Forgotten highway: El Camino Real undergoes new transition

Finding the lost treasures of Palo Alto's car-centric artery

Treasure Island Stamps and Coins doesn't look like a typical Palo Alto "destination." Crowds don't gather outside its doors to wait for the new iPhone or to feast on a sushi roll the size of a burrito.

Yet as the only proprietor in the region of rare coins and stamps -- with more than 4,000 items amassed over the past half a century -- Rudy Schroeter's nondescript shop on El Camino Real, near Barron Avenue, draws philatelists and coin collectors from far and wide. With little foot traffic on this sleepy stretch of the city's main arterial spine, the shop relies on devoted customers who make the effort to seek and find it.

The same can be said for Nouvelle Bridal Boutique, the business next door. Owner Ayda Mouradian says she routinely sees customers drive past her building and then circle back when they realize they've missed it. For all the talk in urban-planning circles about El Camino as a "grand boulevard," Mouradian says that businesses on this section of El Camino cannot depend on strolling passersby. Standing on the quiet corner, it is hard to imagine El Camino as the kind of dynamic, pedestrian-friendly boulevard planners dream about. The Champs-Elysees it is not.

As it passes through Palo Alto, El Camino is at once a vanguard and a contradiction: a five-mile strip that both epitomizes the commercial boom of recent years and showcases both sides of Palo Alto's uneven prosperity. At the northern end stands The Clement, a luxury hotel that brands itself as a "six-star experience," with rates on a recent weekday ranging from $500 to $1,899 per night. Near the southern end, sprawling motels like the Sky Ranch Motel and Glass Slipper Inn proudly defy the modern trends and stand as monuments to El Camino's traditional role as a car-centric artery. In the posh north, out-of-town visitors stroll through Stanford Shopping Center with Louis Vuitton and Burberry bags. In the eclectic south, motorists park their cars to patronize neighborhood-serving businesses: a tailor, a travel agent and the Valencia Asian Market, where one can buy $1 tacos and Korean barbecue burritos.

But it is near El Camino's central point, around the Avenue Business District, where transformation of the boulevard is felt most acutely. Across the street from the Coronet Motel, a 1950's-style motel that would not look out of place in Simi Valley, densification is progressing at a fast-forward pace. Stanford University is nearing completion of a 70-unit affordable apartment complex for low-income residents. North of the Stanford project, near College Avenue, construction cranes are buzzing around a new, three-story office development that is replacing a one-story building. At the very next block stands College Terrace Centre, a soon-to-be-completed mixed-use development that will include nearly 39,000 square feet of office space, eight apartments, a new grocery store and about 5,600 square feet of additional retail. With its bulky facade, a prominent clock tower and a tapered spire looming over the northernmost building, the block-long development is a suitable symbol of the area's recent shift toward density and urbanization. For neighborhood residents, the project is also a prominent reminder of the type of community treasures that fade away in the name of progress: in this case, the beloved JJ&F grocery store, which had occupied the site before shuttering in 2013.

Other changes are in the pipeline. The Olive Garden restaurant recently left its location near the Coronet Motel and its vacated one-story building will soon make way for an office-and-apartment project that will roughly quadruple the building density. Across the street stands a building like no other in the area: a six-story Brutalist structure that until recently housed about two dozen businesses. Their leases expired this month and now the building is largely vacated. The new lease-holder for the building at 2600 El Camino now plans to demolish the building and replace it with a glassier, more modern structure.

Plans are also afoot to erect a new four-story building, which would include 60 small apartments, on the parking lot at the congested corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road.

The rapid changes -- some driven by the market and others by policymakers -- are quickly transforming the King's Highway as it passes through Palo Alto. Conceived in 1850s as the primary route for stagecoaches and wagons traveling between San Francisco and San Jose, the road gradually widened over the two decades after World War II, requiring the removal of trees and older buildings in the southern half of El Camino.

More substantive changes, however, have been hard to come by, despite decades of discussions about creating a more urban, pedestrian-friendly feel along El Camino. The city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan, calls the stretch of El Camino between Page Mill and the Mountain View border the city's "most recalcitrant community design problem" and includes a policy calling for establishing the South El Camino Real area as a "well-designed, compact, vital, multi-neighborhood center with diverse uses, a mix of one-, two- and three-story buildings, and a network of pedestrian-oriented streets and ways."

