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Guest Opinion: Open streets to save Palo Alto

A couple walks hand-in-hand through University Avenue, which is blocked to cars as part of Palo Alto's Summer Streets program to support local businesses, on June 27. Photo by Lloyd Lee.

How a community comes together in a crisis defines how it thrives in better times. I've had the good fortune of volunteering with Frontline Foods, which helps save restaurants and their jobs and feeds the front lines impacted by the crisis. Inspired by my wife and working with Palo Alto restaurants, I have come to realize how essential they are to my hometown.

Ross Mayfield is a resident of the Professorville neighborhood. Courtesy Ross Mayfield.

Over 50% of restaurants may not survive the crisis, according to a San Francisco restaurant association. Twenty-five percent of the currently unemployed come from the restaurant industry. Most had to lay off 95% of their staff, while the industry trend of aggregators like DoorDash takes an untenable 30% cut into their margin. The industry employs the most minority managers, and for nine-out-of-10, it is their first job. These are good jobs for many, and surely better than the gig economy's pathway to poverty.

The trend toward remote work accelerated years into weeks under the coronavirus public-health orders. Employers are shifting to remote work, at least with a hybrid model, because it saves costs, can be more productive and preferred by many knowledge workers. You may feel this is a temporary shift, say through the end of the year, but it is likely that half of all office space may go unused — not just for distancing sake but also to save businesses costly overhead. And the ripple effects for local tax revenue from commercial and residential real estate, and more, will not be cured with a vaccine.

Retail was already shifting to Amazon and Instacart. Small retailers were not prepared for pickup or delivery, as their differentiation was goods best experienced in person. It's uncertain what the future holds for Stanford Shopping Center, a major source of tax revenue, when 25% of malls may close, according to Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm. With the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) expiring, we'll see a wave of closures and unemployment.

There is no V-shaped recovery. As we've seen in states with low cases and rapid opening, people only gradually return to in-person spending. If as a community we don't rapidly act to help retailers survive, they will not.

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I commend the city of Palo Alto for the Summer Streets Program to enable outdoor dining and retail, through closing University and California avenues to cars and enabling parklets. Cal Ave, by all accounts, is a safe success. The owner of Terun restaurant increased revenue and was able to hire back 95% of his staff.

University followed on June 26, initially with a three-day closure. A fistful of property owners has been against the programs, and seeing a lack of data to inform decisions, I manually surveyed 50 Palo Alto downtown restaurants and retailers on the week-over-week revenue effect of opening the streets. As covered in the Palo Alto Weekly, we found a 24% increase overall — 30% for all restaurants and 38% for restaurants on University. Now, it is an open street everyday through Aug. 2.

What we can do to save our downtowns

Keep gathering data on revenue, parking and traffic. Traffic (currently 50% of pre-COVID levels downtown) and parking went from being a top issue to a non-issue. As I've suggested above, it will likely never return to previous levels. But we need to be respectful to downtown businesses and residents and monitor changes through phases of opening.

Permit parklets for two years. Converting parking spaces into safe outdoor dining areas can help restaurants survive, even if they aren't on University or California avenues. They increased revenue in Palo Alto for those who invested in them. Parklets cost $10,000 or more, however, and with restaurants at the brink of death, it's hard to justify the investment without some assurances that it will remain in place for a reasonable amount of time. Investing in a parklet that may have to be removed with a 30-day notice is one way to die. The city is exploring a lower-cost option like the plastic barriers at Town & Country Village, but the jury is out on those.

Menlo Park subsidized permanent parklets with up to $40,000. While some Palo Alto restaurants are advocating and holding out for that, it's not likely here. The city has funds available for crisis response like this, but major forces are causing a budget crisis. Also subsidizing them may mean picking winners and losers.

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The solution is for the city to grant parklet permits for two years, with rapid approval. This incentivizes restaurants to invest in a quality parklet, with greater return, and time to amortize the expense.

Extend the program though year-end for University and Cal Ave. This allows consumers to establish the new demand pattern for Downtown and Cal Ave. The more time allowed, the more likely businesses will invest in quality furniture, design the experience, and staff their needs, providing needed employment.

Promote the program and refine the experience. Rebrand the Summer Streets program into something more inviting, like Open Streets. Promote it through paid advertising like neighboring cities are doing. Enable citizens to help shape the public space and experience. For example, volunteers got their street performer friends to come play downtown on June 26-28, creating a great atmosphere that helped nearby restaurants. Engage the city arts program like they did with volunteers for the Black Lives Matter mural. Create wayfinding art projects that point to restaurants, retail and parks on or just off the street. Enable restaurants and retailers to post signage in the public space in allotted areas.

