The City Council on Monday is expected to vote on a proposal to extend what is known as the Summer Streets program and to make numerous adjustments, including the addition of a new downtown block to the list of closed streets and continuation of the city's new parklet program until September 2021.
If the council approves the staff's recommendations, Summer Streets will effectively become the new normal in Palo Alto at a time when downtown offices and business parks remain deserted and local restaurants and retailers are starving for customers.
A new report from the Planning and Development Services Department underscored the business community's economic prospects, which it said "remain dim." The report notes that Stanford Research Park employees have traditionally made up a "significant portion of the customers for local retailers, restaurants and service providers." These days, only about 10% of the park's 29,000 employees are on-site, according to Jamie Jarvis, who manages the park's transportation-demand-management program.
"With global travel still limited and Stanford classes not in session, the customer base is further diminished," the report states.
Revenues are plunging. According to a city survey, local retailers and restaurants are currently bringing in 25% to 60% of their pre-pandemic revenues, with the median at 32%.
The Summer Streets program, which made its debut in June on California Avenue before being launched on University Avenue in July, has provided a rare glint of good news. City leaders reported this week that they are seeing more foot traffic in the two areas. Most restaurants, particularly on California Avenue, strongly support keeping the street closed.
Residents are also raving about the new dining scene. In response to the city's survey, 95% reported that their households felt "comfortable and safe" dining at the two commercial strips, while 5% said they did not. Furthermore, 94% said they will continue to dine on University or California avenues and 77% said they would like to see the program extended beyond this summer.
The staff recommendation would do exactly that. It also would tweak some of the boundaries of downtown's outdoor dining district. The plan calls for reopening the block of University between High and Emerson streets, on the west end of the commercial strip, to cars. While side streets currently remain open, the plan would close the vibrant portion of Ramona Street, between Hamilton Avenue and the restaurant Nola, to vehicles.
On Tuesday, the city hosted a virtual meeting to check in with residents on the program. Several residents lauded the evolving program for both livening up streets and assisting local businesses during the economic crisis. Just as significantly, not a single merchant or resident spoke out against the closures.
Downtown resident Sandra Slater encouraged the council to add public art to make the streets even more attractive to diners.
"I like to think of it as opening, not closing," Slater said of the recent changes on University Avenue.
Nicole Zoeller Boelens, who lives close to the California Avenue district, said the program has allowed her and her family to safely patronize establishments that they had grown to love. The dining district has become a stopping point on the family's bike rides, she said.
"We are there probably three or four times a week, enjoying a coffee and feeling like life is just a little bit more normal again," Boelens said.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the program. While California Avenue restaurants overwhelmingly favor the street closures, the reaction is more mixed among downtown establishments. Businesses on side streets have complained that the street closures are giving restaurants on University an unfair advantage.
Nancy Coupel, owner of Coupa Café, which has two downtown locations, wrote to the council that closing University to cars "will not bring benefit to the lateral streets downtown and may in fact become a deterrent for consumers due to the closure of the principal street, which joins (U.S. Highway) 101 to Stanford University."
The new report from the planning department suggests that other businesses on side streets share that view.
"They suggest opening the street (University Avenue) to traffic, while allowing restaurants to create parklets, is a fairer solution," the report states. "Not all restaurants on side streets feel this way. In fact, some are working together to propose a closure of an additional street to pilot the impact a closure of an additional block may have."
The partial closure of the Ramona block is just one example of the city's — and the restaurant community's — improvisational approach to Summer Streets. Since the program took effect, 27 restaurants (11 on California Avenue and 16 on University Avenue) have applied for permits to set up tables on the street. Two University Avenue restaurants, Rooh and Local Union 271, also installed parklets. Rose and Crown, an Emerson Street institution known for English soccer, pub fare and a generous draft menu, is using a portion of a public parking lot to facilitate dining, with the city's permission.
The parklet boom also is expected to continue in the coming weeks. Police Lt. Kara Apple, who has been coordinating the program for the City Manager's Office, said six parklets have already been constructed and are in use. The city has received 22 applications for parklets, she said.
Among the recommendations that the council will consider is extending the parklet program to Labor Day of 2021, thus giving participating restaurants more of a chance to get their money's worth on the roughly $10,000 investment that a parklet requires.
To date, there have been no signs that either the parklets or the use of public lots by private establishments are harming the availability of parking downtown. Transportation staff is reporting that the downtown garages have ample free parking for patrons. And in the city's survey, an overwhelming majority of responders described their parking experience as "great," a proportion that would have been unthinkable during pre-COVID-19 times.
Philip Kamhi, the city's chief transportation official, said the Summer Streets program took over 54 parking spaces on California Avenue and 126 in downtown. At the same time, the city is no longer enforcing time restrictions in garages, parking lots and Residential Preferential Parking districts. Kamhi said the city has opened up 879 garage and lot spaces in the California Avenue area and 3,085 in downtown.
"There should be ample parking," Kamhi said during the Tuesday update. "We still have not seen any of the garages or lots return to anywhere near full capacity."
TALK ABOUT IT
How should the city alter the Summer Streets program, if it continues? Share your ideas with fellow residents on Town Square, the community discussion forum, at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.