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'A failing street': As vacancies plague California Avenue, can the shopping district make a comeback?

'The district is falling apart. There's no two ways about it.'

The empty theater that ZombieRunner Coffee used to occupy on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. ZombieRunner Coffee is now located at 344 California Ave. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Empty storefronts and "For Lease" signs have become a regular fixture along Palo Alto's California Avenue shopping district in recent years. As of this week, there were at least 13 storefronts that were vacant or for lease.

And as buildings remain empty and the number of attractions along the avenue wane, business owners and property managers who have maintained a stake on the dead-end street for multiple decades are now wondering if the city's second downtown can ever make a comeback.

Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, which has operated on California Avenue since 1940, said this is the most vacancies she has seen since she took over her grandfather's shoe repair shop in 1994.

"In my entire life, we have never had more than three empty spaces on this street," said Roth, who is also vice president of the California Avenue Area Development Association, a business advocacy group for the shopping strip. "California Avenue is known for its longevity and keeping businesses."

Jon Goldman, co-president of Premier Properties, which manages over 70 buildings in Palo Alto, said, "The district is falling apart. There's no two ways about it."

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During the pandemic, longtime restaurants such as The Counter, Antonio's Nut House and even the Subway franchise have abandoned Palo Alto's once vibrant destination, with business owners either citing financial hardships or employee shortages due to the pandemic.

"COVID-19 affected us a lot," Amanda Lee, who has co-owned several Subways in Palo Alto since 2003, told the Weekly. "The rent is very high in Palo Alto, and we lost many employees during COVID."

Bank of the West on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Bank of the West also is set to move out of its longtime home at 414 S. California Ave. by the beginning of 2022, leaving behind prime real estate and a big question mark around who will take over the building. (Redwood City's Arton Management Investments, which owns the Palo Alto property and several others in Redwood City, declined to comment.)

According to LoopNet.com, a commercial real estate website, Bank of the West has occupied the 6,195-square-foot space for over two decades.

Lucas Grzeszczuk, the branch manager at the California Avenue location, confirmed the move and said that the branch is relocating a few blocks away near 2700 El Camino Real. He declined to disclose why the branch is moving.

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In 2016, Keeble & Shuchat photography store shuttered after 51 years of business, as the photography industry morphed and customers increasingly turned to online shopping. That, along with a scarcity of parking and increasing development in the California Avenue area, made the closure necessary, owner Terry Shuchat said at the time. Portions of the large corner building still remain vacant and available for lease.

Last year, Antonio's Nut House, a popular local dive bar, shut down after 49 years due to pandemic-related restrictions on bars and a looming expiration date on the lease that was held by the late Tony Montooth, the original owner of the bar. The building is currently being gutted and a lease sign is in the window.

"We're losing a lot of money. It's just too difficult to conform to all the regulations and maintain our pricing," Jess Montooth, son of Tony, previously told the Weekly.

Country Sun Natural Foods on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In addition, 440 S. California Ave., the longtime home of Country Sun Natural Foods, was listed for sale for $6 million on LoopNet in October.

A person connected to the grocery market, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, emphasized that anything in terms of a sale remains tentative.

"Country Sun is not moving," the person said. "We have no idea if (the property is) going to be sold or not. Even if it is sold, (the store) won't move."

Street closure boosts some businesses, harms others

Diners eat lunch on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 11, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The city has taken measures to support local businesses in the commercial district during the pandemic — most notably, it temporarily closed California Avenue to traffic to allow restaurants to offer street dining while health mandates limited indoor dining. In September, the council voted to extend the popular street dining program until at least next June.

"Overall, the city has worked to help promote retail and retail-like uses on California Avenue," Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communication officer, wrote in an email. "The council has also worked during the pandemic to think about the role of the street closures in supporting the community and supporting local businesses."

The City Council is scheduled to discuss longer-term closures on Nov. 15, she added.

But some retailers say the benefits of the program are not shared among all businesses on a street dominated by restaurants.

Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, at her store on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

As a retail store that relies on impulse walk-ins, Roth believes that the street closure continues to negatively impact her business.

"Retail is a very funny thing where sometimes you don't know that you want something until you see it," she said. "And walking up the middle of the street, you're not going to see my retail."

However, Roth said she understands the purpose of the closure and ultimately supports the cause since it has helped restaurants during the economic crisis. But come winter, when it becomes colder to eat outdoors, she questions whether the street closure will be useful.

"When you walk down (California Avenue) … all I can think of is a failing street," she said. “It’s really sad.”

Businesses move in, despite tough conditions

A now closed Subway on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

As someone who has sounded the alarm bells for several years to the city about California Avenue, Goldman said businesses are not clamoring to grab the vacant locations in the commercial district.

But the avenue will welcome a few newcomers soon.

Recently, Goldman's Premier Properties, which currently lists five retail locations on California Avenue available for lease on its website, helped secure a retail space for Nob Hill Hardware at 251 California Ave., next to FedExOffice. While it's an exciting opportunity to add a retail use to the street, Goldman said the level of permitting and inspection that the business had to undergo for a 3,144-square-foot space has been "brutal."

"This construction has been going on for more than one and a half years ... and they're not building anything," he said.

'The rent is very high in Palo Alto, and we lost many employees during COVID.'

