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Palo Alto's big dilemma: Should cars return to University and California avenues?

Original post made on Sep 9, 2021

If things go as planned, the experiment with closing University and California avenues to cars will conclude at the end of the month. Despite this, fans of the new normal have some reasons to feel hopeful.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, September 9, 2021, 9:26 AM

Comments (34)

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2021 at 11:30 am

Bystander is a registered user.

The big unknown of course is whether the coming winter will be wet or not. It is nice to sit outside for lunch on a fine December day, even have dinner wrapped in a stylish sweater under a heater. It is miserable to eat outside even under a tarp when the rain is falling and dripping nearby.

Posted by Evergreen Park
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 9, 2021 at 11:35 am

Evergreen Park is a registered user.

I do not support the permanent closure of either California Ave or University Ave. I can support parklets if they are done in such a way as to not interfere with the non-restaurant businesses located in these commercial areas.

It is ironic that these streets are closed 24 hours a day, even though many restaurants are not open for lunch, opening only for dinner -- after the retail stores are closed. The streets are closed when retailers most need to be available for customers -- including those who drive down the street to find out where a particular store is before determining where the best place to park is -- and when only some restaurants are open. Walk down California Ave at non-meal times, and it is often dead as a door nail. Contrast with downtown Los Altos. The latter is a much nicer place to shop -- and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.

It is also ironic that so many people want to drive their cars to Cal Ave or University Ave to enjoy a 'car free' environment.

Lastly, the City has continued to give away public resources (City sidewalks and streets) to the benefit of only SOME local businesses.

The City has done little to support the non-restaurant retailers, and as a result we are in a downward spiral. If the City waits until January, or even November to help them out, it may be way too late.

I sympathize with the restaurant owners. But, I see that they can benefit from parklets and give us a chance to have a more diverse retail environment. Heaven knows, they have raised their prices considerably to offset any diminished seating capacity.

Posted by Evergreen Park
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 9, 2021 at 11:39 am

Evergreen Park is a registered user.

Mr. Sheyner states that the street closures are supported by 90% of visitors to these areas. Duh. Of course, they people who like to go there support it. What about the large number of other Palo Alto residents who do not go there and do not support it?

There is a problem is listening only to the squeaky wheels and assuming that their voices represent the majority.

Posted by Terrace Antelope
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2021 at 12:45 pm

Terrace Antelope is a registered user.

In the long run, keeping Cal Ave closed will make it a far more desireable destination for food and retail shopping alike IMO, especially with that massive new parking structure. Retailers who blame their drop in business on the street closure are underestamating how much of it was actually due to a simple shift to online shopping forced by COVID - and that business isn't coming back if the streets get openned up. In fact, we'd be exacerbating the situation because they would now also lose the customers who are there to eat outside and maybe want to snag some items after lunch/dinner. Just my 2c.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2021 at 12:52 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

University is , functionally, a primary entrance to Stanford University and provides primary access to many local businesses. There is little convenient parking abutting the rear of these other businesses. I understand the need for some auto access there--maybe consider one-way auto access, leaving room for some parklets where they make sense and don't disrupt visibility of nearby shops and walking and bicycling? What creative compromises might preserve what works and eliminate what does not?

California Ave. dead ends into a train station which disgorges hundreds of people who bike to SRP or Stanford U or walk to the Marguerite. Most Cal Ave businesses have parking abutting the rear of their buildings. A brand new multi-story parking garage was built on Sherman near Ash, right behind Cal Ave businesses at great expense to local taxpayers. Consider marking rear shop entrances better. Consider wayfinding signage from El Camino to help people find parking. Get the parking lots marked on Google Maps. Add parking info to shop web sites.

Full street closure makes more sense on Cal Ave. Creating better bike access through Cal Ave would make some sense, given the volume of bike traffic the street supports from Park Ave Bike Boulevard and between the train station and Stanford facilities. Cal Ave provides a direct bike route into SRP--which matters if we want to encourage biking to work in the face of escalating climate change.

Friends, let's not get polarized here. Let's do some creative, civil problem-solving together to find creative solutions in the way Palo Altons used to work together--listening to each other, trying to understand the issues, exploring options. City Manager Shikada, self-described "Nuts-and Bolts Guy", this requires you to let go of your impulse to control everything and allow staff to work creatively with the public, including businesses. In the past, these kinds of collaborations have worked well. We can do this.

