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Could/should University Avenue be a pedestrian avenue?

Original post made by Mary on Jul 3, 2007

The idea that University Avenue be a no-auto-traffiic pedestrian-only avenue has come up now and then for years. It's worked in major cities in Europe like Munich to great success. Would this be a good time to test that idea in downtown Palo Alto? Westbound on Lytton and eastbound on Hamilton? Since University is closed for one block past the fire, this might be a good time to experiment. Could University Avenue be made into a real 'tourist destination" as well as a local draw.

Comments (84)

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2007 at 9:29 am

A good question to ask would be "how would Sunday's fire have been treated differently if University had been pedestrian only at the time"?

Posted by another topic, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 3, 2007 at 9:30 am

Web Link

Posted by Senior Blogger, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 3, 2007 at 10:01 am

What an excellent idea!
We don't even go on University anymore because its always just a Parking Lot.
If it were a mall, perhaps it would encourage more people to Stroll in the downtown....and spend money :-)

Posted by lulu, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2007 at 10:28 am

If University were pedestrian only, access to the fire would probably have been easier, as fire engines don't have to worry about parked cars which are a major obstruction. (Pedestrian areas always have access for emergency vehicles.)

Pedestrian malls do tend to attract shoppers, but only if there is easy transportation to the location and adequate parking nearby.

Posted by A Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2007 at 11:53 am

The Mayor has already said: "Every first Friday night of each month throughout the Summer the span of University Avenue from Emerson Street to Cowper Street will be closed to through vehicle traffic. The street closure will allow for the creation of a Promenade....." (See Palo Alto Issues, previous pages 3)

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2007 at 12:27 pm

I am sure this will make a nice photo-op for our mayor and she will tout how this is helping in our fight against global warming

Posted by Forum Reader, a resident of Stanford
on Jul 3, 2007 at 1:24 pm

You are so proud of the closing of California Avenue for the market for a day, why are you so sour about closing University Avenue for a similar reason.
Previous mayors have had many more photo ops. What have you got against her? (again and again and again)

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2007 at 1:51 pm

Forum reader--I do not think that I ever commented aboutthe California Avenue closing for framers market.
I am not sour about the closing of University Avenue--I am "sour" about our mayor's lack of interest in anything besides climate change related photo-ops and the occasional whining about "too much traffic" (not to
mention the complete abandonment of the mergency preparedness issue that our previous mayor started).
Our city has many problems facing it and she is ignoring them. Anyway, she is a politician--if she cannot stand the heat she should get out of the kitchen.

Posted by QQ, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 3, 2007 at 2:04 pm

I just toured the scene and I have to admit, walking down the middle of University without have to worry about being plowed down by a cell phone talking soccer mom in an H3 was quite nice. Lots of folks were taking advantage of the easy access to shops by just crossing wherever along the closed two block stretch. It was very nice. I vote to open University to pedestrians!

Posted by F. Bindel, a resident of Atherton
on Jul 3, 2007 at 2:11 pm

University Ave is the best downtown area in the Peninsula. I drive there all the time from RWC/Atherton Border Just to get coffee, ice cream, restaurant, etc.

I was there the morning after the fire having just returned from Germany with its many "Fussganger" zones. I thought exactly this thing. Turn a portion of University Ave into a pedestrian only zone. Give people a place to stop and enjoy a nice evening. But, do not make it a tourist destination. It needs to be a place for real local people, college, professional, etc, to come and get goods, bank, eat, etc. Cheesecake factory is bad enough. I'd rather have traffic than a tourist kiosks in the middle of the street selling merchandise.