-Amanda Lee, co-owner of many local Subway stores

In addition, Boba shop Ume Tea is preparing to move into the former Subway site at 421 S. California Ave. And Local Kitchens, which describes itself as a "digital food hall" focused on food delivery service apps, is set to take over the former location of The Counter in November. Customers can order from a variety of restaurants and pick up their food at the location; there is no seating for dining in.

"We couldn't be more thrilled to bring our micro food hall to California Avenue, which will feature a mix of incredible Bay Area restaurants including Señor Sisig, Wise Sons Deli and The Melt," Jon Goldsmith, CEO of Local Kitchens, wrote in an email. "The reaction from guests has been tremendous since our inaugural store launch last year, and we are excited to serve Palo Altans with convenient and diverse food options."

Other than these new retailers, however, businesses that consider moving to the avenue are facing some tough conditions — some of which predate the pandemic, retailers said.

Property managers and business owners who spoke to the Weekly pointed to what they considered questionable policy decisions the city made over past years that have only made it more difficult to operate a business and attract willing newcomers.

Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, works on repairing a shoe in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Roth at The Cobblery, for example, highlighted one ordinance that she ironically once supported by gathering petition signatures for its implementation: the "formula retail" policy adopted in 2015, which restricts chains with more than 10 locations from setting up shop on California Avenue. The law made exceptions for Benjamin Moore Paints, The Counter, FedEx, Starbucks and Subway, which already operated on the street at the time.

"That's one of the things that maybe needs to be relooked at," Roth said.

Mike Meffert, a commercial real estate agent for Alhouse Deaton who has worked in the Peninsula for 20 years and also owns an office building at 480 S. California Ave., agreed that the formula retail policy is among the barriers that could be deterring businesses that may have the ability to increase foot traffic on the street.

"As far as I know, other cities (with downtown districts) don't have this formula retail restriction," he said. "I think that is fairly unique."

More recently, the city enacted new policies around parking that have left business owners frustrated and feeling that they were left out of the conversation when changes were discussed.

On Oct. 5, the city agreed to increase the cost of parking permits for its public garages and eliminate its on-street parking permit program in the Evergreen Park and Mayfield residential neighborhoods, which employees in the California Avenue district rely on for parking.

The city expects cars to move off neighborhood streets and into the new 626-space garage at 350 Sherman Ave. and has assured that the structure is large enough to support the 250 or so vehicles that currently use the on-street permit parking program.

'Retail is a very funny thing where sometimes you don't know that you want something until you see it.'

-Jessica Roth, owner, The Cobblery

Michael Ekwall, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio on 463 California Ave., believes that the new parking policies are a blow to the business district, especially as the restaurant industry continues to struggle with an employee shortage.

"When we have an employee that can't find parking, they just don't work for us," Ekwall said. "We're in a very challenging position right now in terms of being able to fully staff our business and when our people can't get parking permits, it just makes it worse."

Ekwall said taking away the residential parking program and increasing the cost of garage permits is a step backward. He's not convinced that the garage will provide enough spaces to accommodate all of the business district's employees.

Meffert and Goldman echoed Ekwall's sentiment, saying that adding restrictions to parking in the neighborhoods makes it challenging for businesses to operate.

"If you kill off the parking, you slowly kill off the businesses, too," Meffert said.

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'A failing street': As vacancies plague California Avenue, can the shopping district make a comeback?

'The district is falling apart. There's no two ways about it.'

by Lloyd Lee / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 5, 2021, 6:57 am

Empty storefronts and "For Lease" signs have become a regular fixture along Palo Alto's California Avenue shopping district in recent years. As of this week, there were at least 13 storefronts that were vacant or for lease.

And as buildings remain empty and the number of attractions along the avenue wane, business owners and property managers who have maintained a stake on the dead-end street for multiple decades are now wondering if the city's second downtown can ever make a comeback.

Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, which has operated on California Avenue since 1940, said this is the most vacancies she has seen since she took over her grandfather's shoe repair shop in 1994.

"In my entire life, we have never had more than three empty spaces on this street," said Roth, who is also vice president of the California Avenue Area Development Association, a business advocacy group for the shopping strip. "California Avenue is known for its longevity and keeping businesses."

Jon Goldman, co-president of Premier Properties, which manages over 70 buildings in Palo Alto, said, "The district is falling apart. There's no two ways about it."

During the pandemic, longtime restaurants such as The Counter, Antonio's Nut House and even the Subway franchise have abandoned Palo Alto's once vibrant destination, with business owners either citing financial hardships or employee shortages due to the pandemic.

"COVID-19 affected us a lot," Amanda Lee, who has co-owned several Subways in Palo Alto since 2003, told the Weekly. "The rent is very high in Palo Alto, and we lost many employees during COVID."

Bank of the West also is set to move out of its longtime home at 414 S. California Ave. by the beginning of 2022, leaving behind prime real estate and a big question mark around who will take over the building. (Redwood City's Arton Management Investments, which owns the Palo Alto property and several others in Redwood City, declined to comment.)

According to LoopNet.com, a commercial real estate website, Bank of the West has occupied the 6,195-square-foot space for over two decades.

Lucas Grzeszczuk, the branch manager at the California Avenue location, confirmed the move and said that the branch is relocating a few blocks away near 2700 El Camino Real. He declined to disclose why the branch is moving.