Though the document was adopted in 1998, the one-story shops, the whizzing cars and the nonexistent pedestrians all serve as a reminder of how far the city has yet to go. Squat buildings and vacant lots dominate the streetscape. While the north part of El Camino is changing, parts of the south appear frozen in time. Just south of Curtner Avenue, an old ranch-style building that once housed the Mexican restaurant Compadres stands vacant, its windows boarded, and its glass lanterns partially shattered. Embedded in its wooden door is a faded notice of a project that was once proposed for the site. The restaurant shuttered in 2008 and the parking lot behind it remains deserted.

These days, as the city is crafting a new land-use vision, El Camino is once again expected to be in the crosshairs of city planners. On a broad level, the city envisions the roadway as "pearls on a string," with nodes of pedestrian-friendly commercial activity spread out along the car-centric artery. At the same time, members of a citizens committee assisting with the Comprehensive Plan update voiced support last week for creating a "concept area plan" for the southern portion of El Camino -- an idea that the council endorsed in the 1998 Comprehensive Plan and that committee co-chair Arthur Keller called "long overdue."

Whatever plans ultimately come to fruition, El Camino will undoubtedly continue to function as a link between Palo Alto's future and its past. It will also continue to serve as a symbol of both Silicon Valley's growth and urbanization and of Palo Alto's efforts to preserve local character and protect quirky motels, neighborhood coffee shops and long-standing mom-and-pop shops from getting swept away by change.

Related content:

To see an interactive map of how the five-mile stretch of El Camino Real in Palo Alto has changed over the years, click here.

VIDEO: Behind the Headlines -- Weekly news staff talks about El Camino Real's forgotten treasures and ongoing transformation


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8 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 26, 2016 at 10:48 am

Thank you for shining a spotlight on how El Camino in South Palo Alto is being left behind. Our hard-working locally owned businesses (not mention our residents) deserve more attention. The area around them needs to be encouraged to grow in ways that help improve the environment for everyone. If "preserve local character and protect quirky motels" means turning a blind eye to Smokes and Vapes, Sneakerpawn, sketchy "massage" parlors, long-term vacant lots, vehicle dwellers, buildings with mirrored or blocked ground floor windows in violation of code, the dilapidated state of our mobile homes, and illegal Air BnB/hostel/hotels, then that rationale needs to be abandoned. We need a new "concept plan," and we more importantly we need action rather than platitudes.

5 people like this
Posted by Random
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:11 am

I think you make an excellent point Jonathan about South Palo Alto businesses needing more attention. It seems like a time warp when driving down that stretch of El Camino. The problem today, in this environment of city politics and citizens revolting against any development is that anyone who otherwise might be encouraged to develop or improve their property is met with an avalanche of out of hand opposition. No open mindedness. Somewhere along the line, Palo Altans decided to pre-judge any and all developments. Palo Altans cringe at the mere mention of the word "development" and the standard arguments come pouring in to oppose improvements/development. "How will it affect me?" is usually the starting point to the opposition, but for this area, it certainly would make sense to replace a lot of those older mid-century buildings.

7 people like this
Posted by BajaPA
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:13 am

Agree with Jonathan Brown... and there's the Cypress Lane alley behind Barron and Military that continues to be an eyesore despite years of requests from the neighbors for improvement to the situation.

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:38 am

I always liked the "ghetto" atmosphere as a contrast to the plastic, sterilized "bike-friendly" utopian bubble they are trying to create in Palo Alto.

Being surrounded by squalor, concrete, smog and thrift stores is actually refreshing. I hope they don't ruin it like what they've done to San Antonio shopping center.

3 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:51 am

South El Camino needs "attention", meaning it needs developers to step in, take risk and develop something new and more than likely, larger. PA hates "greedy developers" so good luck until it is made enticing/profitable.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2016 at 12:09 pm

The article fails to mention with these businesses, stamp & coin shops, bridal boutiques, are actually filling a need and staying afloat. You also do not mention if the motels are also serving a need. Do Stanford parents or local residents with out of town guests need reasonably priced overnight accommodations. These quirky businesses may be filling a need we know nothing about.

Either way, I suppose by updating you really mean turning this area into pack and stack buildings without any accommodations for the businesses they are turning out. We have lost our bowling alley to such improvements. Will we lose out on other quirky businesses too?

22 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2016 at 12:10 pm

I disagree with these "left behind" comments. I think our city still needs independent businesses that don't charge exorbitant prices.

6 people like this
Posted by El Camino Boulevard
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 26, 2016 at 12:38 pm

What about the pedestrian underpass next of BofA??? When will that be available for use again for walking and riding bikes?
Bike friendly north and south access is desperately needed here as well.

4 people like this
Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2016 at 12:56 pm

A beautifully written article. Thank you!

