News

Palo Alto looks to keep University and California avenues car-free

City Council authorizes extension of street closures, parklet program

Diners eat at tables on the street along California Avenue in Palo Alto on June 25, 2020. The City Council voted on April 19, 2021, to authorize both California and University avenues car-free until Oct. 31. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

For many in Palo Alto, the closure of University and California avenues to cars and the explosion of parklets in the city's commercial zones was a speck of good news in a dismal year.

The streets closures, which the city had instituted in June to create outdoor dining space, have been met with widespread acclaim, with 96% of the respondents to a recent city survey saying they would like to see California Avenue remain car-free and 97% favoring an extended closure of University Avenue.

"This is bringing life back to Palo Alto," resident John McDowell said Monday during the council's deliberation of the program's future. "It helps our small businesses. It also gives us an opportunity to take our families out, to meet with other people."

Some business owners, however, are less enthusiastic. Rob Fischer of Peninsula Creamery and Mike Stone from Mollie Stone's Market, both said the closures have been bad for business. Stone said keeping California Avenue closed to cars hinders public access to the supermarket, which is located at the end of the newly created pedestrian promenade.

Fischer, whose restaurant is located on Hamilton Avenue, said that the closure of University Avenue helps some businesses at the expense of others.

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"When you close the street and let one or two restaurants have the entire street, everyone else is kind of hung out to dry," Fischer said.

The council, for its part, has no plans to abandon the street closures any time soon. After weighing both sides, council members authorized staff to keep both streets car-free until Oct. 31 — effectively extending programs that would otherwise expire on May 31. They also favored extending the parklet program, which was adopted on an emergency basis and was set to expire on Sept. 7, until the end of the year and to move ahead with plans for a permanent parklet program.

In debating the merits of the street closures, council members tried to balance the often-competing needs of the restaurant owners and merchants in the downtown areas. While the California Avenue closure has been largely accepted by the business owners in the area (with the notable exception of Mollie Stone's) getting cars off University Avenue has been a more contentious proposition, with most restaurants favoring it but many retailers suggesting that the move is hurting their business.

Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Lydia Kou both voted against authorizing the extension of the street closures and the parking programs, with each suggesting that the city needs to do tread cautiously before locking any program in place for the long term. For the same reason, both also voted against exploring a permanent parklet program — a move that was proposed by council member Alison Cormack.

"It's only fair, now that they are allowed to be open that they be given the opportunity to succeed as well," Kou said, referring to downtown retailers. "So it distresses me that a lot of emphasis has been put into restaurants only and they're given so much leeway.

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"The least that we can do is ensure fairness and ensure visibility for these businesses and ensure that their access is easy to get to."

While their colleagues agreed that the city can do more to support retailers, they concluded that the street closures are doing far more good than harm. Vice Mayor Pat Burt suggested aiding Mollie Stone's by adding signage on El Camino Real directing visitors to the supermarket through the Cambridge Avenue entrance. He also recommended further livening up the new pedestrian fairs by encouraging and promoting musical acts at public plazas.

"We have lacked a lot of what had been our cultural richness with performing arts and visual arts that we used to have in this community," Burt said. "With the gentrification, it had gone by the wayside a lot and this is an opportunity to resurrect it."

In supporting the extension of the street closures, Cormack underscored that the city is not committing to keeping the two avenues car-free; it is merely giving city staff the authority to retain the current setup for a longer period of time. Because these programs were launched under emergency ordinances, which would become null once the public health emergency is declared over, the council will likely need to make further modifications — as well as approve permanent ordinances — to extend the street closures on a more long-term basis.

"If things go poorly and the variants come, we have the ability to maintain the situation we have now, which I think is fairly tolerable by most people," Cormack said. "Wonderful for some people but difficult for others.

"And if things go incredibly well and people come roaring back and University needs to be reopened, the city manager has the ability to do that."

In addition to voting 5-2 to authorize the extension of the various outdoor dining programs, the council also directed staff by a 6-1 vote, with council member Eric Filseth dissenting, to pursue additional measures to support businesses that are negatively impacted by the current programs and to ensure that the construction projects in the California Avenue and downtown areas are coordinated to minimize the impact of street closures.

Council members also considered conducting a survey of businesses to gauge their opinions on street closures but backed off after City Manager Ed Shikada warned that this would take a long time and significant staff resources.