Please help encourage the city to take these steps quickly, and come enjoy the Open Streets.

Ross Mayfield is a resident of the Professorville neighborhood and can be found at @ross on Twitter.

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

Guest Opinion: Open streets to save Palo Alto

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Thu, Jul 9, 2020, 2:07 pm

How a community comes together in a crisis defines how it thrives in better times. I've had the good fortune of volunteering with Frontline Foods, which helps save restaurants and their jobs and feeds the front lines impacted by the crisis. Inspired by my wife and working with Palo Alto restaurants, I have come to realize how essential they are to my hometown.

Over 50% of restaurants may not survive the crisis, according to a San Francisco restaurant association. Twenty-five percent of the currently unemployed come from the restaurant industry. Most had to lay off 95% of their staff, while the industry trend of aggregators like DoorDash takes an untenable 30% cut into their margin. The industry employs the most minority managers, and for nine-out-of-10, it is their first job. These are good jobs for many, and surely better than the gig economy's pathway to poverty.

The trend toward remote work accelerated years into weeks under the coronavirus public-health orders. Employers are shifting to remote work, at least with a hybrid model, because it saves costs, can be more productive and preferred by many knowledge workers. You may feel this is a temporary shift, say through the end of the year, but it is likely that half of all office space may go unused — not just for distancing sake but also to save businesses costly overhead. And the ripple effects for local tax revenue from commercial and residential real estate, and more, will not be cured with a vaccine.

Retail was already shifting to Amazon and Instacart. Small retailers were not prepared for pickup or delivery, as their differentiation was goods best experienced in person. It's uncertain what the future holds for Stanford Shopping Center, a major source of tax revenue, when 25% of malls may close, according to Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm. With the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) expiring, we'll see a wave of closures and unemployment.

There is no V-shaped recovery. As we've seen in states with low cases and rapid opening, people only gradually return to in-person spending. If as a community we don't rapidly act to help retailers survive, they will not.

I commend the city of Palo Alto for the Summer Streets Program to enable outdoor dining and retail, through closing University and California avenues to cars and enabling parklets. Cal Ave, by all accounts, is a safe success. The owner of Terun restaurant increased revenue and was able to hire back 95% of his staff.

University followed on June 26, initially with a three-day closure. A fistful of property owners has been against the programs, and seeing a lack of data to inform decisions, I manually surveyed 50 Palo Alto downtown restaurants and retailers on the week-over-week revenue effect of opening the streets. As covered in the Palo Alto Weekly, we found a 24% increase overall — 30% for all restaurants and 38% for restaurants on University. Now, it is an open street everyday through Aug. 2.

Keep gathering data on revenue, parking and traffic. Traffic (currently 50% of pre-COVID levels downtown) and parking went from being a top issue to a non-issue. As I've suggested above, it will likely never return to previous levels. But we need to be respectful to downtown businesses and residents and monitor changes through phases of opening.

Permit parklets for two years. Converting parking spaces into safe outdoor dining areas can help restaurants survive, even if they aren't on University or California avenues. They increased revenue in Palo Alto for those who invested in them. Parklets cost $10,000 or more, however, and with restaurants at the brink of death, it's hard to justify the investment without some assurances that it will remain in place for a reasonable amount of time. Investing in a parklet that may have to be removed with a 30-day notice is one way to die. The city is exploring a lower-cost option like the plastic barriers at Town & Country Village, but the jury is out on those.

Menlo Park subsidized permanent parklets with up to $40,000. While some Palo Alto restaurants are advocating and holding out for that, it's not likely here. The city has funds available for crisis response like this, but major forces are causing a budget crisis. Also subsidizing them may mean picking winners and losers.

The solution is for the city to grant parklet permits for two years, with rapid approval. This incentivizes restaurants to invest in a quality parklet, with greater return, and time to amortize the expense.

Extend the program though year-end for University and Cal Ave. This allows consumers to establish the new demand pattern for Downtown and Cal Ave. The more time allowed, the more likely businesses will invest in quality furniture, design the experience, and staff their needs, providing needed employment.

Promote the program and refine the experience. Rebrand the Summer Streets program into something more inviting, like Open Streets. Promote it through paid advertising like neighboring cities are doing. Enable citizens to help shape the public space and experience. For example, volunteers got their street performer friends to come play downtown on June 26-28, creating a great atmosphere that helped nearby restaurants. Engage the city arts program like they did with volunteers for the Black Lives Matter mural. Create wayfinding art projects that point to restaurants, retail and parks on or just off the street. Enable restaurants and retailers to post signage in the public space in allotted areas.