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2007 at 2:11 pm

One of the big questions regarding converting University to a pedestrian mall is will the City Council have the stomach to handle the inevitable outcry from some of the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area. You can imagine that people will be concerned with "too much traffic" (one wonders how our mayor will stand on the issue) in their neighborhood. You know our city council hates conflict and will not be on record for a vote unless they are sure there will be no flak from their decision.
So the issue may be diverted into the "lets have consultants study the matter and have the public discuss it endlessly" pipeline.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Closing a portion of University Avenue to cars would be a great idea. I can't tell you how many times I've been almost hit by folks that don't understand that a stop sign or red light means stop and look... and not just slow down. The city has built a number of parking structures that are just not being filled, so losing the parking spots is not an issue.

Posted by twinky, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 3, 2007 at 3:01 pm

making university a walking promenade would be fought tooth-and-nail by retail merchants. why? because consumer bahvior patterns, including how people get to retail venues are delicate things.

think about how many people come to downtown from far away. that's a LOT of people. we have constructed a mall-like arena downtown, mostly populated by restaurants and boutiques. It's like an outdoor mall, with less-than-compelling local draw, and certainly not sustainable only from neighborhood visits.

we'll not see pedestrian anything until we have far better mass transportation in Palo Alto. we're getting better, but have a long way to go.

of course, if we do convert to pedestrian mall over the hue and cry of merchants, there won't be much of a price to pay because many if not most merchants don't live in Palo Alto, and don't vote here - which is exactly why so little of real significance is done for retailers here. the real profits are made by retail development and property management groups.

Posted by mr. j, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 3, 2007 at 3:51 pm


Posted by drew, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2007 at 5:19 pm

I am all in favor of closing down University Ave. for street fairs, farmer markets, etc., but the idea of closing it down permanently strikes me as the same theories of urban renewal of the 1960s. Theories that saw traditional downtown thoroughfares turned into pedestrian malls in order to mimic the malls of the suburbs to get more suburbanites to venture downtown. Theories put into action in Buffalo, East Liberty (Pittsburgh), and other cities/neighborhoods that failed and thus closed down those business areas of any automobile traffic hurting the area more.

Now Palo Alto's University Ave. is certainly a different case and may perhaps work and would be a joy for those who want a city's downtown to be another mall. Furthermore, if this idea was implemented I'm sure downtown businesses would not suffer yet University Ave. being the lively main street it is with cars and pedestrians mingling would cease to exist. What would replace it would be a lovely environment for those that enjoy urban environments without the many of the amenities
of a traditional urban place. Something people might enjoy, but I'm not a fan of. It does sound interesting in theory at least.

Posted by Dana Johnson, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2007 at 2:31 am

So then where would people park who wanted to visit the shops and fine dining establishments on University? Surely the people who live on the outskirts of the downtown area would not prefer their neighborhoods to become parking lots and there really is no sufficient public transportation in or out of that area. It would be nice if traffic was lessened on that street, but there is no way to do that and keep people visiting the area. Besides if you want to a mall, the Stanford Shopping Center is not far away.

Posted by Joel, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2007 at 7:44 am

University Promenade! What a wonderful ring that has to it. I'm for a carless University Ave.

Posted by Doris, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2007 at 7:50 am

I think it would be the greatest thing to have no cars downtown. I never drive down University anyways. I park on Lytton or Hamilton. Lets encourage more walking like Europeans do. It is so much healthier for you!

Doris Williams
831 Marshall Dr.

Posted by Doris, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2007 at 7:51 am

I think it would be the greatest thing to have no cars downtown. I never drive down University anyways. I park on Lytton or Hamilton. Lets encourage more walking like Europeans do. It is so much healthier for you!

Doris Williams
831 Marshall Dr.

Posted by Rubye, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 4, 2007 at 8:13 am

Boulder, Colorado has a wonderful pedestrian main street and it definitely attracts hoards of people. There are lots of outdoor dining and people hang out in the downtown making is a very social and community oriented town. Palo Alto would make a stunning scene for a pedestrian main street and would enhance an already very beautiful town.

Posted by Confused, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2007 at 8:22 am

I don't understand people's comments about where to park if they closed University Ave. I've lived here for more than 1o years and go downtown at least 3 times a week. I can't remember ever parking on University. The city has more than enough parking garages (so many, in fact, that they increased the time limit to 3 hours) and I have never had a difficult time finding parking. Parking is not an issue... but impact on traffic and/or business might be.

