Parking spaces and driving lanes will give way to tables and chairs on California Avenue later this week, as Palo Alto moves ahead with its "Summer Streets" program to encourage outdoor dining.
The city also plans to roll out a similar program on University Avenue in about two weeks, despite opposition from some business owners.
The City Council debated the proposed "Summer Streets" program for both commercial areas during a Monday night meeting that stretched into early Tuesday morning. While council members didn't take any formal votes on the street closures, they enthusiastically supported the closure of California Avenue and gave a mixed blessing of doing the same on University Avenue.
The different approaches that the city is taking for its two prominent commercial districts is dictated both by their respective locations and by feedback from businesses. The commercial segment of California Avenue is relatively short, stretching from El Camino Real to the Caltrain station near Park Boulevard. It is dominated by restaurants and it can be easily closed to drivers without disrupting traffic patterns. Restaurant owners in the commercial district have been largely enthusiastic about the proposed street closure, which staff expects to start implementing as early as Thursday, June 11.
Reactions have been more mixed at University Avenue, downtown's most prominent commercial artery. While the city has received comments from dozens of residents urging the closure of University to facilitate outdoor dining, City Manager Ed Shikada said some downtown business owners there have expressed concerns that limiting vehicle traffic will reduce business. Others had practical questions about how deliveries would be made to their workplaces or how the street closure would impact businesses on cross streets.
Public Works Director Brad Eggleston noted that non-restaurant establishments are worried about what the closure would do to their sales.
"University has a fair amount of non-restaurant retail and there is concern that that retail is more visited by people who are driving by and seeing it; and if people are not driving by on the street, they will not see those other businesses," Eggleston said.
The mix of opinions was evident at Monday's hearing. Several California Avenue business owners and residents spoke in favor of the closure. Michael Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, urged the council to keep the California Avenue closure in place for as long of a duration as possible. Todd Burke, who serves as president of the homeowners association at Palo Alto Central, a residential complex on California Avenue, similarly spoke in favor of closing the street to support businesses.
"Now we have such a vibrant place on California Avenue with Terùn, Italico, Zareen's and La Bodeguita … We need to make it better. We need to allow them the opportunity to thrive in this really tough economy," Burke said.
Some were less enthusiastic about pursuing a similar program on University Avenue. While some supported the move, others suggested that it would hurt some businesses.
Guillaume Bienaime, owner of French restaurant Zola, said he strongly opposed closing the downtown street and urged the council to promote parklets instead.
"It would give those at University Avenue an unfair advantage to those that are not on University Avenue," said Bienaime, whose restaurant is located on Bryant Street.
After the council meeting, however, Bienaime shifted his position and concluded that closing down University may not be such a bad idea.
"As long as parklets are given attention and opportunity, I support thoughtfully closing University to help those restaurants," Bienaime told this news organization in an email.
The council similarly supported closing University Avenue, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Alison Cormack all supported what Fine called the "most liberal" proposal for closing the two downtown streets to traffic to allow outdoor dining.
Kniss called for urgent action and said the restaurants and retailers are "absolutely ready to do this." Given the losses that businesses have experienced during the shelter-in-place period, it is critical for the city to step up and help them.
"Think of this as if we're in a war zone. And we're trying to get those troops because we're trying to save the day," Kniss said. "We're not closing streets just for experiment or for fun of it, we're closing it to save the businesses on the street."
Cormack agreed and called the proposed street-closure program a "once-in-a-generation opportunity."
"I want us to go as far possible … and then back off if we need to. This is not a time for us to do our usual incremental pilot," Cormack said.
Others agreed that the city should go full steam ahead on California Avenue, which would be closed to traffic every day as part of the program (an alternative proposal called for closing it just a few days per week). But some offered more measured support for expanding the program to University Avenue. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois said he supports closing both streets, but wanted to make sure that the program is temporary and that the city would be compensated if restaurants want to appropriate public spaces for their private uses after the pandemic. Councilman Eric Filseth agreed, though he said he would like to try "all kinds of things."
Councilwoman Lydia Kou suggested that parklets would be a safer choice for University Avenue and urged staff to make sure that the closure of the downtown strip would not worsen parking problems in the surrounding residential neighborhoods at a time when the city is not enforcing its residential parking permit programs.
Kniss pressed Shikada to close University Avenue as soon as possible and tried to get their commitment to launching the downtown program next week. Shikada and Egglestone both indicated that they will probably need more time (about two weeks) to do a proper job on the downtown program.
"We get the urgency but we don't want to be irresponsible about promising a date that is a recipe for failure," Shikada said. "There are a lot of logistics to be worked out with businesses."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.