The goal sounds simple: Protect California Avenue's quirky character and preserve the street's mom-and-pop shops from rising rents and an influx of office development.
The solution, however, is anything but. That became apparent Monday night, when the City Council's conversation about limiting chain stores in Palo Alto's "second downtown" evolved into a broad-ranging, hours-long and, at times, tense debate with no firm resolution.
The council cobbled together a motion that filled an entire page and featured more than a dozen bullet points, underwent a dizzying sequence of amendments and culminated in a fresh batch of research assignments for planning staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission.
When all was said and done, the council voted 8-0, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss not participating, to direct the commission to study a broad range of issues relating to retail preservation on California Avenue. These issues include new limitations on "formula retail" (a term that has yet to be defined), a limitation on restaurants, nail salons and other uses deemed too plentiful, a review of parking requirements for restaurants and a potential expansion of the ground-floor retail requirement beyond California Avenue and to nearby streets, including sections of Cambridge Avenue and Park Boulevard.
The council's action was consistent with its overarching mission to preserve and promote local retail. Over the past month, the council approved two emergency ordinances, one that banned conversions of ground-floor retail to office use in all parts of town and another that instituted a cap on office development at University Avenue, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
Monday's action was more like a series of tiny, surgical strikes than broad directive. No one, however, disputed the notion that the rising rents on California Avenue, the influx of office development around the business district and the recent shuttering of several independent shops, including Bargain Box, Cho's Dim Sum and Avenue Florist, are threatening the street's independent, artsy, neighborhood-serving vibe. Everyone also agreed that the last thing they'd want to see is the arrival of chain stores that would make the street more homogenous and less diverse.
But do you regulate formula retail? Therein lies the puzzle.
While limits on chain stores are common throughout the region, there is no shared recipe. Different cities define formula retail in different ways and, without its own definition, Palo Alto currently has more questions on the topic than answers. Should Benjamin Moore Paints be considered a chain store, for example, because it has three locations? Would California Avenue be better without its Starbucks, The Counter or FedEx?
"We don't know what the formula is to keep Cal Avenue weird," Councilman Eric Filseth said during Monday night's discussion. "Do we really need zero tolerance on chain stores? I'm not sure."
Mayor Karen Holman led off the deliberations by proposing a motion featuring 16 bullet points. Her colleagues then proceeded to add more items, delete others and reword several more so that they would better incorporate their own priorities for California Avenue.
Councilman Greg Scharff stressed the urgent need of expanding the business district's retail zone by requiring ground-floor retail on Cambridge Avenue, where a large office development on the 300 block is in the early stages of the approval process.
Councilman Tom DuBois argued that a stretch of El Camino Real, between Page Mill Road and Stanford Avenue, should also be included in the retail district. The council agreed to include these issues among those to be studied by the planning commission.
DuBois also called for the elimination of an existing rule that allows developers to demolish existing buildings and replace them with larger ones but devote only a portion of the new buildings' ground-floor area to retail.
"If you're redeveloping and you're making a building larger, we want all of it to be retail on the ground floor," said DuBois, whose proposals won the support of all the council members.
Holman proposed including in the list of items to be studied a prohibition on having opaque windows at buildings within the ground-floor retail area. The council went along after agreeing, upon a suggestion from Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, to make allowances for medical offices.
Holman faced some resistance, however, when she proposed requiring new developments to "respect the historical pattern, where it exists, of narrow store fronts" that support smaller, independent businesses. That proposal died after Scharff argued that this would effectively bar "modern storefronts."
"What you want to have is a vibrant retail environment and the way the storefront is designed is for the market at the time," Scharff said.
Ultimately, the storefront idea fizzled when only Councilmen Pat Burt and DuBois voted to support that portion of the motion.
The council's discussion underscored the complexity of limiting chain stores, a task that different cities have approached in different ways. Calistoga, for instance, simply bans "formula restaurants," which by the city's definition are required to offer "standardized menus, ingredients, food preparation, decor, uniforms, architecture or similar standardized features." Los Gatos is less stringent, though it requires a chain store to obtain a conditional-use permit before it could open its doors. San Francisco also requires permits for a formula-retail operation, which by the city's definition shares common features such as a "standardized array of merchandize, trademark, architecture and decor" with at least 11 other establishments in the United States.
In Palo Alto, staff is proposing to model the local ordinance loosely after San Francisco. Rather than simply banning chain stores or imposing a limit, staff has suggested requiring them to obtain conditional-use permits and creating a process by which people can appeal the approval of these permits.
Several residents and merchants attended Monday's meeting to voice support for the restriction on chain stores.
"We've all seen the market forces at work, transforming downtowns ... into homogenous collections of chain stores," said resident Cedric de la Beaujardiere. "Whether you're in a quaint little town in France, or on the East Coast or in California (there's) The Gap, McDonald's, a couple of Starbucks. That's what the market would do, just unfettered."
Holman shared those sentiments and while her colleagues urged caution, she made a case for action.
"The market moves much faster than governments can and we've seen that time and time again," Holman said. "The 'zone-for-what-you-want' motto really does apply in this case. We want to get ahead of what potential impacts can be facing us in the future. We don't want to allow it to happen and then have to react to it, because often times, it's too late."