"It is pulling teeth to get businesses to weigh in on this issue because they're voting against their neighbors," Shikada said.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.

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Palo Alto looks to keep University and California avenues car-free

City Council authorizes extension of street closures, parklet program

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Apr 20, 2021, 9:39 am

For many in Palo Alto, the closure of University and California avenues to cars and the explosion of parklets in the city's commercial zones was a speck of good news in a dismal year.

The streets closures, which the city had instituted in June to create outdoor dining space, have been met with widespread acclaim, with 96% of the respondents to a recent city survey saying they would like to see California Avenue remain car-free and 97% favoring an extended closure of University Avenue.

"This is bringing life back to Palo Alto," resident John McDowell said Monday during the council's deliberation of the program's future. "It helps our small businesses. It also gives us an opportunity to take our families out, to meet with other people."

Some business owners, however, are less enthusiastic. Rob Fischer of Peninsula Creamery and Mike Stone from Mollie Stone's Market, both said the closures have been bad for business. Stone said keeping California Avenue closed to cars hinders public access to the supermarket, which is located at the end of the newly created pedestrian promenade.

Fischer, whose restaurant is located on Hamilton Avenue, said that the closure of University Avenue helps some businesses at the expense of others.

"When you close the street and let one or two restaurants have the entire street, everyone else is kind of hung out to dry," Fischer said.

The council, for its part, has no plans to abandon the street closures any time soon. After weighing both sides, council members authorized staff to keep both streets car-free until Oct. 31 — effectively extending programs that would otherwise expire on May 31. They also favored extending the parklet program, which was adopted on an emergency basis and was set to expire on Sept. 7, until the end of the year and to move ahead with plans for a permanent parklet program.

In debating the merits of the street closures, council members tried to balance the often-competing needs of the restaurant owners and merchants in the downtown areas. While the California Avenue closure has been largely accepted by the business owners in the area (with the notable exception of Mollie Stone's) getting cars off University Avenue has been a more contentious proposition, with most restaurants favoring it but many retailers suggesting that the move is hurting their business.

Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Lydia Kou both voted against authorizing the extension of the street closures and the parking programs, with each suggesting that the city needs to do tread cautiously before locking any program in place for the long term. For the same reason, both also voted against exploring a permanent parklet program — a move that was proposed by council member Alison Cormack.

"It's only fair, now that they are allowed to be open that they be given the opportunity to succeed as well," Kou said, referring to downtown retailers. "So it distresses me that a lot of emphasis has been put into restaurants only and they're given so much leeway.

"The least that we can do is ensure fairness and ensure visibility for these businesses and ensure that their access is easy to get to."

While their colleagues agreed that the city can do more to support retailers, they concluded that the street closures are doing far more good than harm. Vice Mayor Pat Burt suggested aiding Mollie Stone's by adding signage on El Camino Real directing visitors to the supermarket through the Cambridge Avenue entrance. He also recommended further livening up the new pedestrian fairs by encouraging and promoting musical acts at public plazas.

"We have lacked a lot of what had been our cultural richness with performing arts and visual arts that we used to have in this community," Burt said. "With the gentrification, it had gone by the wayside a lot and this is an opportunity to resurrect it."

In supporting the extension of the street closures, Cormack underscored that the city is not committing to keeping the two avenues car-free; it is merely giving city staff the authority to retain the current setup for a longer period of time. Because these programs were launched under emergency ordinances, which would become null once the public health emergency is declared over, the council will likely need to make further modifications — as well as approve permanent ordinances — to extend the street closures on a more long-term basis.

"If things go poorly and the variants come, we have the ability to maintain the situation we have now, which I think is fairly tolerable by most people," Cormack said. "Wonderful for some people but difficult for others.

"And if things go incredibly well and people come roaring back and University needs to be reopened, the city manager has the ability to do that."

In addition to voting 5-2 to authorize the extension of the various outdoor dining programs, the council also directed staff by a 6-1 vote, with council member Eric Filseth dissenting, to pursue additional measures to support businesses that are negatively impacted by the current programs and to ensure that the construction projects in the California Avenue and downtown areas are coordinated to minimize the impact of street closures.

Council members also considered conducting a survey of businesses to gauge their opinions on street closures but backed off after City Manager Ed Shikada warned that this would take a long time and significant staff resources.