In 2016, Keeble & Shuchat photography store shuttered after 51 years of business, as the photography industry morphed and customers increasingly turned to online shopping. That, along with a scarcity of parking and increasing development in the California Avenue area, made the closure necessary, owner Terry Shuchat said at the time. Portions of the large corner building still remain vacant and available for lease.

Last year, Antonio's Nut House, a popular local dive bar, shut down after 49 years due to pandemic-related restrictions on bars and a looming expiration date on the lease that was held by the late Tony Montooth, the original owner of the bar. The building is currently being gutted and a lease sign is in the window.

"We're losing a lot of money. It's just too difficult to conform to all the regulations and maintain our pricing," Jess Montooth, son of Tony, previously told the Weekly.

In addition, 440 S. California Ave., the longtime home of Country Sun Natural Foods, was listed for sale for $6 million on LoopNet in October.

A person connected to the grocery market, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, emphasized that anything in terms of a sale remains tentative.

"Country Sun is not moving," the person said. "We have no idea if (the property is) going to be sold or not. Even if it is sold, (the store) won't move."

The city has taken measures to support local businesses in the commercial district during the pandemic — most notably, it temporarily closed California Avenue to traffic to allow restaurants to offer street dining while health mandates limited indoor dining. In September, the council voted to extend the popular street dining program until at least next June.

"Overall, the city has worked to help promote retail and retail-like uses on California Avenue," Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communication officer, wrote in an email. "The council has also worked during the pandemic to think about the role of the street closures in supporting the community and supporting local businesses."

The City Council is scheduled to discuss longer-term closures on Nov. 15, she added.

But some retailers say the benefits of the program are not shared among all businesses on a street dominated by restaurants.

As a retail store that relies on impulse walk-ins, Roth believes that the street closure continues to negatively impact her business.

"Retail is a very funny thing where sometimes you don't know that you want something until you see it," she said. "And walking up the middle of the street, you're not going to see my retail."

However, Roth said she understands the purpose of the closure and ultimately supports the cause since it has helped restaurants during the economic crisis. But come winter, when it becomes colder to eat outdoors, she questions whether the street closure will be useful.

"When you walk down (California Avenue) … all I can think of is a failing street," she said. “It’s really sad.”

As someone who has sounded the alarm bells for several years to the city about California Avenue, Goldman said businesses are not clamoring to grab the vacant locations in the commercial district.

But the avenue will welcome a few newcomers soon.

Recently, Goldman's Premier Properties, which currently lists five retail locations on California Avenue available for lease on its website, helped secure a retail space for Nob Hill Hardware at 251 California Ave., next to FedExOffice. While it's an exciting opportunity to add a retail use to the street, Goldman said the level of permitting and inspection that the business had to undergo for a 3,144-square-foot space has been "brutal."

"This construction has been going on for more than one and a half years ... and they're not building anything," he said.

In addition, Boba shop Ume Tea is preparing to move into the former Subway site at 421 S. California Ave. And Local Kitchens, which describes itself as a "digital food hall" focused on food delivery service apps, is set to take over the former location of The Counter in November. Customers can order from a variety of restaurants and pick up their food at the location; there is no seating for dining in.

"We couldn't be more thrilled to bring our micro food hall to California Avenue, which will feature a mix of incredible Bay Area restaurants including Señor Sisig, Wise Sons Deli and The Melt," Jon Goldsmith, CEO of Local Kitchens, wrote in an email. "The reaction from guests has been tremendous since our inaugural store launch last year, and we are excited to serve Palo Altans with convenient and diverse food options."

Other than these new retailers, however, businesses that consider moving to the avenue are facing some tough conditions — some of which predate the pandemic, retailers said.

Property managers and business owners who spoke to the Weekly pointed to what they considered questionable policy decisions the city made over past years that have only made it more difficult to operate a business and attract willing newcomers.

Roth at The Cobblery, for example, highlighted one ordinance that she ironically once supported by gathering petition signatures for its implementation: the "formula retail" policy adopted in 2015, which restricts chains with more than 10 locations from setting up shop on California Avenue. The law made exceptions for Benjamin Moore Paints, The Counter, FedEx, Starbucks and Subway, which already operated on the street at the time.

"That's one of the things that maybe needs to be relooked at," Roth said.

Mike Meffert, a commercial real estate agent for Alhouse Deaton who has worked in the Peninsula for 20 years and also owns an office building at 480 S. California Ave., agreed that the formula retail policy is among the barriers that could be deterring businesses that may have the ability to increase foot traffic on the street.

"As far as I know, other cities (with downtown districts) don't have this formula retail restriction," he said. "I think that is fairly unique."

More recently, the city enacted new policies around parking that have left business owners frustrated and feeling that they were left out of the conversation when changes were discussed.

On Oct. 5, the city agreed to increase the cost of parking permits for its public garages and eliminate its on-street parking permit program in the Evergreen Park and Mayfield residential neighborhoods, which employees in the California Avenue district rely on for parking.

The city expects cars to move off neighborhood streets and into the new 626-space garage at 350 Sherman Ave. and has assured that the structure is large enough to support the 250 or so vehicles that currently use the on-street permit parking program.

