city could tax the last remaining businesses to pay for such nonsense...NOT.

Well, I guess Palo Alto could put this "project" the PA "demand list" to submit to Stanford.

Self-absorbed...bizarre. Either the "nut factor" in Palo Alto is pretty high, or the Palo Alto Weekly is awfully hard-up for real news.

Posted by European, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Having pedestrian main streets works beautifully in many cities in Europe. Businesses do just fine or even thrive. I guess that, unlike Europeans, Americans can't even walk one block or two, then, if making University pedestrian will kill all businesses there...

Posted by JustMe, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 20, 2009 at 9:25 pm

When was anyone ever killed on Embarcadaro? Gee, I dunno, maybe this one?
Web Link

Posted by Not Signing, a resident of South of Midtown
on May 21, 2009 at 2:18 am

I don't like this idea at all.

Let me tell you how I often use University Ave.: I have a few restaurants in mind in the area at which I'm contemplating eating dinner. So I cruise past them, look in the windows (one can see into some of my favorites from the street), see which ones look crowded and which ones less so, and decide on that basis where to eat. (I may also make the choice on the basis of lucking out on finding a parking space on University.)

The restaurants I'm checking out can be several blocks apart, and are often very busy (which is why I check). If I can't do that checking ahead of time, I'd have to make a guess as to where to park, aim for a particular place, and if I'm out of luck and it's very crowded, walk several blocks to check out another place. If I'm time-limited (frequently the case) or if the weather is inclement, I may not want to do that. So I'd probably end up just patronizing the restaurants on University less than I already do.

Also, I'd patronize them even more if I could find convenient parking. Many of my favorite spots are not near parking garages, and a pedestrian mall would take out precious parking spaces.

Let me also say that I do not "stroll" University Ave. to visit numerous shops. I go to restaurants, Borders, and maybe the bank, and that's it. I do not patronize the pricey boutiques or home-decor shops — even if I had the money, they're not my cup of tea. If there were more everyday, utilitarian types of shops, I might patronize those. (By contrast, on Castro St. in Mountain View, I use restaurants and the bank but also Bookbuyers, Books Inc., Gelato Classico, the Chinese bakery, and sometimes the Chinese grocery store. I tend to spend a lot more time on each trip to that area.)

Before you pursue this idea, you should get a solid idea of what kinds of shops would be required to draw the kind of pedestrian business you are contemplating, and not make assumptions based on what kinds of businesses make money under current traffic conditions. You should also survey people to see how they would plan to get to the area, how much time they would have, whom they would be with (friends? family? alone?), and any other issues that might affect how people would use the area.

Finally, I am concerned that a pedestrian mall would be even more of a draw for beggars and homeless people than the area is now, and this might make the pedestrian experience less pleasant than you contemplate, and affect business as well.

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 21, 2009 at 11:03 am

'Not signing'-- If you are driving on University Avenue, you shouldn't be trying to look into restaurant windows. You should keep your eyes on the road, watching for traffic signals, other drivers and pedestrians.

Posted by ken alsman, a resident of Professorville
on May 22, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Not a stellar idea.

Posted by Nerea, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2009 at 5:46 pm

I think this is a great idea - I have been saying this for years and I'm so glad to see that finally someone is taking the initiative to make this a reality. Downtown Palo Alto is one of the few more "exciting" downtown areas on the Peninsula and a pedestrian walkway would greatly add to the charm of the overall experience.

Many great American cities and tourist areas have pedestrian walkways - like Boulder, CO or Boston's Faneuil hall marketplace. If you have not visited one of these landmarks - you should, you'll have a great time. On almost any given day you can do to Faneuil Hall an enjoy magicians, stunt performers, jugglers, musicians, concerts, street dancing, break dancers, fire-breathers, a plethora of very delicious foods, farmers markets, etc. - just google image search "faneuil hall street performers" and you'll see what I mean.

Often times, I feel that street performers and community events would add substantial color and flavor to Palo Alto - and a pedestrian walkway would provide the ideal venue for these performances. Outdoor performances and art exhibitions would not only provide an opportunity for out artistic community to flourish and those of us less artistically gifted to at least be able to admire the talent in our community, but would also provide another revenue stream for the City of Palo Alto. During these hard times ahead of us, I'm sure that even Palo Alto would be able to put funds like this to good use - improving our public schools for instance! =)

A pedestrian walkway is also safer and would greatly benefit families with small children or the teams of slightly buzzed yuppies and Stanford students that are often seen carousing on weekends.

If the walkway is well designed and traffic/parking planning carefully looked into, I'm sure we can create a beautiful walkway teaming with art, inspiring landscape designs, and expanded outdoor seating for local cafes and restaurants that will not interfere with the traffic flow or parking availability.

Furthermore, bad traffic is painful at first, but then people adapt as with everything - they ride their bikes, they walk, they carpool, they take the bus - all good things for the environment, your health, socializing, and community building. We shouldn't let logistical things like traffic hold back the potential to create something truly beautiful and enjoyable.

Posted by Ronald, a resident of Midtown
on May 22, 2009 at 7:43 pm

The Pedestrian Mall folks put up a FAQ page on their website ( They seem unconcerned with funding:

Who will pay for the pedestrian mall project?

A community project such as the Palo Alto Pedestrian Mall project could be funded through grants available for the improvement of public spaces, including transportation grants.

Is this true? If so, then I'm on-board!

Posted by Mark, a resident of Mountain View
on May 22, 2009 at 8:58 pm

This is a great idea, but we don't have to debate it. Let's follow the example of Downtown Ft. Lauderdale. It works wonderfully. We can close University Ave every Friday and Saturday evening for the months of June and July. This way rush hour has a chance to clear out, and restaurants and shops can spread onto the sidewalk allowing patrons to enjoy our beautiful summer nights.

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