Please help encourage the city to take these steps quickly, and come enjoy the Open Streets.

Ross Mayfield is a resident of the Professorville neighborhood and can be found at @ross on Twitter.

Comments

Richard
Ventura
on Jul 9, 2020 at 2:31 pm
Richard, Ventura
on Jul 9, 2020 at 2:31 pm
31 people like this

Why extend just through year-end? Wouldn’t it be great to keep the program around indefinitely?


resident
Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2020 at 3:10 pm
resident, Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2020 at 3:10 pm
20 people like this

With COVID surging again, I agree that we need to make longer term plans to help keep small businesses open and their workers employed. More open streets is the least that we can do.


Montgomery Burns
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2020 at 3:54 pm
Montgomery Burns, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2020 at 3:54 pm
22 people like this

Stop giving public property to wealthy commercial landlords. Restaurateurs do not own the property their restaurants occupy... they RENT it!

Several years ago two lanes of public property also known as California Ave were converted into sidewalk. As soon as the restaurateurs made plans to expanded seating onto the sidewalks, their landlords hit them with huge rent increases.

The operators of the Cal Ave Farmer's Market PAY the city to use the street (public property) every Sunday. The handful of landlords that own all of the commercial property along California Avenue rent out the sidewalks to restaurateurs but pay nothing for the use of this public property.

Everything involving land-use in Palo Alto is a real-estate scam.

Ross Mayfield's wikipedia: Web Link


Kathy
Greater Miranda
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:23 pm
Kathy, Greater Miranda
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:23 pm
10 people like this

No thanks.


Zee Kay
College Terrace
on Jul 10, 2020 at 12:01 am
Zee Kay, College Terrace
on Jul 10, 2020 at 12:01 am
12 people like this

It’s so nice to stroll on the vibrant streets of Cal Ave and Univ Ave. Good job of closing the streets and yes making it permanent is the best solution to save our retail.


On the move
Menlo Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 12:41 am
On the move, Menlo Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 12:41 am
2 people like this

I wasn’t prepared for MP’s street closures. Because many streets don’t cross Santa Cruz directly but a little offset, getting through town from one place to another was like weaving a tapestry. Some cross streets are set to only 1-way, so you have to go around a block or two to get where you want. I’m more likely to avoid the area than spend money there.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 7:12 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 7:12 am
11 people like this

There is a new ambience to dining outside, to walk to the restaurant and see all the people outside dining and if I have the imagination, it is like being on a Paris sidewalk cafe, people watching and being there to be seen. Hopefull we can do this forever - or at least until the rains start.


Carolyn
Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 8:23 am
Carolyn, Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 8:23 am
11 people like this

Close them both forever! My family loves it. We are on Cal Ave almost every night walking and shopping together. What a revelation, the Europeans certainly know how awesome it is and I am glad we are FINALLY putting community (and economy) over cars.

What we also need is safe biking routes and a lot more bike parking along University and Cal Ave. I have to usually lock my bike to a tree when I ride downtown for dinner because all the bike parking is mobbed.


TimR
Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2020 at 8:55 am
TimR, Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2020 at 8:55 am
1 person likes this

I would help with traffic and parking if part of Hamilton (downtown in front of City Hall) wasn't closed to traffic, too. Coming from El Camino, it's very hard to navigate a detour that then has another detour. There needs to be actual planning for this to work.


Davina Floriano
another community
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:10 am
Davina Floriano, another community
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:10 am
5 people like this

Insane yet unsurprising that the Palo Alto City Council still priorities storing cars for $0 rather than allowing retailers to use that space to make money. This is the same car-obsessed city council that opted to spend $150,000 PER new car parking space (which will also be given away for $0 to store cars) in the form of a new car parking structure in the California Avenue area. I don’t understand what the end goal of all this car promotion is. More car traffic? I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Palo Alto residents DON’T want more of.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:13 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:13 am
6 people like this

One thing you can say about MP is that it has a parking lot that extends the length of Santa Cruz business district, plus more parking on the other side. We do not have that luxury. What is happening now is that traffic and parking is extending into residential districts. Our residential district comes right up to the main corridor.
That is poor planning on our part to drive traffic through residential areas throughout the city.
I do not see any mention of street painting on SU campus. I am sure that they have security cameras and re checking any non-approved activity. I know we have cameras and who ever is watching just sat there and did nothing.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:15 am
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:15 am
Like this comment

I’ve never heard of this guy or any of his companies although I noted his social media handle is @(first name) and he’s the 57th person on Linked In.
Is he running for Council or School Board?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:40 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 9:40 am
12 people like this

Ross Mayfield makes a number of good observations, but, beware that good intentions are not enough. If you want to save restaurants and other small businesses, you *can't* make it a permanent part of the property value, otherwise, you get this:

>> As soon as the restaurateurs made plans to expanded seating onto the sidewalks, their landlords hit them with huge rent increases.