Posted by Me
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 9, 2021 at 1:19 pm

Me is a registered user.

Please leave the streets blocked off. It's such a beautiful scene to see people enjoying themselves outside at tables. It's also so much safer for pedestrians because cars driving through University Avenue were driving fast and recklessly, turning right in front of pedestrians. It was always constantly an accident waiting to happen.

Lululemon and Athletica's sales are likely down because less people are going to the gym since they all bought home exercise equipment during lockdown.

Downtown should be full of restaurants and offices. Who shops downtown or at Town & Country? I have to wonder how much money can be made on people shopping leisurely. Lululemon, Sephora, Chico's, Van's, and Athletica are brand names that people will specifically drive to but any other small, unknown shops, I have to wonder what their sales are per day.

Parallel streets such as Lytton Ave. and Hamilton Ave. can be used for cars. California Ave. has parallel streets that can be used also.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2021 at 1:40 pm

felix is a registered user.

Cal Ave, in the words of a retail business owner to me, is a ghost town most days unless it’s lunch or dinner time for restaurants. Looked that way to me too. It was about 2:30 on a sunny weekday afternoon. I’m often on the Ave. Looks like siesta time in rural Spain or Italy..

Closure is no better for Cal Ave than University given few people are on the streets from 9-5:00 The metric isn’t parking, it’s shoppers.

Convenience matters. I no longer go to Izzys, it being at the far end of the street from anything else I do. I don’t have time for the round trip schlep.

Time and convenience is gone, the view of businesses by potential customers is blocked by street restaurants, and Cal Ave has lost all its charm - it just looks ugly and shopper unfriendly.

Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2021 at 2:47 pm

chris is a registered user.

With vaccinations required to eat inside a restaurant, restaurants have no reason to continue to take over the streets.

As long as the unvaccinated are kept away from the restaurants, the vast majority of restaurant goers will be willing to eat inside. The vaccinated people who are too squeamish to do that are not that likely to ear in the street. Continue to promote take-out and delivery for the squeamish.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2021 at 3:46 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

One suggestion if they keep it closed is to put more disabled parking or pick up only parking on the side streets to enable those with mobility difficulties or needing to collect a large item from one of the retail stores do so easily. The side streets could then have parklets for restaurants on those streets to increase business for them.

Where are our parking meters and digital signage for garages showing real time parking spots. It is hard parking when it is so complicated with zones and colors.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 9, 2021 at 3:53 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Where are our parking meters and digital signage for garages showing real time parking spots. It is hard parking when it is so complicated with zones and colors. "

They're in Mountain View and San Francisco and Redwood City and lots of other places. Unfortunately we in Palo Alto have been asking for real-time garage signage for at least 10 years, about how long it takes Palo Alto's highly paid staff to fix a problematic traffic light. They're just too too busy supervising their consultant buddies who'll be writing up a report and constructing 3D models real soon now.

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2021 at 3:59 pm

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

As pandemic subsides it's time to reopen the streets. These are both essential arteries for travel and blocking off the 2 streets that are quite needed is extremely inconvenient. We also are mostly vaccinated as a city and wearing masks. Compared to when these 2 streets were closed (no vaccines with COVID rates rising), we have come a long way.

Time to open up, just like it's time to open up businesses and schools.

Posted by Noel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2021 at 4:08 pm

Noel is a registered user.

Business is down for PA retailer for the same reason it is down for all retailers, i.e. no one wants to shop indoors unless they have to. Downtown PA is now a fun place to hang out on weekends as there is more happening: crowds, live music, people on the street, etc. If the streets are reopened to cars I doubt that retailers' businesses will bounce back and am fairly certain that restaurants will suffer. Maybe we should try reopening the streets for 2 months and then re-evaluate again. In the long term, we definitely will have a more vibrant and interesting city if we create more pedestrian-only areas just as Redwood City has done to spectacularly revive their downtown pre-COVID.

Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2021 at 7:34 pm

Chris is a registered user.

The new Cal Ave garage has electronic showing the number of open spots by floor. It will eventually come to University.

Posted by cheese guy
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2021 at 7:15 am

cheese guy is a registered user.

