Emboldened by its recent success on California Avenue, the Palo Alto City Council moved Tuesday night to dramatically expand opportunities for outdoor dining elsewhere in the city, including on University Avenue.
In its final action before a monthlong break, the council voted unanimously to approve a package of resolutions and ordinances that collectively relax existing rules pertaining to outdoor alcohol consumption, encourage the creation of parklets and allow the conversions of parking lots into outdoor shops and dining areas. The move comes two weeks after the city closed California Avenue to traffic to facilitate outdoor dining — a decision that has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from businesses and residents.
The most dramatic proposal that the council approved calls for closing University Avenue to traffic to make room for outdoor tables. The experiment will begin this Friday morning and conclude on Sunday night. If successful, it will continue through the shutdown and potentially be expanded to closing downtown's main commercial strip for seven days a week.
Several residents, restaurant owners and council members suggested that University Avenue should immediately be closed seven days per week. But rather than mandating this, the council opted to give City Manager Ed Shikada and staff the authority — and flexibility — to do so, based on community feedback and changes in Santa Clara County's shelter-in-place order.
Palo Alto's new rules allow businesses to use up to 50% of parking lot areas for dining or retail and create guidelines for restaurants anywhere in the city to apply for parklets, which extend the sidewalk into existing parking spaces. While the city has already approved several downtown parklets earlier this month — including in front of Rooh and Peninsula Creamery — those were installed as prototypes. Now, any restaurant can apply for similar additions.
Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said the city plans to start approving parklet applications on Wednesday. This should particularly help businesses that are not located in the city's two main commercial strips and would not benefit from the street closures.
The council's actions mean that restaurants also now will be allowed to legally serve alcohol in the outdoor dining areas. They also specify that those enjoying alcohol at Cogswell Plaza and Lytton Plaza — where drinking is normally prohibited — can now do so, but only while consuming a meal.
The council enthusiastically supported the measures and lauded staff for collaborating with the business community to create the new Summer Streets program.
"There haven't been very many joys in the last couple of months, but it's been one of them," Councilwoman Alison Cormack said.
Cormack and Councilwoman Liz Kniss each said they supported closing University Avenue to traffic seven days a week, consistent with feedback from many residents who submitted comments and spoke at the June 23 meeting. The closure of California Avenue gives the restaurants in the business district "a leg up," Kniss said, and the city should do the same for downtown establishments.
Maico Campilongo, co-owner of the California Avenue restaurants Terún and iTalico, said the street closures have been a boon for his businesses. Last week was the busiest week in Terún's history, he said. On Friday and Saturday nights, Terún had a full house at 9:45 p.m. The owners havee been able to hire back 95% of their employees and the restaurant's sales totaled more than $100,000, he said.
"From my point of view, it's been a success," Campilongo said.
City officials reached the same conclusion. Rachael Tanner, the city's assistant planning director, said that so far, "all signs are very positive for that closure." Mayor Adrian Fine, in discussing the new downtown rules, said the city has "really proven it on Cal Avenue."
"I'm really enjoying it and I'm hearing from a lot of people who are as well," Fine said.
But staff is opting for a more incremental approach on University Avenue, where the mix of businesses is more diverse and where the consensus about closure has been more difficult to achieve. Tanner said that staff's approach to the downtown strip recognizes these distinctions.
"It's meant to take advantage of weekend business and it's tailored based on some of the conversations we've had with downtown … both the intrigue of trying to close the street and see what happens, and wanting to do so at a pace that's maybe not as drastic as California Avenue, and recognize the layout and the business composition of downtown, which is different from Cal Avenue."
These differences notwithstanding, several council members said they found the California Avenue example instructive and worth replicating in downtown.
"Cal Avenue looks good," Councilman Eric Filseth said. "There's no way to answer all these questions without trying it on University Avenue."
He said he's willing to give the city manager the authority to expand the University Avenue closure from three to seven days per week.
"Let's try it," he said,
While restaurants will see the biggest impact under the new rules, retailers and personal services businesses are also expected to see some benefits. While gyms remain a prohibited use under Santa Clara County's shelter-in-place order (recreational activities remain restricted to groups of people within the same family), the city's new rules anticipate a time when these restrictions would be relaxed and these businesses are allowed to reopen. They would now be able to use outdoor spaces for fitness classes.
While the downtown rules are subject to further adjustments, numerous residents and restaurant owners lauded the city's early moves. Jordan Nari, who represents the downtown restaurants Rangoon Ruby, Burma Ruby and Wahlburgers, was among those who lauded the council's move and encouraged members to go further and keep University Avenue closed to traffic seven days a week.
"I feel like we've been dying slowly for three months," Nari said. "This is something for us to really look forward to."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.