The goal is to save small businesses and help their employees, not -grant- an unearned benefit to landlords and property owners, which is what will happen if you unthinkingly make this "permanent". It actually will require a lot of subtlety to make sure small business owners and employees benefit. They may end up being harmed.


Online Name
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 10, 2020 at 10:26 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 10, 2020 at 10:26 am
18 people like this

What is Palo Alto and Menlo Park doing about the unsustainable rents charged by landlords? In Menlo Park, the poor PetPlace (in business for 28 years) was paying $15,000 for a single-wide storefront, Oriental Carpet was paying $25,000 a month and Village Stationers $20,000 for double-wides. They've now closed/are closing along with Sole Desire etc etc.

Pre-covid, the PetPlace had to close several different times while its landlord delayed fixing leaks from upstairs that damaged stock etc. The city could/would do nothing because "Private Property blah blah..."

Pre-covid, the owner of a largish nail salon was repeatedly harassed because the landlord wanted them out because office space is more profitable. They too are closing/

When is enough landlord greed enough?

So long as our "leaders" keep pushing for more profitable offices and hotels, we're going to see the demise of all resident-serving businesses and downtowns.


Interesting article
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:30 pm
Interesting article, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:30 pm
11 people like this

Mr. Mayfield is not currently running for Council. I checked. Let's be little nicer to each other, please.

I think he presents some thoughtful comments. I like the open streets. I agree with the person who posted above that much more bike parking is needed between the parklets. I bike to downtown from south Palo Alto (it takes me about 19-21 minutes--the same amount of time it took to drive there pre-Covid, depending on the day. I ride lovely flat, shady and quiet Bryant bike boulevard, a VERY nice ride.).

However, when I get there, I frequently have trouble finding a convenient place to lock my bike up safely. This is less of a problem when I drive. Please fix this. I prefer to bike there. We have a shortage of bike parking throughout the city--at parks, shopping centers, restaurants-libraries, community centers, especially in south PA. It's pretty frustrating...and Comp Plan policies direct staff to address this. Please do so.

I would like the city city to stop spending many tens of millions on building structured, free auto parking. Bike racks are WAY less expensive.

Before people pile on about how hard it is to bike, I am a senior with arthritis and a bad hip. It's just not that hard.


JC
Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm
JC, Crescent Park
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm
6 people like this

Eating on the street is not going to be very popular come late fall through early spring!


Paul Roberts
Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:51 pm
Paul Roberts , Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 10, 2020 at 1:51 pm
1 person likes this

Boycott all Palo Alto restaurants! Palo Alto has a mural with a cop killer glorified. Until the city corrects that situation, I am encouraging everyone I know not to eat at a Palo Alto restaurant!!!


Steve Raney
Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2020 at 12:11 pm
Steve Raney, Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2020 at 12:11 pm
2 people like this

Under normal conditions in Palo Alto, residents comprise less than 30% of downtown foot traffic. The retail economic engine fails without workers in offices.

So it's great that The City is supporting our restaurants, but there is also the important challenge of how to safely return office workers to their offices - as part of helping local merchants.


Deb
Evergreen Park
on Jul 14, 2020 at 11:30 am
Deb, Evergreen Park
on Jul 14, 2020 at 11:30 am
Like this comment

Excellent article! I couldn't agree more. Fifty years ago, as a young child, I thought University should be closed to cars. Besides the obvious relief it provides to present economic stress, Down Town Palo Alto has always been painfully ugly; really dreadful. In my perfect world, Hamilton and Lytton would be one ways and University closed. Pleased as punch that a few other residents are now getting on board with this idea.


Restaurants should be paying rent to the CITY, not their landlord, for for sidewalk space.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
4 hours ago
Restaurants should be paying rent to the CITY, not their landlord, for for sidewalk space. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
4 hours ago
Like this comment

Restaurants should pay the CITY, not their landlord for use of sidewalk space. That could be a nice revenue source, funding better street amenities, like parking guidance systems, bike racks, better street furniture and landscaping. Let's get on it, Council and city staff. Public space is owned by the taxpayers. That money is OURS.


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