As the commercial stretch of California Avenue continues its transformation into a fancier business district with fewer driving lanes, wider sidewalks and new plazas for pedestrians, Palo Alto officials are considering restricting chain stores to protect the small businesses in the area.
The topic came up last year as the Planning and Transportation Commission went ahead with its revisions to the Business Element of the Comprehensive Plan, the city's official guide for land-use planning. At the urging of Commissioner Michael Alcheck, the commission included in the mix a new program:
"Study appropriate commercial diversity in the California Avenue business district to balance a healthy mix of locally owned and chain-type commercial businesses and to prevent proliferation of specific use types," the policy reads.
The idea is to limit chain stores on California Avenue, an area that has seen an influx of change in recent years with multi-story commercial developments going up around the periphery of the strip. That trend is expected to continue as Palo Alto proceeds with its plan to turn its "second downtown" into the next University Avenue, a renovation that expected to raise property values and put more pressure on small businesses that are already struggling to pay rising rents. (Read California Avenue: Making a new downtown)
These days, even as residents and city officials remain by and large anxious about the recent growth in office space and its impacts on traffic and parking, they are far more amenable to retail. In the commission's July 9 discussion, Alcheck said he hopes the alternatives under the city's considerations include one that would limit chain stores, particularly on California Avenue.
San Francisco has chain-store limitations in several areas, he said, including sections of the Mission and Hayes Valley neighborhoods, which prompt people to describe the city as a "retail rainforest." What the limitations do, Alcheck said, is "change the way an investor or a developer looks at a project."
"They're not building it for a Chipotle or a McDonald's or a Gap. They're building it potentially for a local business owner," Alcheck said. "What I'm hoping (that) exploring that idea will do is encourage potentially an alternative that considers growth in, for example, the California Avenue area mixed-use growth but does so in a way that alleviates some of the concerns that there won't be a place for our mom-and-pop businesses."
At least one California Avenue merchant shares this concern. Jessica Roth of European Cobblery asked the council on Monday to consider limiting chains in the California Avenue area, which already has a Subway, Starbucks and Radio Shack, as well as restaurants from smaller chains such as Chipotle and The Counter.
Roth asked the council to work with the merchants of California Avenue to "keep its charm."
"I feel strongly that we may have great places in Palo Alto that can offer space to chains and big corporate businesses, and I would like to zone California Avenue to be independently owned and operated businesses only," Roth said. "There of course are some businesses there, and we won't want to make anyone leave, but moving forward with all the changes happening on our street, I feel it's going to be a very desirable location and chains that have overlooked it before may be interested.
"I don't want California Avenue to change."
Most recently, longtime thrift store Bargain Box and independently owned Avenue Florist were evicted, after their California Avenue building changed ownership. South Bay chain restaurant Le Boulanger has confirmed it will move in.
Meanwhile, work is proceeding apace on the renovation of the commercial strip, which is set to conclude at the end of the year. The project includes reduction of lanes from four to two, a widening of sidewalks, replacement of all street furniture, a new "flexible" public plaza near Birch Street and a renovated plaza on Park Avenue, near the Caltrain station.