Buoyed by rave reviews of the city's new outdoor dining scene, Palo Alto officials are considering keeping California and University avenues closed to traffic until the end of the year and adding a car-free zone on Ramona Street.
The City Council will consider on Monday a proposal to extend what is known as the "Summer Streets" program and to make numerous other adjustments, including adding new downtown blocks to the list of street closures and stretching the duration of the city's new parklet program until September 2021.
If the council approves the staff recommendations, Summer Streets will effectively become the new normal in Palo Alto at a time when downtown offices and business parks remain deserted and local restaurants and retailers are starving for customers.
A new report from the Planning and Development Services Department underscored the economic challenges that the business community is facing. Prospects for local retail, the report states, "remain dim." The report notes that Stanford Research Park employees have traditionally made up a "significant portion of the customers for local retailers, restaurants and service providers." These days, only about 10% of the park's 29,000 employees are on-site, according to Jamie Jarvis, who manages the park's transportation-demand-management program.
"With global travel still limited and Stanford classes not in session, the customer base is further diminished," the report states.
With workers absent, revenue numbers are plunging. According to a city survey, the revenues that local retailers and restaurants currently bring in make up between 25% and 60% of their revenues in the pre-pandemic era, with the median figure at 32%.
The Summer Streets program, which made its debut in June on California Avenue and before being adopted on University Avenue in July, has provided a rare glint of good news. City leaders reported this week that they are seeing more foot traffic in the two areas. Most restaurants, particularly on California Avenue, strongly support keeping the street closed.
Residents are also raving about the new dining scene. In response to the city's survey, 95% reported that their households felt "comfortable and safe" dining at the two commercial strips, while 5% said they did not. Furthermore, 94% said they will continue to dine on University or California avenues and 77% said they would like to see the program extended beyond this summer.
The staff recommendation would do exactly that. It also would tweak some of the boundaries of downtown's outdoor dining district. The plan calls for reopening the block of University between High and Emerson streets, on the west end of the commercial strip, to cars and closing the vibrant portion of Ramona Street, between Hamilton Avenue and the restaurant Nola, to vehicle traffic.
On Tuesday, the city hosted a virtual meeting to check-in with residents on the Summer Streets program. During the meeting, several residents lauded the evolving program for both livening up streets and assisting local businesses during the economic crisis. Just as significantly, not a single merchant or resident spoke out against the closures.
Downtown resident Sandra Slater lauded the city for instituting the new program and encouraged the council to add public art to make the streets even more attractive to diners.
"I like to think of it as opening, not closing," Slater said of the recent changes on University Avenue.
Nicole Zoeller Boelens, who lives close to the California Avenue district, said the program has allowed her and her family to safely patronize establishments that they had grown to love. The dining district has become a stopping point on the family's bike rides, she said.
"We are there probably three or four times a week, enjoying a coffee and feeling like life is just a little bit more normal again," Boelens said.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the program. While California Avenue restaurants overwhelmingly favor the street closures, the reaction is more mixed among downtown establishments. Businesses on side streets have complained that the street closures are giving restaurants on University Avenue an unfair advantage.
Nancy Coupel, owner of Coupa Café, which has two downtown locations, wrote to the council that closing University to cars "will not bring benefit to the lateral streets downtown and may in fact become a deterrent for consumers due to the closure of the principal street, which joins (U.S. Highway) 101 to Stanford University." The new report from the planning department suggests that other businesses on side streets share that view.
"Several businesses located on crossing streets suggest the attractive pedestrian environment on University creates an unfair advantage. They suggest opening the street to traffic, while allowing restaurants to create parklets, is a fairer solution," the report states. "Not all restaurants on side streets feel this way. In fact, some are working together to propose a closure of an additional street to pilot the impact a closure of an additional block may have."
The partial closure of the Ramona block, which the council is expected to approve on Monday, is just one example of the city's — and the restaurant community's — improvisational approach to Summer Streets. Since the program took effect, 27 restaurants (11 on California Avenue and 16 on University Avenue) have applied for permits to set up tables on the street. Two University Avenue restaurants, Rooh and Local Union 271 also installed parklets. Rose and Crown, an Emerson Street institution known for English soccer, pub fare and a generous draft menu, is using a portion of a public parking lot to facilitate dining, with the city's permission.
The parklet boom also is expected to continue in the coming weeks. Police Lt. Kara Apple, who has been coordinating the program from the City Manager's Office, said the city has six parklets that have already been constructed and are in use. It has received a total of 22 applications for parklets, she said.
Among the recommendations that the council will consider is extending the parklet program to Labor Day of 2021, thus giving more restaurants more of a chance to get their money's worth on the roughly $10,000 investment that a parklet requires. In the interim, staff and the council will consider adopting a permanent parklet program or further extending the existing program on a temporary basis.
To date, there have been no signs that either the parklets or the use of public lots by private establishments are having an impact on downtown's parking scene. Transportation staff is reporting that the downtown garages have ample free parking for patrons. And in the city's survey, an overwhelming majority of responders described their parking experience as "great," a proportion that would have been unthinkable during pre-COVID-19 times.
Philip Kamhi, the city's chief transportation official, said the Summer Streets program took up 54 parking spaces on California Avenue and 126 in downtown. At the same time, the city is no longer enforcing time restrictions in garages, parking lots and Residential Preferential Parking districts. Kamhi said the city has opened up 879 garage and lot spaces in the California Avenue area and 3,085 in downtown.
"There should be ample parking," Kamhi said during the Tuesday update. "We still have not seen any of the garages or lots return to anywhere near full capacity."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.