Michael Ekwall, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio on 463 California Ave., believes that the new parking policies are a blow to the business district, especially as the restaurant industry continues to struggle with an employee shortage.

"When we have an employee that can't find parking, they just don't work for us," Ekwall said. "We're in a very challenging position right now in terms of being able to fully staff our business and when our people can't get parking permits, it just makes it worse."

Ekwall said taking away the residential parking program and increasing the cost of garage permits is a step backward. He's not convinced that the garage will provide enough spaces to accommodate all of the business district's employees.

Meffert and Goldman echoed Ekwall's sentiment, saying that adding restrictions to parking in the neighborhoods makes it challenging for businesses to operate.

"If you kill off the parking, you slowly kill off the businesses, too," Meffert said.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2021 at 8:28 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 8:28 am

To some extent, Palo Alto is now reaping what it has been sowing for many years. Yes, the pandemic has forced us all to become acquaintanted with online shopping even if we had not done it often beforehand. Shopping as an activity was basically prohibited and any item that we needed was only a click away and it is also true that what we did need was actually quite different. Now everyone is habitually shopping online and shopping is quite a novel experience if we actually go out to do it. Perhaps mixing retail with restaurants may make people wander in, browse and perhaps impulse buy, but will serious shopping for what we actually need ever return?

On the other hand, in recent months we have lost Bed Bath and Beyond, REI, Best Buy and even WalMart in Mountain View has replaced much of its space with groceries as opposed to the racks of clothes and household items it used to offer. Palo Alto famously will not allow large big box stores or even large grocery stores which encourages people to use mega Safeways in Menlo Park and Mountain View for one stop shopping.

Whether customers return or not is something that can't be forecast. People are fickle in their habits. Supply chain rumors and actualities are hard to ascertain unless the favorite brand of breakfast cereal or dog food is not in its normal place while the empty shelf space is filled with whatever commodity the store has in abundance. This holiday season shopping is already underway and we are told that the normal Black Friday deals will not be taking place this year.

It remains to be seen if the local big box stores will be able to survive. Will we be able to get what we want by a traditional shopping trip or will we be forced to use Amazon to get everything from bedlinen and broomsticks, to holiday cheer mistletoe and holly?


Not worried
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2021 at 9:28 am
Not worried, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 9:28 am

Supply Chain backlogs effect on-line shopping too. If it is not there, then it is not there. Just check your website. I prefer to buy and have item in hand.


JMDAZED
Registered user
Charleston Gardens
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:28 am
JMDAZED, Charleston Gardens
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:28 am

After Antonio's Nuthouse closed up, it was the last straw for me. Cal. Ave. was my favorite street in Palo Alto for many years and it might as well not exist anymore. Town keeps losing it's soul.


Mark Dinan
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:45 am
Mark Dinan, East Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:45 am

Pretty simple - when workers don't go into offices in Palo Alto, they don't shop and spend money on California Avenue. This will all come back to a new normal once people return to offices.


Bill Glazier
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:52 am
Bill Glazier, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:52 am

Quoting Premier Properties as the main source for the 'California Avenue is going to hell' story is a bit disingenuous. These are the people who have raised rents to unheard of levels, and provided little to no support to tenants during the pandemic (basic on very specific knowledge of actual owners who rent from them, not wild speculation). Lower your rents and you will fill those spaces in no time or keep them in their current spaces. The City just spent $30M to build a very large parking garage that remains mostly empty most days. Complaining that the City is now forcing people to park there is not the point. Three years ago it was basically useless to try and visit Cal Ave at lunchtime because there was no place to park. Now there is tons of parking. Palo Altans have no interest in having McDonalds, Burger King, or Taco Bell line its major downtown business districts, and so there are reasonable restrictions that can be overcome through an application process. Why did Subway on Cal Ave close? It was one of the worst run Subways in Northern California. Every time I placed a group order there it was at least 30 minutes late. They refused to hire enough staff to keep up. And because the rent was sky-high. Antonio's complaining they make no money given their prices and the way it was filled most evenings is another highly doubtful statement.

The pandemic changed many things. The price of commercial real estate will be one of them. Palo Alto can be more difficult than most at processing building permits and building approvals, but Jim Baer crying that the sky is falling on California Avenue just makes me chuckle...


Mark Mollineaux
Registered user
Stanford
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:13 am
Mark Mollineaux, Stanford
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:13 am

Build more dense housing around Cal Ave (ideally directly *on* it), and you'll have a built-in clientele to use this retail


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:32 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:32 am

I agree with the above post about the ridiculous rents charged and remember well what my poor dry cleaner was charged. I also find the city's "communications" officer's statement totally "Overall, the city has worked to help promote retail and retail-like uses on California Avenue," Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communication officer, wrote in an email" totally disingenuous.

She ignores the long-term effects of former Transportation Czar Jaime Rodriquez's ridiculously long and ridiculously expensive project to pave the sidewalks with glass fragments. Those YEARS of no foot traffic hurt the retailers drastically.

She also ignores or forgets the city's concerted efforts to deny parking permits to retail employees on Cal Ave, ticketing them so often they quit in disgust.


