Diners to give way to drivers on University | September 17, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 17, 2021

Diners to give way to drivers on University

While car-free experiment set to end downtown, it will continue on Cal Ave — for now

by Gennady Sheyner

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.

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Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by LongtimeResident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 14, 2021 at 6:36 am

LongtimeResident is a registered user.

Good decision on University Ave! Here is a proposal, for Ramona Street:

1. Seating space for a restaurant, does NOT need to be on the "physical street address", of the serving restaurant.

2. The outdoor menu, may only include 2 - 3 daily entrees.

3. Restaurant "serving area", may vary from time to time.

With this new flexibility, the City could: a) block off all of Ramona St from University Ave to Hamilton Ave, and b) lease out roped off 15' x 20' sections to any local restaurant. This would: c) open the spaces to any restaurant in town, d) create a very festive and concentrated dining space, and e) open up University Ave to free flow traffic. Food for each restaurant, is brought in, and kept warm/cold as required.

To be fair, I experienced this concept in Rome, and it was very successful. The same, could apply to California Ave.

Please give it some thought.

Thank you,

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2021 at 8:33 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I would hazard a guess that people will go to Castro Street and other areas instead so they can eat outside - at least until or unless it rains.

Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 14, 2021 at 10:28 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

The argument that these businesses would be doing fine if only University reopened is somewhat dubious. We should check back with these retailers and see if re-opening University causes their businesses to recover. If not, can we shut it down again?

Posted by Riley2
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 14, 2021 at 10:39 am

Riley2 is a registered user.

The retailers are blaming their drop-off in business on the street closure when they really ought to be blaming the pandemic itself. If anything, the vibrant dining scene created more opportunities for potential customers by increasing foot traffic and window shopping.

Why anyone would need or want to drive down University Ave is beyond me.

Posted by Carol Scott
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 14, 2021 at 11:00 am

Carol Scott is a registered user.

No debate on Cal Ave. if you are not downtown or North Palo Alto, you are an afterthought.

I thought we cared about local-serving businesses? As a neighbor, I will sorely miss having Mollie Stone’s if it cannot stay in business due to the street closure. Ironic that The surrounding neighborhood will become a ‘food desert’ in the midst of so many restaurants feeding primarily commuters who drive their cars, often from outside Palo Alto, to enjoy a car-free dining experience. No more full- service grocery, no more friendly neighborhood service. Now we will have to get in our cars and drive to Menlo Park or Piazza’s.

If the surrounding communities are faring much better than Palo Alto, then why are we doubling down on the current strategy not followed by others?

Retail is dead on Cal Ave only because it is being killed. Many o f the restaurants on Cal Ave aren’t even open for lunch when the retailers would like to have some foot traffic. The City has provided no support for non-restaurants even as it has poured in who knows how much money to help restaurants. The street is dead most times of the day - not very inviting. At night when people come for dining and create some traffic, the retailers are closed. Retail could be fine - just look at Menlo Park and Los Altos.

A food court could be created, and the street would be a lot more attractive, with parklets and some signs of life during the day.

The City has set deadline after deadline for opening, and time after time caved.

Posted by CC
a resident of University South
on Sep 14, 2021 at 11:12 am

CC is a registered user.


How is it fair to restaurants on University Ave that you open up the street here, but keep Cal Ave and Ramona closed?

I think there are more businesses on Cal Ave than University

Sad for our restaurants and community. I agree diners will go elsewhere as we’re not comfortable dining inside.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 14, 2021 at 11:40 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@CC, University Ave is one of PA's THREE direct access points to 101. That might be why.

As for Cal Ave retail, PA put at least one nail in its coffin during the ridiculously long delays during Jaime Rodriquez's "repaving beautification" project for the sidewalks there.

Posted by Cal Ave resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 14, 2021 at 12:03 pm

Cal Ave resident is a registered user.

Great news on Cal Ave. Would have been better if it were permanent. But the retailers on University Ave are going to be surprised when the business doesn’t come back with the cars . . .

However, overall it’s very sad that Palo Alto is so timid. The usual characters noisily support the status quo, and can barely imagine a world without driving everywhere all the time for everything. We live in a place that’s flat, it hardly rains and everyone says they believe in climate change. If people here won’t build even one car-free space what hope is there anywhere else? Very disheartening but I will take Cal Ave as one small victory for progress.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 14, 2021 at 12:15 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Tell me: what is it about Palo Alto that attracts retailers (other than a behemoth like Apple)? I am pretty sure the answer will not include "reasonable rent" and "available parking". I think CC struck a reasonable compromise but I'm not sure I'd feel the same if I was a business owner on Ramona. Then it might feel more like a taking.