California Avenue is ideally configured and located to continue as a closed street. All of the businesses have rear of the building access to allow for delivery of goods. Unlike University Ave, CA Ave is has no car access to any part of PA since it ends at the Caltrain tracks a few blocks West of ECR. When we were walking down CA Ave the other evening it really did feel like you were in Europe where many (if not most) cities block off parts of the town to car traffic and create pedestrian/people friendly zones. People were socializing outdoors, nice French music was coming from the front of La Boheme (which was clearly getting more business than prepandemic when it was limited to just indoor dining, most of the outdoor and a good portion of the indoor tables were full on a Wed. night). No street noise other than people, no cars to dodge when you walk across the street. Do whatever you want with University Ave, but lets keep the original downtown of Palo Alto (then known as Mayfield all those many years ago) in a state that is people friendly, not car friendly.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 10, 2021 at 7:46 am

Annette is a registered user.

Palo Alto suffers from unique and absurd dilemmas.

Posted by staying home
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2021 at 10:39 am

staying home is a registered user.

PA needs to find a way to allow the places with parklet style seating petition to keep them, and allow restaurant to invest in building long term space/expansion, bring them up to code, etc.. 90% of the year is suited for outdoor dining and PA is capable of becoming a foodie destination.

Completely agree that that Cal Ave is better suited for some sort of traffic reduction (one-way, time of day policy, or complete shut down) compared to University Ave. If you didn't have the streets shut down and opened to restaurant seating, then wouldn't the impact of the pandemic been greater to the retail businesses?

Posted by Claudette
a resident of Woodside
on Sep 10, 2021 at 10:52 am

Claudette is a registered user.

Elderly and disabled shoppers are at a disadvantage with street closures. If one is not familiar with where a store is you cannot drive to find that store.
Parklets are great but please keep the streets open for equitable access.

Posted by Carla
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2021 at 12:00 pm

Carla is a registered user.

Let's learn from other cities and think outside the car:
Web Link

Why Walkable Cities
Web Link

How to Build a Walkable City
Web Link

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2021 at 12:39 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Just a heads-up for everyone: There's definitely something wrong with the code that converts submitted comments containing web links into HTML for subsequent display. The "href" attributes for "a" tags are getting duplicated, and intermixed with "br" tags. So for now, it looks like you should avoid putting more than one web link into a comment.

Posted by K
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 11, 2021 at 2:37 pm

K is a registered user.

I love the streets being closed off. There is plenty of parking behind each side of the street. Maybe a map of restaurants and stores could be posted every so often along the way (like you see in the mall) so you can find what you need. Shuttles could be available to bring people from parking lots to the main street in case walking is an issue. There are creative ways to solve this without putting the cars back on the streets.

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2021 at 3:40 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

If you don't live near one of the closed streets, it's easy to forget that cars don't disappear -- they just move. The other day I saw a Safeway tractor/trailer driving down my neighborhood street (which Waze uses to route traffic around University when going to or from 101).

People use University for access to Stanford, the medical center, and the shopping center, among other places. It's one of the few east/west arteries Palo Alto has, and there's precious little mass transit running in that direction.

It's not impossible to close it permanently, but it would be difficult and expensive. Roads have to be redesigned and a lot of traffic re-routed. And as pointed out in the article, while some businesses are currently seeing benefits, others are suffering. A major street redesign is likely to increase those effects.

This is definitely not an easy decision to make. From reading the Staff report, I believe Staff understands this. Does Council?

Posted by chewie
a resident of University South
on Sep 11, 2021 at 10:26 pm

chewie is a registered user.

Wasn't there an article that said Palo Alto tax revenue was down? The stats show that retail sales were hurt.

And Yes, I still shop at stores.

They are in an echo chamber when it comes to listening to other businesses than bars. The real test will be when the weather gets cold. The holiday retail season carries the downtown area when outside dining is cold and miserable. Closing off the streets will cause tax revenue for Palo Alto to fall again. That means fewer services and projects.

Posted by Pops9
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 12, 2021 at 9:16 pm

Pops9 is a registered user.

Before the pandemic, who drove downtown and expected to find parking on University during lunch or dinner hours? I find the argument about parking/convenience comical. And University wasn't exactly a high throughput thoroughfare for traffic, either.

