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.
• 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.