"It is pulling teeth to get businesses to weigh in on this issue because they're voting against their neighbors," Shikada said.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.

Comments

Chaya
Registered user
Midtown
on Apr 20, 2021 at 10:43 am
Chaya, Midtown
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 10:43 am

Would like to see University and California Avenue car free beyond just this pandemic. Being able to eat alfresco brings such life and energy to Palo Alto which has been lacking up until this point! Hoping it doesn’t go back to the way it was before.


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:03 am
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:03 am

We are fortunate that there is plenty of parking by Cal Ave. I would urge everyone to support our local businesses such as The Cobblery on Cal Ave. This small family-owned business is wonderful. I recently bought several gifts there for family, consciously deciding to buy locally rather than giving my business to Amazon. We have delightful small merchants, speciality grocery stores, and eclectic small businesses. Let's keep them and our Palo Alto lifestyle healthy, vibrant and wonderful.


Irene
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:03 am
Irene, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:03 am

Having California Ave permanently car-free would be a way to bring wonderful lasting change to the business district and community. I love the idea of having live music too. Maybe there is a way to add street vendors similar to local art and wine festivals. Agree with Pat Burt's suggestion to add signage to help direct traffic to Mollie Stone's and that we need to revive musical and visual arts in our community and this is a great opportunity to do so here.


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:15 am
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:15 am

Let's do it and do it right - trees down the middle of the street, lots of public and restaurant seating, live music. The "unfairness" to the other restaurants will be taken care of by the market - if University Ave. gets a lot more business, their rent will go up more than the Creamery's. However, The Creamerys out there will also get more car traffic. And let's not analyze this for 5-10 years. It's a no brainer!


Joe
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:38 am
Joe, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 11:38 am

The car-free streets are great and it's a shame it took a global catastrophe to try them.

If they become permanent, there needs to be a plan for bicycles. The current setup is haphazard and uneven depending on the sizes of the restaurants' outdoor seating areas. Cal Ave in particular remains an important bike route, but in some parts there are wide empty spaces with plenty of room for both cyclists and pedestrians, while in other parts (especially the Ash St. intersection) it's narrow and dangerous. The crude option would be to declare the whole area a sidewalk so bike riding is illegal there and divert all bike traffic to side streets like cars, but hopefully with the benefit of long-term planning we can find a way to safely integrate bike traffic and foot traffic now that we've reclaimed all this space from car lanes.


Justin Taylor
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2021 at 12:17 pm
Justin Taylor, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 12:17 pm

This is a step in the right direction as it will accommodate comfortable strolling and afford restaurants additional dining capacities.

One consideration pertaining to California Avenue...will the city remove the islands along with those hideous examples of sculpture (e.g. the mangled bike rack and wooden unicorn horn)?

Palo Alto has never been known for its tasteful examples of public art going back to the unsightly wooden "Friends" sculpture on Embarcadero.

And all things considered, it would be safe to say (or assume) that the PA Arts Commission has absolutely no vision when it comes to art.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2021 at 1:56 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 1:56 pm

I like Vice Mayor Burt's concept of highlighting lively arts on these new lively streets. Like him, I am concerned about making sure traffic works for other businesses this change may impact. Mollie Stone's parking is accessible via Cambridge. When I drive for larger shopping loads, that is usually how I get there. (They are the best source for Kosher foods in town. It's a terrific little neighborhood grocery store with high quality produce, meat and fish, and a butcher who will custom cut anything you want. Awesome deli counter, too!) My favorite paint store, California Paint Company) is also on Cal. Ave, accessible by parking on Cambridge also. Customer service there is outstanding. Burt's suggestion for wayfinding signage to behind-the-stores parking is a good one. Maybe the city could ask Google to get Google maps to catch up on this? That might help. Businesses, if you make the request, you might get faster results from Google.

Also, the street closure stops before Park Blvd., giving access to stores via Sherman. Grant, Park and Ash. Most of the parking is behind Cal Ave. stores anyway, so why do cars need Cal. Ave. to access them?

For local short trips, consider biking. I live at the south PA border. It takes me 17 minutes to ride and park my bike there-- faster than driving, because there are some nice, quiet routes to connect there easily.
See bike map Web Link .

