Seeking to provide a lifeline to struggling businesses and further enhance the city's nascent outdoor dining program, Palo Alto agreed on Monday to keep University and California avenues closed to cars until at least the end of the year.
The council voted unanimously to keep its Summer Streets program until at least the end of this year and to allow restaurants that build parklets to support outdoor dining to keep the structures in place until at least Labor Day of 2021. In addition, the council asked staff to consider creating a "COVID surcharge" that restaurants and retailers can tack on to their bills and formulate a plan for dealing with an expected rise in vacancies. This could include expanding the menu of permitted uses at retail locations.
The council's decision was prompted by overwhelming support from residents and patrons for the outdoor dining program, which made its debut on California Avenue in June and which premiered on University Avenue in early July. In a city survey of about 200 residents and diners, about 95% reported that they felt "comfortable and safe" while dining in the two commercial districts and 77% said they would like to see the program extended.
The reviews have been more mixed in the business community. While California Avenue restaurants have been giving the program rave reviews, those in the downtown area have been split over the closure of University. Some have called the new program a badly needed boost at a time when their revenues are plummeting because of COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place orders.
Michael Ekwall, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio on California Avenue, called the program a "lifeline" for his business and others and urged the council to keep the program in place for the duration of the shelter-in-place period. Jordan Nari, who represents the downtown restaurants Burma Ruby, Rangoon Ruby and Wahlburgers, said the restaurants have seen their sales go up by between 30% and 40% since the downtown street closure took effect.
"The biggest thing for us is, we've been able to give people a great experience," Nari told the council. "I love talking to tables at night and hearing about how they're out finally and they feel good and feel alive."
Rob Fischer, owner of the restaurants Reposado, Peninsula Creamery and Gravity, argued that the program is blatantly unfair. None of his downtown restaurants are on University Avenue, which puts them at a major disadvantage. A fairer approach, he said, is keeping the street open and allowing all restaurants to install parklets.
"We've got to figure out how to level the playing field," Fischer said. "It's crippling for me personally, and I know it is for other retailers and for some other restaurants as well."
Megan Kawkab, co-owner of The Patio, a bar and restaurant on Emerson Street, said her business is down by 25% to 30% since the beginning of the outdoor dining program, before University was closed. She also urged the council to reopen University Avenue and go big on parklets.
"I'm not saying that the city meant to help some and hurt others, but that's kind of what's going on right now," Kawkab said.
Despite some reservations about the uneven benefits of the street closure, the council agreed that the program is largely successful and warrants continuation. The council also agreed to some recent tweaks to the program, including the closure of a Ramona Avenue block between Hamilton Avenue and the restaurant Nola to traffic and the reopening of a University Avenue block between High and Emerson streets, on the western edge of the strip.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, an early supporter of the street closures, noted that the pandemic isn't going away any time soon and urged the city to learn from similar examples in downtown Mountain View and Redwood City.
"Without question, when it's working well, it's a great idea," Kniss said. "We got a lemon in the virus, and we're making lemonade by closing our streets, making it appealing."
Mayor Adrian Fine proposed moving beyond street closures and considering broader efforts, such as allowing businesses to place a "COVID surcharge" on their bills.
"Given the tenor and generosity of our community, I think a lot of Palo Altans will be happy to pay an extra 2% or 5% or 10% to local businesses to keep them afloat," Fine said.
Fine called the street-closure program a "tremendous and successful effort in Palo Alto — something new and different and really suited to the challenges we have in this extraordinary year." The city's next step, he said, should be figuring out how to mitigate some of the pain that retail businesses and restaurants on the side streets are feeling.
Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the city add signage and assist with marketing to steer some downtown visitors to the side streets. But while Kleinberg said the chamber is concerned about the viability of businesses on these streets, she urged the council to extend the street closures and the permitting period for parklets.
"The experiment of street closures and pedestrian zones may not be perfect and there are respected business leaders who are strongly in opposition to the closure, of University at least," Kleinberg said, "But so far, we haven't heard any better strategy and the city and resident-created surveys both seem to reinforce the residents' enthusiasm for the program."
"What the city is doing in listening to concerns and making modifications is an acknowledgement of the benefit of boosting the community spirit and building community, as well as business success."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.