Yesterday I had to go to the Amazon Hub in Milpitas. That was an eye-opener that motivates me to avoid using Amazon. Blocks and blocks of warehouses with little landscaping, no charm, not many people visible. Maybe the "Amazonians" (that, per a sign I saw) are all inside those windowless buildings). Creepy. I don't want to contribute to that.

Losing small retail is not in our best interests. We will have to drive further for services and we will lose a part of our community that adds warmth and charm and connection. It is, after all, good to have places to meander to after a meal. After what I saw yesterday, I think we need to be careful about not taking steps that reduce this community.

Posted by Cal Ave resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 14, 2021 at 12:20 pm

Cal Ave resident is a registered user.

One thing that has been minimized because of the restaurant/retail squabble is that the streets have effectively become urban parks loved by residents. We love them because there are few car-free safe spaces, which are especially valuable for families with small children. It’s a failure of the imagination that we can’t imagine a California Avenue with people living nearby in homes which replace the excessive parking. We need denser housing and apartments above shops on the street itself. If the people who came to the street already lived there, they don’t need to drive. Plus retail would naturally come back to serve the locals. This new retail could have way more value than the current niche overpriced retailers currently on Cal Ave.

The way folks talk about these places as ”destinations” or focus on sales tax ignores the fact that they are neighborhoods first. We live here and want them to be complete places before others extract value from them.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 14, 2021 at 12:51 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

Great to hear University Avenue will reopen to cars. This will make it much easier to get to places there instead of a struggle. Downtown was dirty and unwelcoming yesterday. Annoying circling and manueber To find parking, then hike to my destination.
Btw, you can dine easily in cities or towns like Los Altos outdoors - no streets shut, safe and thriving. Tables are not in the streets.

Posted by Karen H
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 14, 2021 at 1:18 pm

Karen H is a registered user.

I wonder if the City giving so many empty retail spaces over to tech companies contributed to this. Those workers aren't here and shopping/eating anymore. I see more of my community out on the sidewalks/streets than before. We are still shopping and eating, but those workers are gone. I miss all the small retailers that have been driven out by the higher rents. Open it up to traffic and it will be a lot less appealing to those of us still here.

Posted by Samuel Jackson
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 14, 2021 at 3:38 pm

Samuel Jackson is a registered user.

For University: Why doesn't the city collect some more actual data on the subject, instead of listening to the business owners? Sample patrons in the stores, sample patrons at the mall, do some FB ads.

I understand some business owners feel the closures negatively affected their business, but in a pandemic year, there's a lot of mixed data. If downtown had pretty similar sales tax receipts declines vs. Midtown, that would contraindicate the street closures as a causal explanation vs. say, retail mix effects.

Meanwhile, many other positive benefits of pedestrianization are not measured: road safety, for example. Meanwhile, I walk into a furniture store on University to try to buy a coffee table, and the next ship date is February 2022 due to cargo shortages. Nothing to do with parking!

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 14, 2021 at 4:32 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

We don't have a lot of hard data, but there is some in the Staff Report ( Web Link )

The financials are summarized on pages 204 and 205. Very roughly... Over the past year: Both restaurant and retail outside the closures improved more than those inside, with the exception of Cal Ave restaurants. Over the past two years: Restaurants in the closed areas have suffered less than those outside. Retail suffered more. For retailers, being inside the closures has been worse than being outside them.

Pat Burt summed this up pretty well. If we keep University closed for the rest of the year, the result is likely to be a food court with boarded-up storefronts. Not exactly an attractive outcome.

The Council struck a compromise. Parklets stay, and maybe get expanded, perhaps with modifications to give retailers more visibility. Traffic flows again. I think this is probably the right choice for University, though it's far from a no-brainer.

Presumably all these issues will be revisited during the redesign project which is already out for proposals.

