When Palo Alto closed a portion of California Avenue to cars in the early stage of the pandemic, visitors, restaurant owners and retailers in the city's "second downtown" instantly felt a profound, if uneven, shift.
For Zareen Khan, who opened her Pakistani-Indian restaurant Zareen's in 2016, the closure has been a welcome boon, increasing pedestrian traffic and boosting business during a precarious time when many restaurants were failing.
"The closure has just helped encourage outdoor dining," Khan said Monday. "It has given new identity to California Avenue."
For Jessica Roth, whose family business, The Cobblery, is across the street from Zareen's, the experience has been markedly different. The closure has impacted her business in a very bad way, Roth said. The signs and barriers that populate the street are unattractive, she said. And while visitors come to California Avenue in the evening hours and to shop at the Sunday farmers market, the number of people diminishes greatly during other times.
"Our street is in trouble," Roth said. "We have more vacancies than ever. … Cal Avenue doesn't function like a proper downtown, nor does it look like a proper downtown."
Khan and Roth offered their contrasting views on Monday night, as the City Council was considering its options for California Avenue's future. With the meeting running late, the council opted to defer its own discussion of the street's future, as well as any potential decision, until Feb. 28.
Compared to University Avenue, which was similarly closed to cars for the better part of the pandemic, the debate around California Avenue has been rather muted. Unlike University, a prominent thoroughfare that stretches between Stanford University and East Palo Alto and which features a wider array of retailers, California Avenue seemed at the beginning of the pandemic to be perfectly suited to closure. The commercial strip east of El Camino Real dead-ends at the Caltrain tracks and, as such, the closure does not impact commuters like it did in downtown. The preponderance of restaurants on California Avenue also made it an ideal candidate for Palo Alto's experiment with car-free promenades.
Even as University reopened to cars last October, the council agreed last year to keep California Avenue a pedestrian-only zone at least until the June 30.
Now, city officials are thinking beyond that date. On Feb. 28, the council will consider hiring a consultant to study the traffic, parking and economic impacts of permanently closing California Avenue to cars. The city is also preparing to update its policies on permanent parklets and consider whether to charge businesses who set up dining spaces on the public right-of-way.
In considering a permanent closure of California Avenue to cars, Palo Alto is following in the footsteps of several other cities that have created pedestrian promenades during the pandemic. In Mountain View, the council last year completed a study on keeping Castro Street permanently closed to cars, an idea that was under consideration well before COVID-19's spread around the world and that is now poised to outlive the pandemic. San Mateo similarly moved last year to create a pedestrian mall on B Street.
Much like in those cities, the creation of a car-free zone on California Avenue has been met with widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Most of the comments that the council had received on Monday and in the days leading up to the public hearing supported keeping the street car-free. Todd Burke, president of the homeowners' association at Palo Alto Central, a condominium complex on California Avenue, was among the proponents of the closure. Most residents want street to remain in its current form, he told the council.
"The reduction of car traffic has really opened up our eyes to rethinking how Cal. Ave. can better serve the residents and the community," Burke said.
Alfred Pace agreed. Pace, whose office is located east of California Avenue's commercial strip, said he has frequented the area for years and has been struck by the large number of businesses that have been closing even before the pandemic. The city's decision to close the street to cars in 2020 was a "silver lining" that greatly enhanced the street, he said.
"Your vision and vision of local restaurant owners in the last two years has brought a most welcome change to California Avenue," Pace told the council. "Closure of the street has permitted Cal. Ave. to take on a new and much more positive identity, a vibrancy it hasn't seen in decades."
While some businesses, particularly retailers, have not seen the kind of uptick in business that Zareen's and other eateries have reported, planning staff note in a new report that the experiment is "very popular with Palo Alto residents, with thousands corresponding to Council requesting the street closures continue."
"Continuation of the closures temporarily and contemplation of permanent closures may represent a 'new normal' in Palo Alto," the report states. "Not only loved by many in the community, the potential new normal provides economic benefits to local businesses, especially restaurants. Not only because it creates an enhanced opportunity for al fresco dining, but also because the closed portions of streets contribute to a strong sense of place that attracts diners and shoppers alike, helping generate businesses activity (that in turn generates tax revenue)."
In addition to considering the future of California Avenue, the council is weighing a similar decision on a block of Ramona Street between Hamilton Avenue and University Avenue. While the area is smaller, the debate is largely same, with most restaurants favoring the closures and some retailers opposing it.
Cherry LeBrun, owner of De Novo Fine Contemporary Jewelry at the corner of University Avenue and Ramona Street, is firmly in the latter camp. She argued in a letter to the council that the street's closure has limited access and visibility to her businesses. And an increasing number of customers are now dining either indoors or at parklets on the sidewalks.
"The need for the street closure is past and the seating outside the parklets is not being used in a significant way," LeBrun wrote.
Not so, said Nancy Coupal, owner of two Coupa Café locations in downtown Palo Alto. The difference between the atmosphere at her shop on Lytton Avenue, a street that is open to cars, and the one on Ramona is significant, she said. Most people prefer the latter.
"Everyone who does come to the cafe loves being outdoors," Coupal said. "Being out on the streets with no cars, no smoke, no noise, no contaminants."