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.