Though this map was made for libraries, it highlights lovely quiet bike/walking routes to destinations all around town, including California Avenue and University. Check out Park Boulevard (very nice route from south PA) and California Avenue bike underpass from north PA and midtown. These are really sweet, flat, quiet, shady bike routes. Safe and fun to ride without breaking a sweat.


Alvin Chow
Registered user
University South
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:00 pm
Alvin Chow, University South
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:00 pm

Hopefully University Avenue and California Avenue will not get inundated with large crowds of walk-through visitors and diners.

The reason...because people will then start parking their cars on the adjacent residential streets like they do during the summertime street fairs and this in turn will create traffic congestion in these areas from AM to PM.

Perhaps better that some restaurants go out of business as University Avenue in Palo Alto and Castro Street in Mountain View have become little more than upscale food courts.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:17 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:17 pm

I think Council did the right thing by extending the temporary closures and parklets, and also by setting the expectation that not all of these measures are likely to be permanent.

If you haven't already done so, it's good to read the Staff Report (Web Link which talks about the obvious and not-so-obvious problems that would have to be solved for long-term closure. These include State legal limitations once the emergency is over; contention between businesses for parklet space; and access needs for the businesses, the public, utilities, and public-works operations. Closing the major streets does nothing to reduce the number of vehicles that need to get through town (or even into the closed blocks), so traffic displacement into all the surrounding neighborhoods is another significant issue.

I also wonder a lot about how the economics will play out. Once the emergency is over, businesses would have to pay fees for exclusive access to public property, which could offset most of the gains they might enjoy. And if property owners decide that street access is a feature they can sell, they'll raise the rent.

As Carol Scott said in response to an earlier article, plan carefully and be considerate.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:43 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 4:43 pm

One of our CC members, Ms Cormack, expressed confusion about the need to communicate and coordinate information about street closures and traffic diversion. Er, hello. Traffic doesn't magically go poof, Ms. Cormack, and surrounding neighbors and businesses night like to be informed.

In fact, the city once boasted about its planned alert service warning us about street closures, construction projects etc so we could avoid them and plan accordingly. It never got out of beta, sort of like our electrical outage "outreach" services.


Lindsay Joye
Registered user
Ventura
on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:05 pm
Lindsay Joye, Ventura
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:05 pm

I am very pleased with the closed streets and expect business should pick up as more people are vaccinated and warmer weather encourages outdoor dining.
The drop in business is much more likely due to the huge drop in visitors, Stanford Research Park office closures, and fewer residents! My neighborhood has tons of “For Rent” signs and the streets are much emptier than in 2019!


CC
Registered user
University South
on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:28 pm
CC, University South
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 5:28 pm

"...council members tried to balance the often-competing needs of the restaurant owners and merchants in the downtown areas"

While I appreciate the acknowledgement that tradeoffs exist, this is a weird framing -- streets don't exist _so that_ businesses can operate along them. Rather, the streets are for citizens of (and visitors to) Palo Alto to travel / gather / conduct business / etc. Glad to hear that the council has heard from PA's citizens that they prefer all the amenities a closed street provides -- it's so great!


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:01 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:01 pm

I think this is good news for all of us. I think that every business will benefit because even those on side streets will get foot traffic from those walking to brunch/lunch/dinner.

The parking situation is ongoing and evenings and weekends could get just as busy as lunchtimes so this does need work. We were promised electronic parking signs? Where are they? We were promised pay by phone apps? Where are they? Bump into some friends when coming out of the bank and decide to have lunch, hey let me just pay for some additional parking on my phone! Whoops there is none. Sorry can't have lunch, must dash before I get a parking ticket.

The reality is that parking has to be simplified. Free parking after 3 pm at Caltrain would help, as would 20 minute spots and bicycle parking.

Let's make it more attractive for residents to eat in our own downtown whether it be for brunch, lunch, happy hour, or peak hour dining.


MJ
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:47 pm
MJ, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:47 pm

Love closing the streets to cars and the parklets. However, the high number of propane heaters are creating too much air pollution for customers, neighbors and especially the people working at the businesses. In this pandemic triggered by a respiratory virus, should we be damaging our lungs with the exhaust from these propane heaters?