8 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Aug 26, 2016 at 3:22 pm

One way to help keep our city liveable and affordable is to get Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Help workers, from techies to shopkeepers, to move to and from Palo Alto without driving. Instead, commuters could sit comfortably in a fast bus with wifi. BRT will reduce traffic, noise, air pollution, parking problems, workers' transportation costs, and commuting time. It will be a huge WIN. I can imagine it and so can you. Change is inevitable, but let's be smart and innovative. Bring BRT to the Peninsula as we shape our future.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2016 at 3:55 pm

If we want efficient bus services to get people to work, then put them on the freeways with stops every 5 miles at the off ramps. At these stops there could be designated shuttles to business parks. They could also be parking lots if they are nearer residential areas. There is already a parking lot at the 280 Page Mill off ramp. An efficient shuttle to Cal Ave area and downtown would get the workers to their place of work.

Efficient transportation without traffic lights, turning traffic, etc. on ECR won't help those of us using ECR for a couple of miles. I suspect most traffic on ECR uses it for just a couple of miles rather than the long haul.

I agree we need efficient transportation, but I don't think ECR is the way to go. It is too close to Caltrain to make much of a difference. Having buses run along 280 and 101 (and into our airports) from off ramp stops is a better option.

11 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 26, 2016 at 4:10 pm

"Yet as the only proprietor in the region of rare coins and stamps -- with more than 4,000 items amassed over the past half a century -- Rudy Schroeter's nondescript shop on El Camino Real, near Barron Avenue, draws philatelists and coin collectors from far and wide. "

Oh god, what about the traffic from all these people coming to Palo Alto to buy/sell rare coins and stamps! We must put an end to this! We should prevent anyone who has a company or business that requires people to drive to Palo Alto.


6 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 5:21 pm

I certainly don't feel like we need another Stanford Shopping Center on our southern stretch of El Camino, but being less bike and pedestrian caustic would be a very positive step in the right direction.

Also, Valencia Asian Market is a total gem. The owners are great, as is their bubble tea.

8 people like this
Posted by Roger Shoaf
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2016 at 5:44 pm

I think that city planners tend to be ignorant of things. If you live in The City, public transportation and walking work just fine, you don't need a car to get around.

But when you have a suburban setup, people need to drive to get where they want when they need to get there.

When they "densify" a neighborhood they usually fail to make enough parking and it gets crossed off the list of places to go.

10 people like this
Posted by Cities for People!
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2016 at 10:35 pm

Amen! El Camino to the pedestrians, the bikers, and to the people! America's love affair with the automobile is on the way out, the residents, the passerbys—the humans shall reclaim our cities!

10 people like this
Posted by No Boulevard
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 27, 2016 at 8:57 am

@Rose, there are already several busses that run the length of ECR (the 22 and the 522) and neither one of them is at even 1/4 capacity, most are nearly empty. Busses are NOT the answer.

@ElCamino Boulevard, good job on the social engineering con job implying ECR is a Boulevard (planted by the Grand Boulevard Initiatice I'm thinking). ECR is a very necessary major thoroughfare that transports traffic up and down the Peninsula. Unless and until there are actually serviceable bike lanes created, bikes have NO place on this busy, essential road.

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 27, 2016 at 1:40 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

It's been many years since Kirk's and Ming's were on that stretch of ECR. Kraft Furniture is still there and a delightful place to by beds and mattresses. I bought one last year. Owner, Armando, is such a friendly and helpful guy.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 27, 2016 at 5:01 pm

The road is bicycle friendly, but many drivers are not.

5 people like this
Posted by Devorah
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 27, 2016 at 10:16 pm

Cute article, but I feel that the person who wrote it doesn't actually drive on EL Camino. I don't want more people stopping, I just want to make it through my commute and El Camino 's congested traffic, too close stop lights, and terribly annoying bikers who try to "ride" my car are a huge hindrance to that. I drive El Camino at typical commute hours and non-cimmute hours. It is nearly always congested. I want Palo Alto to address that issue, before they do anymore "beautifying".

2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 29, 2016 at 11:35 am

I grew up in this area. The stretch of El Camino between Fernando and Charleston has been neglected for a very long time.

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 29, 2016 at 11:54 am

@native, just across Charleston where Rickey's was, is that an improvement?

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2016 at 8:12 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Thanks for this article and the photos. A few months ago I walked from the corner of ECR and Maybell to Page Mill taking a picture of each location on both sides so I'd have a record of what is there after it's gone. If you haven't already walked that stretch you should do it, at least one way--you can catch VTA 22 back to where you started if a round trip is too long. It's easier to walk on the sidewalk than it used to be thanks to the city's sidewalk repair program.

Experience old ECR in Palo Alto while you can. Change is coming.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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