News

Palo Alto looks to beef up retail requirements downtown

City prepares to tighten definition of 'retail' along University Avenue, while allowing more flexibility on peripheral blocks

Yoga studios, barbershops and nail salons will not be allowed to open shop on the ground floor of buildings in Palo Alto's busiest commercial strip under a proposed “retail protection” ordinance that the City Council will discuss Monday night.

Instead, the new retail-protection ordinance will restrict uses along University Avenue to business like restaurants, bars, shops and theaters, as well as hotels and entrances to non-retail buildings.

The new law, which planning staff is in the midst of crafting, is a sequel to the interim retail-protection ordinance that the council established last year, which is set to expire in April 2017.

With the deadline approaching, city officials are preparing a new ordinance that would narrow the types of retail allowed on University Avenue and expand the parameters of the downtown area where ground floors are limited to retail.

What kind of retail? That depends on the downtown location. University Avenue would have the strictest parameters. In addition to creating a more restricted definition of allowed retail, which excludes barbershops and nail salons, the new ordinance would take away the ability of landlords to obtain conditional-use permits for office, educational and commercial-recreation uses, according to a new report from the planning department.

Moving away from University, the definition of retail would expand to allow personal services such as medical offices, schools and gyms -- uses that “promote active street life," according to staff.

With the exception of medical offices, office use would be prohibited in this area. The area where ground-floor retail (with the less restrictive definition) is required would also be broadened to include portions of Emerson Street, south of University Avenue.

In addition, the new law would create districtwide regulations relating to architectural design of new retail establishments. This includes taller heights on the first floor of retail establishments, more window transparency and a requirement that most retail shops have transparent glazing that allows passersby to view the display and sales areas from the outside.

The new ordinance is part of a recent effort by the council to prevent conversions of downtown retail establishments to office use. The conversions became a hot issue after several longtime shops and popular restaurants (among them Jungle Copy and Zibibo's) shuttered and made way for the more lucrative office use.

The string of conversions prompted the council to pass an “urgency” ordinance prohibiting the conversion of ground-floor retail to office use.

The provisions that the council will discuss Monday pertains specifically to the downtown area, though they are expected to be feature in the citywide ordinance that will be adopted before the current one expires in April.

One question that remains unresolved is what to do about those parcels in the peripheral sections of downtown where property owners have been unable to find retail tenants, namely the South of Forest area, also known as SOFA II, that includes the Alma Street block that until recently housed Addison Antiques.

Recently, the property owner had requested a waiver from the retail requirement, arguing that the location is too remote to attract retailer tenants. The council agreed in August to deny the waiver, but to expand the uses that would be allowed in this area to also include educational uses.

That decision, however, became moot earlier this month, when the council failed to muster the needed seven votes to approve the expanded definition (as an “urgency” measure it would have required a supermajority approval).

On Oct. 4, the council voted 5-4 to approve educational use for the SOFA II area, with Councilwoman Karen Holman, Councilmen Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid all voting against it. Without seven votes, the motion failed.

In opposing the expanded definitions for the Alma Street parcels, council members argued that retail is indeed possible in these locations, provided that the rent is reasonably set.

Holman said at the Oct. 4 meeting that she believes there are “certainly businesses that would like to be in the less-than-core retail locations that cannot afford the core retail locations.”

Since the August hearing, Holman said she had spoken to one person who tried, and failed, to set up shop on the Alma Street block.

“A retail-use tried to rent that space and were offered a very high price,” Holman said.

DuBois also opposed the idea of creating expanded rules for just a few parcels.

“I feel this is spot zoning,” DuBois said in registering his dissent.

The debate over what type of uses should be allowed in SOFA II and other blocks on downtown's periphery will continue in the coming month, as staff conducts a series of stakeholders meetings and brings the new retail-protection ordinance to the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the City Council.

---

Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 13, 2016 at 10:18 am

Snake oil. A little too late. Funny how this comes up when election time is around the corner.


17 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2016 at 10:43 am

This is sickening. Government should really not interfere with business to such an extent.


38 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 11:06 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

I'd rather have a barbershop or yoga studio or nail salon than another Palantir satellite office.


22 people like this
Posted by wondering
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 11:15 am

Scharff and Burt have been pushing for allowing "educational use" in a retail zone. Can't help wondering whether there is a private client they have in mind.


