If things go as planned, Palo Alto's popular experiment with closing University and California avenues to cars could conclude at the end of this month.
But despite the City Council's recent decision to only keep the closures in place until Sept. 30, the hundreds of residents and visitors who have submitted letters in recent months in support of retaining car-free promenades have some reasons to feel hopeful. The programs, which were initially intended to stretch through summer 2020, remain in place after numerous extensions. And even with some downtown merchants and property owners clamoring to reopen the streets to cars, neither the council nor City Manager Ed Shikada have been particularly keen on pulling the plug on a program that according to an April survey had a favorability rating of more than 90% among visitors.
The fate of the program will once again be up for debate this Monday, when the council considers its next moves for both University and California avenues. The menu of options that council members will consider includes staying on the current path, which directs staff to conclude the program on Sept. 30 but which also gives Shikada discretion to keep either — or both — of the streets closed until Oct. 31.
A new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services outlines several other alternatives that the council could pursue, should it choose to keep streets closed to cars in the near term. The council can keep the streets car-free until November and then reopen them to vehicles in time for the holiday season. It can wait until the end of January before letting cars back onto the streets. It can limit the downtown street closures to weekends or it could direct staff to temporarily reopen the streets to cars during the holiday shopping season and then potentially revert them to car-free mode until the end of January.
According to the report, the lattermost option would "allow time to observe what happens this winter and decide early next year if the program continues to be needed."
"With a stated time of the streets being open the City can create the opportunity for retailers to be competitive during the holiday shopping season," the report states.
For the council, the decision of if and when to reopen streets represents a complex balancing act. On the one hand, retailers throughout the city have seen their revenues plummet during the pandemic and downtown merchants have been hit particularly hard, according to a recent report from the city's consultant, Avenu Insights. The report showed sales tax receipts in the downtown area plunge by 51.5% between the fourth quarters of 2019 and 2020, with receipts in the "general retail" category falling by 54.8% and with the "food products" category showing a 48.6% drop.
Some downtown merchants have argued in recent months that street closures have exacerbated the pain by reducing their stores' visibility and by making parking more difficult. Roxy Rapp, speaking for a group of downtown property owners, recited in June a list of downtown merchants that have reported dropping sales, a roster that included Lululemon Athletica, Keen Garage and Footwear etc.
"Closing off the streets is just killing us," Rapp said.
But on the other hand, the pandemic has not gone away and outdoor dining remains as popular as ever. While retailers have blamed street closures for adding to their struggles, restaurateurs along California and University avenue have credited car-free streets for boosting their business during a perilous time. Nancy Coupal, who owns two Coupa Café locations in downtown Palo Alto, including one in the closed-off portion of Ramona Street, suggested during the June discussion that "if you take away restaurants from the streets right now, there will be even less people coming."
Council members acknowledged the complex nature of the debate on June 22, when they agreed to keep the car-free experiment going until at least Sept. 30. Council member Greer Stone called the street dilemma "one of the most difficult issues that we faced this year," pointing to reasonable arguments on both sides. And while the council agreed to extend the closure, there was no clear consensus about the future of University and California avenues. Mayor Tom DuBois supported reopening streets to cars in July and September, respectively, and said he is concerned about the impact that a more long-term closure of University would have on both retailers and traffic patterns on residential streets around the thoroughfare.
"Do I believe restaurants want additional space? Yes," DuBois said at the meeting. "Do I believe the majority of diners really like eating outside? Yes, I do. But do I think it's fair for the business community? No, I don't."
Others favored keeping the streets closed and pointed to overwhelming support from the broader public, as evidenced by the more than 400 letters that the city had received in favor of retaining closures before its June 22 vote, and the more than 160 additional letters it received since then. Palo Alto resident Kim Vazquez argued in a Sept. 1 letter that University and Ramona should be permanently closed to cars, calling it a matter of "quality of life."
"Your residents need more space to feel safe while traversing and eating in downtown Palo Alto," Vazquez wrote. "Cars shouldn't take priority over people and this change has made my downtown experience a million times more enjoyable."
Council member Alison Cormack pointed at the popularity of outdoor dining during the June hearing and suggested that the council "use this crisis as an opportunity to make change."
Recent surveys of local businesses suggest that the topic continues to divide merchants, particularly on and around University Avenue. The survey of 65 businesses included 18 responses encouraging the city to maintain street closures and 13 responses urging the reopening of streets to vehicles. The report from the Department of Planning and Development Services notes that attitudes have not shifted significantly since June.
"Generally speaking, owners of restaurants located within the closed streets along University Avenue and Ramona Street corridors and on California Avenue prefer the closures," the report states. "Due to the rise in delta variant, they report that fewer diners want to eat indoors."
At the same time, businesses with retail and retail-like uses prefer the streets to be opened to vehicle traffic, the report states.
"For these businesses, they feel restaurants have had a chance to use the streets, now more balance is needed," the report states.
In addition to contemplating the extension of street closures, the council will also consider more long-term changes for the two thoroughfares. For California Avenue, which had already undergone a major streetscape-renovation project six years ago, the city is looking to invite local architects and design experts to work with the Architectural Review Board and area businesses and residents to create a "unique permanent parklet program that enhances the California Avenue streetscape and pedestrian environment."
The University Avenue project promises to be more complex, expensive and contentious, insomuch as it seeks to accommodate a wide range of conflicting objectives. The goal, according to staff, is to "adapt the public realm to maximize pedestrian and bicycle use, and accentuate and enhance the retail environment, while maintaining vital two-way vehicular access, parking opportunities, delivery and loading zones, rideshare spaces, and other amenities including performance space."
The downtown project would also take a lot longer to complete. Unlike the California Avenue plan, the city's exploration of modifying University Avenue will involve field work, environmental studies (including a traffic analysis and an arborist report), a design charrette, public hearings and an assessment analysis to allocate some of the project costs to the businesses and property owners who would benefit from the expanded space, according to staff. If the council approves staff's direction, the city would issue a request for proposals to perform this work. The design for University Avenue wouldn't be finalized until September 2025, according to the timeline in the city's request for proposals, and construction would not kick off until 2026.
"The priority is to create a more vibrant and inclusive space to support residents and local businesses," the report from the Department of Planning and Development Services states.