Palo Alto's bold experiment with car-free downtown promenades will start to wind down next month, after the City Council unanimously agreed late Monday to reopen University Avenue to vehicle traffic on Oct. 15.
But in a nod to the continuing popularity of outdoor dining, the lingering nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and strong advocacy from local diners and restaurateurs, council members also agreed to keep cars away from California Avenue at least until June. They also indicated that they would like to retain the car-free alignment on a vibrant block of Ramona Street, between Hamilton and University avenues, for the foreseeable future and that they would like to see parklets remain as a permanent fixture of the city's streetscape.
In a series of decisions that reflected the complex and divisive nature of the debate, council members struggled to reconcile the competing interests of downtown's restaurant owners, many of whom have benefited from University Avenue's closure to traffic, and retailers, some of whom have blamed the new street alignment for exacerbating their business woes. Prominent downtown landowners, including Thoits Bros. and John McNellis, both lobbied for reopening University to cars as soon as possible, with McNellis arguing in a letter that failing to do so will "doom" many nonfood retailers.
He and others pointed to recent reports showing sharp declines in sales tax receipts from commercial areas around the city, with the pain particularly pronounced in the downtown area. University Avenue has seen its tax receipts drop by 32.2% between 2019 and 2020, according to staff, and by another 1.5% between 2020 and 2021. Cherry LeBrun, owner of De Novo Fine Contemporary Jewelry on Ramona Street, suggested that reopening the downtown streets on Oct. 1, as the city had previously planned, is necessary to protect retailers who haven't seen any benefits from the outdoor dining scene.
"Retail businesses are a vital part of the economy and add to the vibrancy of our town and provide a livelihood for many Palo Alto citizens," LeBrun wrote.
Restaurant owners within the closed-off areas, meanwhile, raved about the new alignment and encouraged the council to retain it. Nancy Coupal, owner of two Coupa Café locations in downtown Palo Alto, recently helped form a coalition of downtown businesses that support retaining and further enhancing the car-free alignment. The group includes downtown establishments The Old Pro, Oren's Hummus, Rooh and Café Venetia, among others, Coupal told this news organization in an interview.
"We'd like to see Palo Alto go into a direction that's more environmentally conscious — to have a bike lane down the middle, leave restaurants on street, invite retailers to showcase their product on sidewalks and streets and create a new environment — a little more European, more human-oriented," Coupal said in an interview.
But council members made clear that they do not support any major extensions to University's car-free status, which was introduced in early July 2020 as an emergency measure and which has been extended several times since then. While they supported moving ahead with a multiyear design process for University, they balked at keeping the avenue car-free in the long-term, notwithstanding requests from hundreds of residents.
The council's unanimous vote to reopen University Avenue to traffic belied the division between members over the topic. Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Lydia Kou both supported reopening downtown streets to cars as soon as possible. Doing otherwise, they both suggested, would harm downtown retailers during the most important shopping period of the year.
"I think we should let our retailers have a good holiday season and be ready like on Oct. 1," DuBois said.
Others, including council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone favored keeping University closed at least until early or mid-November. Both had been vocal supporters of the car-free alignment, though Stone also suggested that it's important for the city to set a reopening date.
He proposed Nov. 8 as a compromise that will give restaurants more time to take advantage of warm weather, while giving the city more time to "ride out this delta wave."
"But it also gives retailers a clear end date," Stone said.
In compromising on the Oct. 15 reopening date, council members acknowledged that a more long-lasting extension would require traffic studies and environmental analyses — work that will be included in the broader planning effort for University Avenue. They felt far more comfortable in retaining the car-free alignment on California Avenue, which is dominated by restaurants and which — in contrast to University — does not serve as a thoroughfare for commuters trying to get across town.
Similarly, the proposal to keep Ramona Street closed to cars proved to be a relatively easy sell. Cormack, Filseth and Stone pointed to the vibrant dining scene on the block, which includes Osteria Toscana, The Old Pro and Nola. Cormack suggested Ramona is a "natural fit" for a car-free dining environment.
"Based on the density and the way that whole street is set up, I think we should seriously consider making the closure of Ramona permanent," Cormack said.
In another sign that Palo Alto's new outdoor scene will likely outlast the pandemic, the council agreed to extend and make permanent the city's nascent parklet program, which emerged in the early days of the pandemic. This will entail coming up with new design guidelines for parklets and considering whether to charge restaurants for using the public space. While the city moves ahead with that process, existing rules allowing for establishments of the outdoor dining areas will remain in place.
The council reached its decision to keep California Avenue car-free for the foreseeable future without much debate. After spending most of its meeting discussing downtown options, the council quickly agreed just past midnight on Tuesday to extend the closure of California Avenue to cars until at least June.
Council members also directed staff by a 5-2 vote, with Filseth and Kou dissenting, to return to the council at a later date for a discussion about a permanent street closure on California Avenue. Filseth, who opposed keeping cars away from University and California Avenue on a permanent basis, nevertheless acknowledged that the street dining scene that emerged in spring 2020 will not fade away any time soon.
"I think it's clear that outdoor dining is probably here to stay," Filseth said. "There's a lot of people who really like it."