12 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 11:32 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

@ wondering - Good question, we already have the tech funded Alt School on Emerson and Berlitz on Homer.


8 people like this
Posted by Kattiekhiba
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 13, 2016 at 11:54 am

@Resident

This is sickening. Business should really not interfere with local life to such an extent.


18 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 13, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Palantir ain't gonna like this.


7 people like this
Posted by Andy
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm

We really are living in the People's Republic of Palo Alto...


4 people like this
Posted by wondering
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 12:56 pm

[Post removed.]


13 people like this
Posted by Agreed!
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Agreed! is a registered user.

What is wrong with a yoga studio? I can understand a hair or nail salon-- though it's preferable to a huge takeover by Palantir, or Amazon, or Deutsche Bank, or AmEx, or SAP, etc.

Funny that leases at Stanford Shopping Center cost less than leases downtown.....I think anyone can see what's wrong with that picture!


6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2016 at 2:46 pm

"Instead, the new retail-protection ordinance will restrict uses along University Avenue to business like restaurants, bars, shops and theaters, as well as hotels and entrances to non-retail buildings."

Like we need more restaurants and bars there!. I think, but don't know for sure, that the theaters we do have are struggling...maybe not Stanford but that isn't totally funded by ticket sales anyway. I think barbershops should not be included. Those folks living near downtown need haircuts. Nail salons can go. There are so many already and Cal Ave has many more also. So drive south and give Cal Ave some business or farther south to my end of town, Midtown, Charleston Center, stores on Charleston leading towards 101, and stores in the Costco shopping center. You will never have a parking problem.

"In addition, the new law would create district wide regulations relating to architectural design of new retail establishments. This includes taller heights on the first floor of retail establishments, more window transparency and a requirement that most retail shops have transparent glazing that allows passersby to view the display and sales areas from the outside."

Stop it! If this is going to include architectural design it will never go anywhere. It will never get approved. DOA!

"In opposing the expanded definitions for the Alma Street parcels, council members argued that retail is indeed possible in these locations, provided that the rent is reasonably set."

Hah! What's reasonable and how many owners will let someone else "set" the rental price? Name one!

Since the August hearing, Holman said she had spoken to one person who tried, and failed, to set up shop on the Alma Street block.

“A retail-use tried to rent that space and were offered a very high price,” Holman said.

"DuBois also opposed the idea of creating expanded rules for just a few parcels."

I think we've already heard the answer. Rents are too high to attract retail businesses. We won't get the retail the dreamers like me (the old retail from days of yore) would like to come back. It's gone forever. So in the end I have a hunch the pro growth...office builder proponents...will have their way. Sad, but probably true.







17 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 3:07 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

During the dot.com bust owners of unrented retail spaces on the downtown side streets asked council for permnission to convert retail to offices.

Council came up with a formula that if a certain percentage of downtown retail space was unoccupied "temporary" conversion from retail to office would be allowed. With the proviso that these "temporary" office conversions revert back to retail in a few years if vacant retail space fell below that threshold. However, as far as I know the city did not follow up, so these "temporary" conversions have become permanent office spaces.

Retail streets need foot traffic, so retail becomes a downward spiral once retail is converted to office. Which sadly is fast happening in the California Avenue business district. On Cambridge between the Post Office and El Camino the only remaining neighborhood serving businesses are a barber shop. a couple of beauty salons, and the Pop Tea cafe.

A large percentage of commercial space both downtown and California Avenue has been owned by the same individuals for decades, or inherited, with extremely low property taxes. But of course there was no incentive for property owners to remind the city. Especially given the assumption that with the city's laissez faire attitude there was unlikely to be any follow up.

I hope the council will be able to save what little retail remains downtown, on California Avenue, in Midtown, and in Barron Park along El Camino.



15 people like this
Posted by David Theil
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2016 at 3:40 pm

I can understand the rationale of excluding or limit office space to keep an area a viable shopping destination, whether I agree or not.

I am completely baffled at the elimination of personal services such as workout space and salons/barbershops, pet grooming, tailor, shoe repair, dry cleaning, etc. These are things that get people into the neighborhood where they might end up doing a little shopping while they are out. Silliness.