Tony Favero
Registered user
another community
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:50 am
Tony Favero, another community
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 11:50 am

Sadly, retail establishments are prime targets for thieves and why not Proposition 47 paved that way. Do not believe the crap that sites like Snopes attempts to label as false. Since Prop 47, retail establishments are on the ropes. Consider alone that multiple Walgreen stores & other retailers in SF have closed due to thefts. Wake up PA.... California Av can still be a great place to shop, but you need to shed those progressive policies that are killing our town centers.
Also, Stanford Shopping center is coping with the same escalating problems of thefts. What will you do?

Web Link
Web Link


PattiP.
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:04 pm
PattiP., Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:04 pm

When supply is higher than demand, the problem is that prices, or in this case rents are simply too high. The whole the Bay Area has this problem now, but nowhere more bubble-high than Palo Alto. Quoting property managers and building owners blaming the empty spaces on other factors is misleading. They act as if high rents are a God-given right of their property ownership. If the property owners purchased recently at ridiculous Palo Alto prices, tough luck. If they have owned the building for many years, lower the rents to fill the space. Why don't they do this? Could it be that there is some sort of collusion between old and new building owners to keep prices high?






peppered
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:10 pm
peppered, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Snopes is totally reliable. If you don't like facts you're in plenty of company.


A Person
Registered user
Southgate
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:12 pm
A Person, Southgate
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 12:12 pm

California Avenue was once a thriving little downtown, with stores of all types. When I was young there was an ice cream store, a variety store, a consignment store, a pet store and many, many more. More recently, it's just restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. People don't drive to shop where there are relatively few retail establishments because it's not efficient. Nonetheless, the European Cobblery is the best in town and worth a separate trip. Leaf & Petal is wonderful. Country Sun is legendary. They just need more neighbors that aren't catering to a lunch crowd. As it is, there's no proper mix.


EnoughIsEnough
Registered user
Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Nov 5, 2021 at 1:08 pm
EnoughIsEnough, Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 1:08 pm

I've lived here 30 years and seen Cal Ave change. My barber and a Therapist colleague left because some developer bought their building. All it's offices have been vacant for 2 years. No more stationary or Art Supply stores in Palo Alto. If Mollie Stone's didn't have the few things I need that TJ's doesn't carry, I'd never set foot on Cal Ave.


felix
Registered user
Walter Hays School
on Nov 5, 2021 at 2:08 pm
felix, Walter Hays School
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 2:08 pm

I go to Cal Ave a couple times any week. Very few people are ever on the street or sidewalks during daytime. Not many eating outside. If Mollie Stone is lost it will be much worse, and it’s been saying for months it is struggling.

When Peter Pau evicted, pre-pandemic, the longtime bakery, cleaners and sandwich shop for no reason, it was a terrible loss of services, and the spaces have not been leased since.

The City need to focus on the needs of small retail just as on University Ave. The trickle down theory doesn’t work - restaurants help themselves not retail. There is little reason for a retailer to want locate on a closed off street - it’s too small to be self contained and closing just limits customers flowing in and through.

The Chair of the Planning Commission just said that the vice mayor invited all Commissions to meet and participate in the re-design of Cal Ave., seemingly toward making closure permanent. Reality does not support doing so.

Having some music on weekends and more art doesn’t make up for easy access and visibility of retail business and services when you’re just trying to get as many errands done as fast as possible there.

And don’t think we can look to a place such as Santa Monica’s 3rd St. Promenade for an example here - it’s one partly closed street in a much larger open downtown.

I was told one reason for the bank move was that banks rely on both car and foot traffic. This bank’s great attribute and advantage, its parking lot, was lost, as were customers when the street closed. It’s parking could then only be accessed though a complicated maneuver through an alley off of Cambridge in back of the bank which wasn’t viable.

Get life moving through the Avenue again! Open it up. Let the retail shop signs be seen again by those casually going past and not obscured by tents on the street, and make it easy to shop again.


Cal Ave resident
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2021 at 2:42 pm
Cal Ave resident, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 2:42 pm

Good grief, again with the parking and re-opening the street to cars?? Cal Ave already has over 1,500 free parking spaces on the street and in 3 parking garages and 5 surface lots, all within a quarter mile of the street! The notion that yet more infrastructure needs to be dedicated to cars to make the street thrive is a comforting lie.

If you want Cal Ave to prosper:
- Close more streets to cars
- Remove parking requirements for apartments and businesses
- Build apartments on the street itself and in place of the underused parking garages and lots

If the people who shop and dine on Cal Ave are already here, there’s no need to build parking for them. This is done all over the world but not the US because . . . Cars

Sincerely,
A Cal Ave resident tired of all the car obsessives ruining every decent neighborhood in the country


Carol Scott
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:02 pm
Carol Scott, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:02 pm

So many factors at work on California Ave. Yes, when I moved to Evergreen Park 25 years ago, Cal Ave was a great place for local shopping and a great place of neighbors to shop and eat. Prices were not sky high, and there was Printer’s Ink for coffee, the Palo Bakery for pastries, lunch, coffee, the Cobblery, the Art Supply, a pharmacy, and Mollie Stones. We ate dinner there once or twice a week for a reasonable cost. Then, the City decided to make it a “second downtown”, which meant demolishing low rise office spaces to create high-rise, Class A office space which attracted high tech businesses and well paid office workers. Rents went crazy, and prices at restaurants followed. When the City decided to allow developers to build massive office buildings with insufficient parking for their needs (and thus enrich developers), that’s when parking issues started happening. The City allowed under parking buildings that promised that they wouldn’t need parking because they would have TDMs to purchase employee parking permits anyway. This was especially hard on customers because the City has always allowed employee parking permits to be used anywhere in the area — meaning that office workers arrive early, take the best, most convenient spots, and leave customers looking for spaces elsewhere.