Posted by Judy, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2007 at 12:43 pm

Great idea! If they don't go for University, how about Californnia Avenue? It is a great spot when closed off - as one can experience during its new Farmer's Market each Sunday.

Posted by John, a resident of University South
on Jul 4, 2007 at 12:47 pm

Not only should cars be eliminated but the panhandling in front of stores too. No cars and no homeless! And no bikes while we're at it. Let's see...what else?...No smoking, and most of all NO CELLPHONES! No thinking and no joking!

Posted by Fanny, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2007 at 1:42 pm

That's pretty funny John. Hang on to that day job.

I work near the site of the fire, and the blocks being roped off was interesting. The stores seems well-used, despite no car traffic (Starbucks line was out the door for some reason). The traffic on Hamilton, where I work, was not notably jammed, though this is probably a light traffic week due to the holiday.

I was not originally very keen about the idea of a pedestrian mall, but find it more interesting after this unintended experiment. Maybe they could try it on the weekends to see how that works.


Posted by Kim, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2007 at 5:42 pm

This may sound like a good idea, but in practice it would probably make University a ghost street. Whenever new communities are being planned, urban designers try to achieve dense but walkable environments that have a mix of cars and pedestrians . Here such an environment has grown naturally and incrementally, and it would be a shame to shut it down. Imagine routing the traffic to side streets. The next move would be to make those side streets one-way, allowing motorists to breeze right on through without ever noticing that there are stores and restaurants one block away. Nothing would kill the downtown faster.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2007 at 5:45 pm


I respectfully disagree. Traffic on side streets would first of all see other stores and secondly see all the parking signs for garages, etc. Also, most of the through traffic is fairly local. Those in the know may use University as a route from 101 to Stanford, but the signs for out of towners and also on Google maps, etc, use Embarcadero.

Posted by Howard, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 4, 2007 at 7:27 pm

What a bad idea. Walking down the portion closed by the fire, the impression is that you are suddenly in an empty, lifeless area. When you get tho the open portion, it springs back to life. In addition, the homeless would totally take over.

Posted by Fanny, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2007 at 7:33 pm

It's funny Howard, but I had the opposite impression (save for the block where you couldn't walk of course). I found it open and airy with a nice mix of space and people.

What do people think about trying closure on the weekend to see what it would be like?

Posted by Scott, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 5, 2007 at 10:03 am

Take a look at the Promenade in Santa Monica; talk about a destination location. It would really work in PA as well. No doubt about it.

Posted by Len DeBenedictis, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 10:40 am

I like the idea for both University and California Avenues.

Posted by Stan Hutchings, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 5, 2007 at 2:37 pm

I'd vote to block it off.
I don't drive or even (try to) park on University - it's a waste of time and patience. It would be much easier for shoppers and diners to get around without the hassle of red lights and noise-and-fume-spewing cars. I asked my wife why she doesn't like to park several blocks and walk, checking out new stores and window shopping - her reply, "it's the shoes". Apparently walking around is not an option if women wear fashionable-but-walk-unfriendly shoes - so, if U. Ave is closed, women will know to wear walk-friendly shoes, because there will be no parking possible in front of the usual U. Ave destinations. People might even start walking or biking from farther away!

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:10 pm

I like the idea, too. The University Ave area could accomodate a lot more pedestrians if the traffic were blocked off. My experience for the few days after the fire is that there are lots of people downtown and that a pedestrian area would work fine.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:13 pm


I think you have hit the nail on the head. There is definitely a mentality here that if you can't park outside where you are going, then it is too much of a trek to bother.

I am reminded of an observation I have had in the past between the business districts in London and New York. If you walk around the business districts in London at the commute hour, you will see women walking around (or should I say hobbling around) in very fashionable footwear which they remove as soon as they get to the office for something flat and comfortable. In New York at the commute hour, you see the same sort of fashionably dressed women wearing sneakers and socks which they remove for the fashionable high heels at work.