Pedestrian boulevards in Europe empty out in the winter -- that doesn't mean they get opened to traffic in the winter in most cases. The idea that somehow we should look at how this goes in the winter is odd. Restaurants won't invest in nice setups if they're continually having to store them for seasons. Close the streets permanently, allow the restaurants to invest in permanent fixtures, and eventually the restaurants on the streets with cars will see rent reductions or move to the closed streets. We accidentally found something special here. Keep it.

Posted by atotic
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2021 at 9:25 pm

atotic is a registered user.

Palo Alto has the highest job/housing ratio in the Bay Area (3 to 1). This implies that when everyone started working from home, we lost 3/4 of our workweek population. The locals stayed at home, but they only added a 1/4. Stores reported a 50% drop off, so it adds up.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2021 at 5:23 pm

ndn is a registered user.

Diverting all traffic at all times day and night just means that people off Lytton and Hamilton suffer disproportionally from noise generated from vehicles. I like sidewalk cafes but full street closures are not a good thing for small business and not a good thing for people in nearby streets. I can't find parking near my dry cleaners because of street closures, for example.If there is a drawback from street opening let us distribute its harm for all not just some. I grew up with sidewalk cafes, fairs, etc, but there were never full street closures all the time. Maybe the designated parking on University could be occupied by food parklets....or any other solution or else putting them near the people who are so very keen on denying the rest of us a restful sleep without the noise generated by the U. ave closing. Who's volunteering?

Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring)
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2021 at 6:00 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

I don’t think this is Palo Alto’s “Big Dilemma”.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 15, 2021 at 3:38 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

A dilemma is a choice between two bad outcomes. The only parties that view this situation as a dilemma are the billionaire commercial developers and corporate real estate investors that own most of the buildings downtown. They oppose street closures because street closures, in their perception, harm their biggest cash cow: office tenants. They oppose opening streets because it reveals them for the greedy self-serving exploitative landlords that they are.

But what is in the best interests of people who live here? What would make Palo Alto more liveable for residents and the retail and restaurant businesses they support?

Obviously: street closure. The only strong opposition to street closure from actual small businesses have been complaints made by businesses whose streets are not closed. So those streets should be closed too.

Palo Alto has too much traffic; too many cars; too many fast roads in residential neighborhoods carrying employees back and forth from office jobs. What a terrible way to treat a community.

It's not rocket science to figure out what makes a residential neighborhood liveable: more restaurants and fewer tech offices; more retail and fewer business hotels; more public shuttles and fewer cars on the road.

Europe figured this out decades ago. Palo Alto is like your grumpy grandpa that insists on driving his gas guzzling Chrysler even as it gets 8 mpg, coughs smoke, and lacks seatbelts. It's truly pathetic.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2021 at 5:35 am

ndn is a registered user.

Please stop writing about Europe as if you know it. I was born and brought up there and lived (not just pass by) in a few European Countries. I have never seen total street closures 24/7 be it in large cities or small ones. I'm most certainly neither a developer nor a landlord. But I go almost everyday to University Avenue (I live nearby) and see the car lanes of University empty of people. I see people in the parklets ( evenings mostly, not so much during the day) frequenting the restaurants. So opening University Av would not be and never was (since I arrived in Palo Alto in the early 80s) a deterrent for enjoying going to food establishments. Yes, keep the the restaurants' parklets
but open that main artery open. There is no reason not to.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2021 at 9:10 am

Bystander is a registered user.

If discussing Europe, it must be remembered that Europeans who work in cities do not expect to drive to their jobs. They use excellent public transport using efficient ticket systems that allow them to use multiple modes of transport for a fare that covers a time period rather than a distance or use a monthly (weekly) pass that is a certain amount regardless of the number of times used, enabling user to be able to use it for weekend and evening jaunts as well as commuting.

European road closures do work but it is often because those areas are in high pedestrian and tourist areas served by park and ride type services.

We do not have excellent public transport, excellent ticketing options, excellent remote parking with shuttles to busy downtown areas. What we do have is a City that tells us to ride bikes everywhere and a Police Department that are not concerned about bike thefts and other crimes.