This has all changed except that the landlords refuse to face reality. They have tried to keep their pre-pandemic rents and have done absolutely nothing to help the small retailers. They would rather get rid of them so they can pressure the City to allow medical, dental and professional offices that will pay higher rent. Have you seen any landlord actually painting the names of the shops on the back of the store where it would be visible to those parking? No. The restaurants decided they wanted free use of the parking spaces (I guess they weren’t too worried about eliminating parking then) and the street — with little regard for what would happen to other stores.


Carol Scott
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:09 pm
Carol Scott, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:09 pm

Lastly, do you know of any comparable size city that has “two downtowns”? I don’t. There is one downtown (that needs help), Town & Country Village, Stanford Shopping Center, and now San Antonio Village. California Ave used to have character and soul to differentiate it. Now? Not so much. The near constant construction in the area and street closures due to construction has not helped. The street is not a dead end. People circulate through there all the time. With Sherman Ave closed in part due to first the garage construction and now the public safety building and with Cal Ave closed, the only way to enter is down Cambridge or College. But, there are no signs to help people find their way except for some very unhelpful “detour” signs.

The place is a mess for a lot of reasons, and needs some very thoughtful planning and great, organized execution of those plans. Ready, fire, aim, which maybe necessary for the initial phases of the pandemic, is not a strategy for the long term.

As for parking, please tell me again how “transit-rich” this area is. Developers have been telling us this every time they want to build with no parking. The neighborhood is not an overflow parking lot for developers who don’t want to pay for their own needs.


SteveDabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:57 pm
SteveDabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 3:57 pm

I remember when the CC began getting hot over revamping California Ave ten years ago and I posted on this forum that they should just leave it alone. It was such a refreshing difference from U-Ave, with a variety of small businesses and shops that actually served the community rather than a food court. But of course Liz and her kids wanted to make it like downtown and forged ahead with clearly foreseeable results.

Wish I had been wrong.


PA Female Resident
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:13 pm
PA Female Resident, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:13 pm

I have tried to rent several of those vacant spaces and they won’t budge on the rent. So do not believe these guys. Several of them kicked out tenants to get higher rent, only to find they were not able. Lower the rent and Cal Ave will thrive. It won’t look how it did before, but we can imagine a new community hub which after covid is badly needed. Zareen’s is bustling, as is Terun and Printer’s wine bar. We need and want community life here at Cal Ave.


Disabled Resident
Registered user
Mayfield
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:26 pm
Disabled Resident, Mayfield
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:26 pm

Dear Cal Ave Resident,

The profliferation of tables in the streets of PA has created a problem I think Palo Alto needs to pay attention to: ADA access.

When there's no way for a disabled resident to safely access a downtown civic building, such as a US Post Office, that's a huge liability for the City. The Post Office, being a federal building, is held to very strict ADA guidelines. I'm surprised there hasn't been a lawsuit against the City and Federal government due to lack of ADA access to the downtown post office -- but I'm new here, and probably just haven't heard about it yet. If it hasn't been filed yet, it's on its way soon. The City has put an obstacle in the way of a Federal building and its mission and that needs to be remedied ASAP. That issue alone could bankrupt the City. Think of the havoc that could ensue if it forced the closing of that post office, which serves all of the 94306 area?

Crossing the street while disabled in downtown Palo Alto is not for the faint of heart. Now, I have to go all the way to the East Palo Alto branch to conduct my postal business because that's the nearest Post Office where there's decent disability access.

Granted it's not on California Avenue but pick your Palo Alto downtown business that is clamoring for customers and failing on all fronts because eateries' needs have superseded all other business needs in PA.

Being high risk for COVID (and yes, vaxxed AND boosted), I will never be able to dine out for the rest of my life. I'm not missing anything. I'm a great cook. Eating out is as unimportant to me as disabled access is to you. However, neither of our eating lifestyles comes with a set of Federal guidelines. Parking DOES.

Maybe the City could remove all the able-bodied parking to satisfy you, and paint the entire street with ADA marked parking spots to please me? You wouldn't see any of the disabled cars because disability is invisible to you. Win'win.