Marc Levoy
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:51 pm
Marc Levoy, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 6:51 pm

I warmly support the initiative to keep Cal Ave closed to cars. The sounds of clinking glasses, soft laughter, and quiet live music have been a beacon of hope during this long pandemic, and could be a magnet for the neighborhood long into the future. Taking a lesson from Europe, who knows how to do urban promenades right, let's pave it with bricks or cobbles, install planters and gentle street lighting, and provide restaurants with well-defined zones of expansion. If we need more parking behind the buildings or elsewhere, let's build it. And if Mollie Stones prefers cars over people, maybe we should frequent different grocery stores, which support neighborhood values.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 20, 2021 at 10:27 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2021 at 10:27 pm

" If we need more parking behind the buildings or elsewhere, let's build it. And if Mollie Stones prefers cars over people, maybe we should frequent different grocery stores, which support neighborhood values."

There's already parking lots behind the Cal Ave buildings on both side plus 2 garages on Cambridge and the huge new one s of Cal Ave plus the RR station parking lots. So where's elsewhere? In the neighborhoods?

Neighborhood values also include grocery shopping and other retail activity. Lunch lasts 2 hours; restaurants close fbetween lunch and dinner. Retail and offices are open all day. Charming European promenades aren't usually near offices, the Court House or the new Public Safety building.

Mollie Stone's has parking because grocery stores need parking so people can load up their multiple bags of groceries, something this grocery shopper values. Without that parking, people would shop elsewhere since all the other grocery stores have parking lots -- Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Safeway, Piazza's...

Pre-pandemic it was always tough to find lunch parking near Cal Ave because of all the workers parking all day. So yes, dining on Cal Ave NOW is charming but workers are returning and parking will again be impossible.

(



LongtimeResident
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 21, 2021 at 11:14 am
LongtimeResident, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 11:14 am

I do not believe University Ave needs to be closed to cars, to have outdoor dining. The parklet setups are very nice, and provide adequate space. University Ave is "dying on the vine", without the free flow and bustle of traffic.

We can have both. Let's open University back up, and allow restaurants to have parklets.


Cal Ave resident
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2021 at 12:53 pm
Cal Ave resident, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 12:53 pm

The streets are MUCH better in their current configuration. I think of them as OPEN to people. The way it should be. Who on earth drives down Cal Ave and thinks "Oh I'll park right outside the restaurant." No-one with any sense.

And once again, Lydia Kou and Tom DuBois on the wrong side of common sense. They are very reliable in this regard. They want to give back a handful of parking spaces on the street after spending $50M of our money on an empty parking garage half a block away . . .


nope2
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:24 pm
nope2, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:24 pm

Love the car free Cal Ave. I'm skeptical that closing Cal Ave is the reason Mollie Stone's business is hurting when access is still easy via other streets. Maybe it's because Real Produce on El Camino opened? Or the insanely high prices? Or the fact that so many people have started getting groceries delivered at home?


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:57 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:57 pm

The reduced traffic right now makes the Cal Ave and University Ave closures practical. But for the businesses on and near those streets to survive in the long run, daytime workers will have to return. The evidence so far suggests that they will, and when they do, traffic and parking demands will rise. Perhaps well beyond pre-pandemic levels, if transit ridership continues to be lower than before. The City is already selling employee parking permits in nearby neighborhoods because it expects parking shortages in the commercial areas (despite that new garage near Cal Ave).

Through-traffic on Cal Ave is pretty light; there's about 30% more at my corner in Professorville than Cal Ave carries. On the other hand, University Ave carries about 12000 vehicles/day. Keeping the big streets closed does nothing to reduce traffic; it's just forced to flow elsewhere. A lot of us who live near University have seen it gradually moving into our neighborhoods, and expect that to get worse as the workers return. A *lot* worse if all of University Ave's traffic has to detour.

Folks who live in College Terrace enjoy privileges that most neighborhoods don't offer. All-day commercial parking is prohibited there, and permanent partial street closures dramatically reduce cut-through traffic. Freedom to stroll down the Aves from time to time comes at the cost of increased noise, increased particulate pollution, inability for residents and visitors to park near homes, and reduced safety for many of your fellow citizens. If you're really invested in closing Cal Ave and University Ave permanently, are you also willing to fight Council and City Staff to give other neighborhoods the same level of protection that you already have? The easiest way to start is to write Council and insist on ending commercial parking permit sales in residential areas.


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