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.