It is down to knowing whether or not you have to walk in your shoes. I once heard a friend who returned a pair of shoes because the heel fell of the first time they were worn. The clerk laughed and said that these shoes were not designed for walking and should never have been used outside!!

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:33 pm

To all who want University shut down to traffic: are you willing to share the risk that merchants will lose out, long-term? Are you immediately willing to compensate retailers for losses, based on the difference of average monthly revenue - before and after the promenade comes into effect?

If not, then your argument for turning the Ave into a promenade is bogus, because you're essentially playing with someone else's livlihood.

Noblesse oblige, anyone?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Not sure about wanting to compensate merchants for losses, but certainly willing to go downtown more often if I know that it will be a more pleasant experience than it is at present.

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:51 pm

Gee, Resident, how very sporting of you. NOT! How about we change the purchasing and visitation patterns for whatever consumers frequent - or frequented, if you're retired - the business you were or are in? Now, wouldn't that be a fun experiment? And gee, golly, I'd be so happy to come to your store or buy your services more often in exchange for that, even though I wouldn't be able to guarantee that most of the rest of your regular customers would. I just love experiements with other people's money, don't you?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 4:58 pm


No, you have it wrong. When opening a business of any description, it is rather a gamble. Not in the conventional gambling manner of course, but in not knowing what future trends and fashions, laws and regulations might get passed, plus what may happen to the area in which your business is situated. If you look at it this way, we would still be tying up our horses outside blacksmiths. No times change and businesses acknowledge that to succeed they have to move with the times. If your road is closed off to traffic, you then alter your mindset. You make yourself more attractive to passing pedestrians and give up on what was before. If you get thrown lemons, you make lemonade. The savvy business operator knows this.

Posted by Frank Flynn, a resident of Ventura
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:16 pm

I think it's a great idea!!

If you are worried about the parking - consider that there's not that much on University Ave itself compaired to the city lots and that you can't usually park there on University anyway (when was the last time you found a spot in front of your destination?) While I've always been able to park in a lot or garage.

Some merchants might see less business - although I doubt it; others will surely benefit as resturaunts would be able to increase their seating as they could spill out into the street. All would benefit from more foot traffic.

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:32 pm


You turn the concept of the public interest on its head.

Any property owner lives with the risk that legitimate public policy might adversely affect them, for example, if a police station is located nearby as we faced for a while.

Businesses on University Avenue live with the risk that Council might approve new land uses that compete with them or that other landlords might rent to a business like theirs.

I don't think it works to have a principal where no public policy gets approved if a small number of peopel get hurt. My guess is that many businesses will prosper from a car-free University Avenue. Some might lose a few customers that depended on car traffic on University.

Are you saying we should never approve any public policy that benefits many people without compensating everyoen who claims they are hurt?

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Resident, obviously, you have never been in a retail business, although yu may have read a book or two. It shows, believe me. Retailers, many of them, live from month to month on revenue. There are many market forces that retailers can't control.

When it comes to paying for shortfalls in the next 18 month's rent because University is closed, how many retailers will you be willing to bail out?

btw, your comment about how opening a business is a gamble is true; it's just that smart business people and entrepreneurs do their best to LIMIT risk. What yuo're proposing is an immediate increase in risk.

Like I said before: "isn't it fun to experiment with other people's money?" That seems a hooby-horse occupation with so many of the green (as in inexperienced and ignorant) about the realities of retail in these forums. The empty-headedness displayed about this issue is staggering.

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:42 pm


I think some of us disagree with you. But before this gets silly with name calling, would you take a minute and explain who you think will get hurt, why they will get hurt by closing University and why they deserve compensation.

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:42 pm

Steve, I'm waiting for you, like Resident, to ante up with some risk capital.