Get priorities in order and learn from Europe on how things work before making generalisations that ignore the reasons why there are differences.

Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 15, 2021 at 11:05 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Cooler and - let's hope -- wetter weather will eventually return. I doubt people will care to sit around cold, wet streets and pay today's prices to dine - at least in numbers that would a difference to a restaurant's bottom line.

For the hardier among us, limited sidewalk dining has long been a feature of many restaurants on Cal Ave and University and there is no reason to ban it in the future.

Close the streets for events, weekend farmers markets and so on. But it no longer makes sense to bar traffic 24/7.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2021 at 11:43 am

ndn is a registered user.

Europeans in large cities by and large use good transportation systems similarly to those of large American cities- Boston, New York city, San Francisco, Portland etc but outside those everybody uses the car, just like Americans do. As for what Bill Bucy said
"They use excellent public transport using efficient ticket systems that allow them to use multiple modes of transport for a fare that covers a time period rather than a distance or use a monthly (weekly) pass that is a certain amount regardless of the number of times used, enabling user to be able to use it for weekend and evening jaunts as well as commuting."

I have to ask, have you heard of Septa, Clipper, MBTA just to mention three? It's no different if you are in Milan...or Paris...or Lisbon....or Barcelona....or Prague....or Oslo
The fantasy that every European go to the market everyday in their two legs to buy food trough closed-to-cars cobblestone alleyways and then to work in public transport can be very alienating and tourist based.

We need to use cars and spend less time in restaurants that cater to the idea that using badly paid immigrants to produce a romantic view of life is a worthwhile and ethical pursuit.

If you want to learn about transit in San Francisco or Oakland use their transportation systems- you will be surprised how efficient it is. I know because I used it.

I can only hope that the Nimbies that refuse to allow Bart into Palo Alto
and South Bay do not all come in mass trying to prevent a rational, objective and reality based of the traffic on University.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2021 at 11:46 am

ndn is a registered user.

Apologies to Bill Bucy. It was Bystander I was quoting.

Posted by Carol Scott
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 15, 2021 at 1:41 pm

Carol Scott is a registered user.

California Ave is not a “dead end”. The ability to cross it helps connect the residents north of Cal Ave and south of Cal Ave — at least when construction in the area does not choke off movement almost completely. Using Park or Birch to cross Cal allows residents to reach Oregon Expressway without going to traffic-clogged El Camino Real. Closing this off would increase traffic consequences. And, those writing about how wonderful it is to get rid of cars on these streets forget that most people drive there — increasing traffic and noise pollution for residents surrounding the commercial streets. You do not need to park on these streets to use them for circulation, for driving along the street to see where a store or restaurant is in order to find the best parking, etc. Parklets are fine. They reduce parking spaces, but at least allow traffic to circulate efficiently. Heaven help us if there is a large fire there — not that many ways In and out of the area.

The reports are that retail took a hit during the pandemic, but retail (not just restaurants) are coming back much better in other nearby cities that have not completely closed their streets. So, what distinguishes Palo Alto? Closed streets and poorer retail performance. As far as I know, you still don’t send your shoes to Amazon to have the soles repaired . . . .

I agree with the writer who suggested that we need to work together to find creative solutions. That would be refreshing. So far, no one has reached out to the residents surrounding the commercial areas who will be most affected to see how the negative consequences could be mitigated. The City, does, however, regularly consult with businesses. I am told that the restaurant owners have bullied most of the small retailers along Cal Ave into silence. Time for a little consideration on all sides?


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2021 at 2:54 pm

Bystander is a registered user.


I speak of European commuting from past experience and from knowing others who commute. I am not talking about just the famous large cities visited by American tourists, but those cities where tourists rarely go as well as some large towns where bus lanes and one way contra flow take people to their work destinations and residential areas are not allowed to be used as alternative routes.

I am not familiar enough with Clipper and similar here, as I am sure are most people who are unable to use Public Transport. How do those who live in Half Moon Bay, for example, use them to commute to jobs around here.

I am also familiar with the social aspects of those who eat after work at happy hour spots in Europe and are still able to get home by public transport. These systems work well until well beyond 9 pm to allow for workers to socialize near jobs and not need to drive home over the limit. When choosing where and with who to have a beer while watching a game an efficient bus home helps with those options.

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