13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 13, 2016 at 4:25 pm

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Just a little bit about endorsements that the candidates touted at the LWV forum. How much time did any of them spend, in one on one conversations with Anna Eshoo, Joe Simitian, or any of the previous mayors? I think none...it was a matter of 'if you're a Democrat, you're good'. And this isn't even supposed to be a party affiliated office. Hmmm? Well, we all know the deal. It really is party affiliated and dominated by them. Yes, there are many of us who are not aware of this and thus fooled by it, but I hope our electorate is getting smarter about how it works. Now, for all you CC members who are registered Democrats but come down on the residentialist side...I'll give you a pass. lol!


18 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Oct 13, 2016 at 4:53 pm

You forgot:

1.) Rudy's (Bar) - now office space.
2.) Laundromat (next to 7-11) - now iffice space.

...when wil it end?


6 people like this
Posted by Throw the bums out
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 13, 2016 at 7:40 pm

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by A
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 13, 2016 at 8:58 pm

This is strange to me. They will be effectively forcing all those barber shops, yoga studios, and nail salons to other areas of Palo Alto, creating less business diversity across town and forcing more to-and-fro trips by car.


21 people like this
Posted by Alex Fleat
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 14, 2016 at 6:38 am

Wow! It's good that the "residentialist" slate won a number of City Council seats last election to stop even more retail from converting to offices. I once owned a small business downtown. During the recession, my landlord actually RAISED the rent. I looked for other downtown offices - the rents were sky high and no one would negotiate even though some of the properties had been vacant for years. I couldn't figure out why. I later discovered the reason. A handful of owners own a huge percent of downtown property. Once vacancy rates hit a certain level, the City would allow them to convert retail space into higher paying office space. Which is exactly what happened - and why we now have offices on side streets just off University - that used to be dominated by retail. Thanks to Prop 13, long-time property owners pay extraordinarily low property taxes, so they can afford to keep properties vacant.
The City Council should revert all surrounding streets around University and California Aves to retail to maintain a vibrant walking, shopping and dining culture. More retail space will also mean more small businesses can afford to be in these areas and we will have more diversity of experience.
Support City Council candidates who believe in supporting the community and not just these handful of property owners and developers.


6 people like this
Posted by services are useful
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:39 am

As a happy pedestrian shopper, I don't understand the restriction against salons, dry cleaners, and other such services. If they are selling a recurring service to customers, then they are essentially another form of retail. Certainly it seems these businesses are the ones most likely to generate repeat customers thus keeping the area more active for other retailers that sell "things".

I agree with the intention to reduce ground floor basic, boring office space that doesn't generate lively foot traffic in an area. But many walk-in services are really a form of retail.
What is the sales tax situation for these businesses. that's what we should also look at.

And the strategic jacking up of rents is problem.


3 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 7:38 pm

This smacks of micromanagement. Is there really a strong need for this kind of regulation? Seems like it might be better to say that the first floors of anywhere can NOT be office space unless it is only one floor. Are we trying to encourage convenient businesses. I haven't read much about this, but what is the rationale here - it seems arbitrary and discriminatory?


2 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:08 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

As I understand council discussions, their intention is to plan for and encourage the future location of neighborhood services on the side streets adjacent to University Avenue and California Avenue. With the hope of preventing further erosion of core retail and slowing down the current trajectory of having only a few types of neighborhood service remaining. Although existing businesses would be grandfathered in. However, at this point this is rather like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. Too little too late.


Like this comment
Posted by Donna Brady
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 15, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Three issues come to mind.
First, my guess is that barber shops were only added to the list to avoid the appearance of discrimination based on the sex of customers.
Second, the majority of nail salons are small business and minority owned. They couldn't just ban nail salons, because it smelled of the obvious racism that it is.
Third, this is anti-small business - the heart of local business traffic. I dine or shop in Palo Alto ONLY at small family-owned businesses - with a focus on minority-owned businesses.
If this proposal passes, I will pass on doing any business in Palo Alto.


5 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 15, 2016 at 6:16 pm

"City looks to beef up retail requirements downtown"

Why is the city discriminating against vegan and vegetarian establishments?


Like this comment
Posted by margaret
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2016 at 11:09 am

lol...another useless debate by a useless council.... why not do something important? You only sound relevant to yourselves. Meanwhile the town goes to hell




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

Salt & Straw Palo Alto to open Nov. 23
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 4,351 views

Lakes and Larders (part 2)
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,484 views

Can we ever improve our schools?
By Diana Diamond | 9 comments | 1,381 views