Last, it's almmost pathetic to see well-meaning - yet uninformed - residents pushing for a promenade on University Avenue. How many merchants have yuo spoken with about this? If so, what was their response?

In fact, if there was a wholesale change in transport patterns downtown - like you suggest - this city would have a massive lawsuit on its hands - one that the probably the Chamber, and certainly I, would be happy to participate in as a plaintiff.

btw, when is this fanciful fiction of a forum thread going to die, anyway?

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:53 pm


You seem to have chosen not to answer some simple questions that might have clarified and strenghtened your point. Actaully there are a lot of non-merchant businesses on University Avenue (our office was there for 37 years) and I imagine they would be not be harmed at all by closing the street.

I am struggling to understand why restaurants and bookstores woule be injured given all the nearby parking.

So if you have any actual reasons besides calling all of us uninformed now is your chance.

And even if there were some injury why is that a reason not to go forward if the benefits are greater and for a larger number of people?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 5:54 pm


This will be my last comment on the subject.

As it stands at present, many retailers on University are dealing with lack of vehicle traffic outside their premises. Do you think they should be compensated? And if so, by whom? I walked past yesterday and there were many others surveying the damage. It might actually be a boon to some of them.

No, these retailers realise that something happened beyond their control. They know that something happening like this, is what happens in business. Some will adjust, some will find ways of making the most of it. It will be a shame if some go under, but that is the nature of business. Business trends change and the businesses adjust. That is why the blacksmith turned into a gas station. The gas stations on University have gone and now it is time for the market to wake up to current trends.

If University is turned into a pedestrian promenade, either at weekends or all the time, the market will adjust. A few retailers may decide to move, others will look on it as an opportunity and decide to locate there in the hopes of appealing to a different clientele. Whatever happens, it is not the end of the world. We are not here to offer charity to merchants. No we are here to be served by them. They know it. Now you should know it too.

Posted by Kate Sanford, a resident of Atherton
on Jul 5, 2007 at 6:22 pm

A friend of mine came by the other day right after being in downtown Palo Alto. He was totally excited about the idea of turning downtown Palo Alto into a walking street. Seriously, it's a great idea. We've watched lots of stores move out of the University Avenue area (like our favorite bookstore), only to be replaced by those dumb cellphone stores and huge chain monstrosities like the Cheesecake thing.

Santana Row has done a wonderful job of creating a "destination" apart from the high-priced stores. The seating area in the middle is lovely, the feeling is gracious, and the entire street supports the restaurant experience.

It would be very nice to help Palo Alto find itself again by starting a walking downtown street. We'd love it.

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2007 at 6:50 pm

Kate, The downtown BID is going to start a citizen-share-risk-with-merchants fund for those who want to change University to a promenade. We look forward to your substantial donation.

Resident, I love your "that's just the way it is" arguments. Maybe if someone encourages riff-raff to walk past your house and blow a loud foghorn at random times, on random evenings, you'll adapt, too. If you don't like it, you can leave, or try changing legislation to compel quuieter foghorns. What say you?

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Warren, it is a shame that your sarcasm sometimes makes it hard to grasp your exact meaning. Some of your points seem valid and worth considering, but the tone is tough to take. I like to wail on people too, but find a constructive tone (between deep breaths) makes the thread more interesting (for my anyway).

I agree with all who say there is risk and we should not be cavalier about it - so how about the idea above of trying a weekend experiment?

Posted by Chevron, a resident of another community
on Jul 6, 2007 at 8:12 am

But where would all the Lexus and Mercedes SUVs go if they were banished along with other motor vehicles from University Avenue?

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 6, 2007 at 8:24 am

Kate Sanford---Isn;t Santana Row full of chain stores?
Don't the "chain stores" in Palo Alto pay tax revenue to the city?

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

Fred, the tone instigated in a conversation is often part of a rhetorical strategy. I'm a teddy bear, really.

Appeals for closing University at great risk to hard working retailers have come off as a kind of childish entitlement, minus the necessary noblesse oblige. There's no reason to coddle that kind of ignorance.