Speaking of traffic, I rolled my eyes when Alison Cormack clearly didn't have a clue about it. See page 202 for some data (Staff has updated this for Council several times over the past year). Anyway, Lytton is carrying more traffic than it did pre-pandemic, and so are the cross-streets. Total traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels, so we don't have a spillover problem yet, but rerouting into the neighborhoods seems to be happening. When Stanford is back in full operation I bet University will see a big increase, though not back to its pre-pandemic level of 12000 cars/day for a while.

Posted by Andy
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 14, 2021 at 5:21 pm

Andy is a registered user.

I'm sympathetic to restaurants who want the benefit of free outdoor space for the business at taxpayer expense, but uh, well, it's not fair to others, including retail and office who don't benefit from putting their desks or tables on the street.

Another factor that often gets lost in these discussions is the difficulties for the elderly and disabled to access locations that are blocked to vehicles, not to mention the potential for emergency vehicles needing to access the street.

Streets are for cars.

Now, if restaurants want more outdoor space, they have 3 options:

1. Use sidewalks (and pay taxpayers for the use, maintenance and liability of those sidewalks).

2. Redesign their existing footprint to have less indoor and more outdoor (which of course they would never do).

3. Build multi-levels...create more upper rooftop space with outdoor seating (don't forget to include a way for disabled to access). The problem with this solution is Palo Alto's allergy to heights, even if it's 2 stories.

In lieu of these solutions, let streets be used for cars, sidewalks for pedestrians and indoor spaces for whatever the business wants to use it for (restaurant, office, retail).

PS - I find it hysterical Coupa Cafe owner claims we should have a bike lane in the middle of the street because it's good for the environment. LOL.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2021 at 6:56 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I already said I think people will go to Castro Street where they can eat outside.

The truth is that the number of restaurants in Palo Alto is basically due to the visitors and office workers that come into town on a daily basis. They do lunch, they do happy hour after their meetings and often stay for dinner. They may not do weekends, but until the workers return Palo Alto residents are not going to be keeping the restaurants in business. The same can be said for retail, from running to the drugstore for a few things at lunchtime to taking a walk and buying some impulse item, the office workers probably kept retail going also. I suspect most of us use a drugstore close to home (or where we work) rather than drive downtown for our needs.

Lunchtime is not likely to keep restaurants going without office workers. For those of us working at home, the refrigerator is our likely lunchtime spot.

As for those of us who want to dine outside due to Covid concerns, we will likely drive to whichever area has outside dining. Even when the weather cools, we will still put on a sweater and down jacket, to sit outside beside a gas heater.

For those who may drive to park outside retail in University Avenue, more will drive to Castro Street for dinner and possibly impulse buy in their retail.

Palo Alto restaurants know this. City Council probably do not.

Posted by Scotty
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 14, 2021 at 8:35 pm

Scotty is a registered user.

I live for the day that PA city counsel makes one good decision. So far, no luck.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2021 at 10:03 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

To Andy, Correction: Streets are for Transportation. That is, walking, bicycling, driving, riding transit, parking vehicles (including bicycles). Many people cannot or don't want to drive a car. Public streets are for everyone.

To Carol Scott, When I drive to Molly Stone's, I usually take Cambridge because the lion's share of their auto parking is on that side of the store. I don't think the closure of Cal Ave is their problem, though they could use their flyers and advertising to let people know that their parking lots are on Cambridge. I think the Covid-related reduction in people using the train who used to shop there before and after work may be hurting their business. When I bike there, I ride down Park Boulevard. Easy peasy.

Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2021 at 2:51 pm

Pat Markevitch is a registered user.


Why anyone would need or want to drive down University Ave is beyond me.

Well to get to and from 101, to get to and from Stanford University, to get to and from Stanford Hospital.

Posted by BobH
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 18, 2021 at 10:32 am

BobH is a registered user.

Does the Palo Alto City Council expect that the Pandemic will be contained enough that it will be safe to eat inside a month from now? If so, please share this information with all of us.

I think this move to close down the outside eating is premature.

Posted by Palo Alto well-wisher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2021 at 2:40 pm

Palo Alto well-wisher is a registered user.

The decision is a very sad one indeed. The way the arguments are laid out makes it look as if retailers and restaurants are the residents of Palo Alto, and not the residents themselves. Yes, they pay taxes, and so do we.
By the way, we also VOTE!

The word "community" has been spoken very few times during the last council meeting. This tells me all I need to know. The opinion of the community has been largely ignored so far by those we have chosen to run the city!