Sincerely,

Disabled Palo Alto resident


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:29 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 6:29 pm

Given the $7 million council approved to beautify Cal Ave, a few years ago, completely disrupting local shopping patterns and existing retail already struggling to pay the high rents demanded by their landlords, I questioned if the city’s investment would ever generate enough additional sales tax from Cal Ave businesses to justify the expense and disruption.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2021 at 7:50 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 7:50 pm

What would really help for foot traffic and bike traffic remove most of the 40 or so empty newspaper bins. There are 11 on each of the three blocks between CalTrain and ECR. These are ghosts of another Century as all or most is online. Creates extra trash on the streets and used as trash bins. Removing these unsightly, dirty, broken, empty, unsafe bins would give more room for wood flower barrels . Also it would allow for more outdoor dining space. Also how about a more uniform organized aesthetic for the collage of different tents gates etc. The pedestrian bike navigation is precarious at best crossing ECR onto Cal Ave. Still no crosswalk striping , no count down light and narrow dangerous bike ,peds and their pets, strollers. The way the orange cones and water barrels are now makes for an uninviting feel and flavor — thru car traffic backs up to near Stanford Ave on one side and Page Mill on the other, blocking all intersections . The city is doing nothing to support these business’ to thrive, aside from throwing down cones and orange barriers .


marty klein
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Nov 5, 2021 at 8:52 pm
marty klein, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 8:52 pm

My business has been located on California Avenue for 28 years. I've survived because my landlady has kept my rent reasonable.

Rents don't magically raise themselves. The Palo Alto real estate moguls who kept greedily raising rents have finally overreached. The result is empty storefronts.

Local residents lose, local business people lose, and--finally--building owners are losing. If building owners ever come to their senses and lower their rents, businesses will once again thrive on Cal Ave. If not, Cal Ave will continue to deteriorate--and the value of these buildings will rightfully continue to decline.


TuppenceT
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 5, 2021 at 9:25 pm
TuppenceT, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 9:25 pm

I stopped visiting when they cut the trees. Shiny pieces of glass in pavement feel cheep and cannot replace the beauty, shade and atmosphere that the trees provided.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:00 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 5, 2021 at 10:00 pm

Suggestion to CC and other decision makers: visit Los Altos and take notes. That city is appealing in many ways: a cohesive, congruent built environment, attractive landscaping, effective management of the outdoor dining scene, active retail attracting customers, available parking, and PEOPLE walking about, adding a vibrant energy. Palo Alto measures up poorly in comparison. Why not turn the Cal Ave vacancies into an opportunity to improve and revive an area that is ripe for a renaissance?


Local Resident
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 6, 2021 at 11:01 am
Local Resident, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 11:01 am

Disappointed how hard this article was spun with inaccurate bias. This article should be retitled, "Despite abundant parking, Cal Ave retail suffers because of high rents for retailers and lack of office workers coming to work."


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 6, 2021 at 2:04 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 2:04 pm

Add to that the resident serving shops with a strong local loyal steady clientele have been pushed out with excessive rent hikes and replaced establishments which serve the non-resident commuter population. Commercial property owners made a poor bet.

After former council member Liz Kniss pushed to add gyms to the long list of businesses allowed to replace retail on Cal Ave and a developer also evicted the flower shop and Bargain Box to add yet another restaurant to the Cal Ave food court as well as loosing the last bakery in short order suddenly there wasn’t enough core retail left to justify including Cal Ave as a regular shopping destination for residents.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 6, 2021 at 2:13 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Los Altos retailers in the core have struggled too but for some reason their council members have not listened yet to commercial property owners whispering in their ear to broaden the definition of retail so they can rent to non-retail and hike their rents which erodes the retail mix and puts it on an ever downward spiral as has happened on Cal Ave as well as Univ Ave.


scott
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 6, 2021 at 3:36 pm
scott, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 3:36 pm

Cal ave is in transition, but it's going to do really well in the long term. University closing to pedestrians means it's the only bike-and-pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining nexus in the city. The crowds we regularly see there herald a bright future for the area, even if not all businesses are enjoying success at the moment.

Palo Alto should spur this on by allowing more housing on and around Cal Ave. Multifamily should be legal within a 5-minute walk (including via the underpass) at one parking space per unit, and residential-over-retail should be allowed everywhere in the current core.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 6, 2021 at 4:56 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 4:56 pm

Los Altos also has Google millionaires putting in that big Food Hall to attract people downtown. Menlo Park has the owner of Bistro Vida starting the Weds. night farmers market to attract people downtown.

Palo Alto doesn't. It has greedy landlords and office developers.


ihatenpr
Registered user
Woodside
on Nov 6, 2021 at 6:40 pm
ihatenpr, Woodside
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 6:40 pm

Here's am idea.Silicon Valley walk of fame.
Wozniak,Musk and others sidewalk hand prints and foot prints.
Cheesy ,yes,but it will draw the tourists.
Maybe a dispensary too.


TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 6, 2021 at 8:05 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 6, 2021 at 8:05 pm

It sure is packed for the Sunday farmers market. So people do know where it is, and how to find parking when they want to, even with the new police station construction taking all those spots away. And let's be honest here, for years before the pandemic, California Avenue was always a little sleepy and lacking in any kind of vibe or special appeal (except maybe at lunchtime for the Page Mill office crowd). But in any event, Town and Country is surprisingly where the action is now.


jhskrh
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 7, 2021 at 6:56 am
jhskrh, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 7, 2021 at 6:56 am

This piece ignores a key factor, ever increasing rents. In many cases older Landlords are passing on properties to their entitled offspring or who jack up rents driving out long term tenants leaving emoty storefronts.


cheese guy
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:08 am
cheese guy, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:08 am

I agree with all the comments about absolutely unrealistic rents being a major factor. I know the rent for one of the moderate size businesses on California Ave. If you work it out to a daily basis it's about $650 a day. Calculate just how much one would need to make to cover payroll and all other expenses and you realize that this kind of rent is a non-starter for many small business startups. It was hard to see the Nut House go out of business, a sort of "when the Nut House falls all of Palo Alto falls" situation. We just need a benevolent billionaire to intervene, buy up properties, and rent at below market rates as was the case with Brin/Wojcicki in Los Altos some years ago.


