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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What other cities do -- and don't do -- to aid retail What other cities do -- and don't do -- to aid retail (March 09, 2005)

As Palo Alto seeks ways to reinvigorate its retail sector, officials may wish to examine how neighboring communities have tackled the same issue.


Bustling Burlingame Avenue in Burlingame, which boasts such ubiquitous retailers as Pottery Barn, Banana Republic and the Apple store, highlights the age-old mantra for successful business: location, location, location.

Much of the avenue's success is owed to its close proximity to Hillsborough, which has scores of wealthy residents and no retail of its own, according to Burlingame City Planner Meg Monroe.

Beyond that, however, two city actions have shaped Burlingame Avenue into the hot sport it is today: parking exceptions and a restriction on restaurants.

In 1981, the city rezoned the business district into two areas: A and B. In area A, which includes Burlingame Avenue itself, retail services are allowed on the ground floor without having to provide parking spaces for customers. Retail above or below the first floor, however, would be subject to parking codes that require payment for parking spots.

In area B, the streets parallel to Burlingame Avenue, both retail and office uses are allowed and also have to finance parking.

"What this did was it encouraged retail uses on Burlingame Avenue. People want to be on Burlingame," Monroe said.

Second, in 1985 the city limited the number of food establishments on Burlingame Avenue to what existed that particular year. Now, there are about 40-46 eateries on the street.

"It's been effective in that it affects rents," Monroe said. "Restaurants can pay more rent than many retail establishments." By limiting the number of restaurants, she said, it has "opened up opportunities for retail uses and kept rents down."

Los Altos

When complaints over the number of nail and beauty salons emerged in Los Altos last fall, city officials did something about it.

They amended a zoning ordinance to ban nail salons and other personal grooming services from the town's main shopping streets: State and Main.

The reasoning was to encourage "pedestrian interest," according to James Walgren, community development director for Los Altos.

Because salons cater to a small group of customers who stay in the shop as they receive their services, such businesses don't tend to contribute as much to the foot traffic of an area, or generate many shoppers for other merchants.

Los Altos had considered the amendment for years, deciding in the past not to restrict salons. But since retail has struggled since the economic downturn, officials decided it was time to take action.

When it comes to the mix of downtown businesses, Los Altos' town staff -- like Burlingame's -- do not actively recruit new retailers, Walgren said, leaving such duties to the Los Altos Village Association, the downtown business association.

The problem with city staff getting too involved in courting businesses, Walgren said, is they may bring in a retailer who competes with existing enterprises, generating hard feelings on the part of longtime merchants.

San Mateo

San Mateo has used one of the most powerful economic development tools available to cities, a redevelopment agency, to boost its downtown.

The business district includes 800 businesses and a movie theater. The agency gives a city greater authority to do such things as buy private property and assemble parcels for large development projects. To form an agency, the city must demonstrate that an area is blighted and cannot be improved through normal governmental means.

Among the agency's projects are the creation of 500 new public parking spaces, renovation of an old garage, grants to help businesses improve their storefront facades, improving pedestrian circulation and traffic patterns, and re-planning underdeveloped areas.

The city itself owns retail space attached to a public garage, and has the freedom to not only recruit retailers but lease them the space as well, said Diana Whitecar, economic development and business assistance manager for the city.

For land the government doesn't own, city staff can only work with property owners to make them aware of retailers interested in moving in.

The goal is "to sustain a strong level of soft-good retailers" such as clothing and toy stores in downtown, Whitecar said.

Not all efforts at courting businesses have succeeded, she admitted. In the past, city council members actively sought a bookstore for the area, but came up empty.

"That's as much a sign of the times," she said, blaming the economy.

-- Jocelyn Dong

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