Several city surveys and the petition on change.org, like this one Web Link have clearly shown that the community wants the streets to be open to pedestrians, and not just because of the pandemic, but because we want a safer, family-caring, environmentally-friendly and tourist-welcoming city.

Reopening the streets for cars will not save the retail because the latter has not opted to reinvent itself, the way, Apple, for example, has done with their stores in the second decade of 2000s.

I truly believe the way forward is to close off University Ave to cars, diversify the pool of businesses along the streets and then help those less innovative enterprises to adopt to the new environment so that they can thrive as they did before.

Not to look backward, but move forward with times!

Posted by Palo Alto well-wisher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2021 at 2:56 pm

Palo Alto well-wisher is a registered user.

Apologies, here is the correct link to the petition on change.org.
Web Link

I could not edit the previous comment because of the Palo Alto Online's time editing restrictions.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2021 at 4:21 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I agree with PA Well Wisher's summary.

The wheel is being reinvented as we speak. Retail has changed dramatically and I doubt if it will return the way it was prepandemic. It was changing and the pandemic made the change happen more quickly. Those who rarely visit retail are even less likely to come back since they are used to the convenience. Whether they can park outside is not likely to make any difference as to whether someone who used to visit retail on University Avenue is going to return.

However, the restaurants are different. Many people are still not comfortable with dining inside. Those diners will go where they can dine outside. If they can't dine on University Avenue outside, then there are plenty of other areas where they will be welcomed with open arms.

It is time to rethink. On the one hand the CC wants everyone to walk or bike everywhere. On the other hand they want to enable traffic to drive University. Somehow these two things look hypocritical.

And lastly, the CC are paid for by us the residents and taxpayers. What we want has to be taken into account. We are the ones who will be voting for them or not, and not the business owners unless they also reside in Palo Alto. Ignoring the residents, or the community for want of another word, is not going to bide well for them.

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 18, 2021 at 5:20 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

I'd be careful about boiling the argument down to "brick-and-mortar retail is obsolete, so we might as well let retail on University die".

What little hard information we have suggests (1) retail is doing better outside the closed areas than inside them, and (2) retail is doing better in other areas and other cities than it is on University. Something more than retail obsolescence is going on.

It might be that University is different because it hasn't really served residents for years; it serves the daytime worker population instead. A lot of people are saying that work-from-home is here to stay, but I have my doubts. The people with real money on the line, tech companies and finance companies and developers, are building offices like crazy. Apparently they believe work-from-home is temporary and/or small, or that there's going to be so much growth that it won't matter, offices will still be full. Either way, we'll have lots of downtown workers again.

And don't forget that those 12000 cars/day on University have to go somewhere. We can't just close University and pretend they don't exist. If you want to make a permanent closure, you have to do the hard work of figuring out how to solve the transportation problems that will cause.

Restaurants are enthusiastic about outdoor space in part because it's free. When, not if, the City starts requiring a fee for the private use of public property, their opinions might change.

Posted by Paul
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 18, 2021 at 8:13 pm

Paul is a registered user.

Other writers are exactly correct. I looked for a place serving lunch outside with a friend this coming Monday and all the Calif Ave. places are closed. We will be dining in Mountain View instead. And believe me, I looked! Evening parklette dinner is starting to get chilly ...

And yes, I doubt University closure is the reason for poor business. Look at Amazon and look no further! I avoid University like the plague anytime I do drive downtown, even if it is opened (Hamilton or Lytton and park in the back lots or garages)!

Posted by Maggie
a resident of Portola Valley
on Sep 19, 2021 at 8:45 am

Maggie is a registered user.

I've stopped going to University Ave as well as California Ave due to the traffic nightmare with the street closures.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2021 at 11:03 am

ndn is a registered user.

Pat Markevitch, I do not particularly want to drive down University Avenue (though sometimes I need to) but I want all the traffic that used to be in UV
to back there so that those of us who have lived nearby do not have to cope with the excessive traffic diverted because of the closure.
Also, sometimes I cannot walk in the sidewalk because restaurant patrons crowd the sidewalk thinking perhaps that is a part of the restaurant or just being inconsiderate. For those of us who are handicapped going in and out of the sidewalk to avoid the parklets is a real problem.Before the pandemic several restaurants had open or sidewalk "esplanades" and I don't see why tat cannot continue.
Open Uv at least one lane....

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