Amie
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:22 am
Amie, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:22 am

We all need to take a basic urban planning 101 class. Cal Ave needs 2,000+ permanent residents who will live and shop there. And conveniently, Palo Alto needs to build thousands of state-mandated housing units. We have an obscene amount of surface parking on Cal Ave. Put high-rise residential buildings there! Workers may not come back for years and building residences is a long-term investment in the city's future.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:31 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 7, 2021 at 8:31 am

"We have an obscene amount of surface parking on Cal Ave. Put high-rise residential buildings there!"

One can never have enough surface parking. Ask the poor merchants who are still there. Ask any street-smart woman who knows to avoid dangerous parking garages which increasingly house the homeless and can be hazardous to our health.

"Cal Ave needs 2,000+ permanent residents who will live and shop there."

Sure, and their whole existence will center around one single street!

And how will the residents o those high-rises get to work without cars given the current state of public transit?

Stop spouting meaningless platitudes and try using common sense.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 7, 2021 at 2:54 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 7, 2021 at 2:54 pm

Cal Ave did well for decades with modest population density, and density hasn't gone down, so low population is not the cause of the current business downturn. That also suggests increasing population won't fix it. Apparently other factors are more important, and a lot of candidates have already been mentioned.

Cushman and Wakefield did an interesting study of population density vs. retail space which you can find here: Web Link Their conclusion is that as population density increases, the total amount of retail area also increases -- but more slowly. That is, increasing density means you get less retail space per resident. Makes sense, but it shows that the population/retail situation isn't simple.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2021 at 10:32 pm
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 8, 2021 at 10:32 pm

Keeble &Shuchat pro side was still doing well -- I miss it still and it has NOT be replaced by an online equivalent.

I miss so many businesses on Cal Ave that made it a destination. I started to list them but it got depressing. The thing that killed Cal Ave was the City allowing it to become a business park. The retail got pushed out. As a longtime resident, I admit I just stopped going there as much (or University), because it became so unpleasant, difficult to park, with fewer resident-serving businesses. A gym taking up the place that once was Printers Inc is pretty emblematic of the problem--businesses that served the commuting day workers pushed out businesses serving residents.

Palo Alto has never been the cheapest of places and it gets booms at intervals that ratchet up costs. The only way it has maintained City civic property like schools and community centers is because it owns the buildings. The only way Stanford can attract top talent and maintain those nice neighborhoods that people can afford is by owning the land underneath the houses.

It's long past time the City did this, too, so that we can afford to have resident-serving retail, so the small business owners can return here and afford to pay their workers a good wage for the area, too. We have no business tax unlike surrounding areas. We should tax the larger businesses that bring in workers for the proximity to Stanford and Palo Alto address, who pay nothing in business tax, then use the fund to buy up properties in the traditional business districts, like the Country Sun building.

Ensuring the survival of local retail like this would make it easier for a variety of retailers to return. It would make it possible for the City to keep low rent on land and below market rates on buildings (like at Stanford). It would give the City leverage to ensure workers get paid a good wage, while enabling retailers to afford to hire them. It's more environmentally friendly, and good for community.


jimfruchterman
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 11, 2021 at 9:28 am
jimfruchterman, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 11, 2021 at 9:28 am

My nonprofit (Benetech/Tech Matters/Bookshare) has had its offices on California Avenue for nearly twenty years. We probably peaked with 50-60 employees there daily: but our offices have been unoccupied for 18 months. Like many other organizations, we aren't expecting to have as many employees coming back post-pandemic, even though we've grown: more of our team are choosing to live elsewhere because they can. We're looking forward to coming back in 2022, and enjoying one of the best neighborhoods we can imagine for offices. Our employees really appreciate the transit options, especially those with disabilities. I think the street closure is the right move for California Ave long-term, even though it confirms the existing emphasis on restaurants.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 11, 2021 at 9:36 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 11, 2021 at 9:36 pm

I oppose the street closure.

I also am blocked by the Castro St and Central Expressway closure.
I am NOT blocked by anything in downtown Los Altos and downtown San Mateo - will continue to give them my business. Enjoyable and thriving.
I park easily, stroll about, dine and shop and appreciate those destination downtowns. Will check out RWC soon.
Sunnyvale is dispersed in layout, but that city gets a LOT of my business.

They’re (meaning oddball sawhorse street closures) awkward for locals and likely confusing to visitors (unless you live or work within walking distance - we do not).
It’s terrible not being able to turn off of El Camino Real onto California. I want to,get to,Mollie Stones, for one example, so have to remember to dodge around. VERY easy to make another choice now and just go by.

One might drive to a destination outside the sawhorse closures and forget the idea of then walking over several blocks and entering the quiet enclosed area of California Ave. What a shame - I’m not interested in dining there but had patronized the European Cobblery, for example. I haven’t been in the shut off section of California Ave for so many months, I can’t even state it!
Out of sight, out of mind.


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