As for an experiment; we have already planned an experiment, with one Friday evening per month this summer. Let's start there.

Posted by Paul, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 6, 2007 at 11:19 am

I think it's a terrific idea. And it might get people to think of their feet as transportation modes. It's an easy and pleasant walk (or bike ride) from many neighborhoods to downtown Palo Alto, easier than many people imagine, and making University Ave a pedestrian mall might encourage more non motorized trips there. Filling streets with people makes them safer and happier. Hedonics should not be overlooked in city planning.

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 6, 2007 at 12:28 pm


Great Warren, I hear that you are a teddy bear and are just needling us as part of a rhetorical strategy.

Still that does not relieve you of the obligation (?) chance (?) to actaully explain who you think is going to be hurt, why the hurt will occur and why it is not outweighed by the benefits.

You continue to accuse us of ignorance and fail reapeatedly to follow up on the opportunity to move beyond rhetoric to explanation.

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2007 at 1:01 pm

fact: retailers have to pay the rent and other expenses, or they fail.

fact: just the loss of 3 or 4 customers per day, over a month, can lead to a retailer not making that month's fiscal obligations

fact: consumers are notoriously wedded to habitual behavior when it comes to shopping. Most consumers drive to Palo Alto's downtown,, with many seeking curbside access. If the promenade went into effect, the shift in behavior would come at the cost of customers to retailers

fact: university avenue retailers pay a premium to be on university; part of that permium is due to the fact that many shoppers from places other than palo alto "discover" shops as they drive past university

fact: university was not designed to be a walking promenade. Although that could happen, the adjustment period would be costly to retailers.

Are you ready to share the risk to retailers for converting university into a promenade?

Posted by the_resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 6, 2007 at 3:56 pm

I am in favor of at least trying a no cars rule. I would actually start shopping down there again.

Even when I did shop down there years ago, I never parked directly on University. I always used the side street lots.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Thanks Warren for that update. Friday evenings seems like a decent start to see how things go. As before, I agree that such a thing can't be done cavalierly and I can see Warren's points about habit-based shopping.

My sense is that at least some pedestrian malls were re-developments of areas that were on the skids - so not that much to lose. Does anyone know the facts around that?


Posted by Robert, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2007 at 7:56 pm

Having University Ave closed to cars would be so nice in many ways: for shoppers, families, restaurants, cafes, etc.

It would be a positive outcome for this horrible fire.

Posted by Noah, a resident of University South
on Jul 6, 2007 at 10:24 pm

Yes please!

Here's another Palo Alto family asking the city to consider doing more than "one night per month". Having a single night per month is certainly not going to generate a lot of buzz. It also excludes almost any family with young children.

Here's a positive vote from a PA resident, asking our city council & staff to consider a *trial* of a few weekend *days* without cars on University Ave.

We walked down University Ave earlier this evening, and it was incredibly nice without the loud traffic. There were lots of people visiting stores, even with the block closed to traffic.

Posted by Victor, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2007 at 10:26 pm

Personally, I love the idea of this experiment, and would like to see it expanded to entire weekends. I would never have guessed how pleasant it would be to have the street closed to cars. But having seen it, I'm impressed with what a difference it makes. I am hopeful that we may have some positive come out of this tragedy.

As for Warren's concerns and suggestion:

I would be delighted to put up money against the risk to merchants, provided that I get a corresponding piece of their increased revenues once things stabilize. (If things never do improve, then the experiment probably failed and should be terminated.) I suspect a number of other Palo Alto-based investors would also find this a compelling investment.

I supposed the city could do the same by offering to defray costs through tax reduction for a while. Then, if the exeriment works, the city could create an additional retail tax for those merchants. But personally, I would favor a private solution.

Either way, if we remove most or all of the risk to the current merchants and focus on the long-term benefits to Palo Alto, and the potentially improved atmosphere, it does seem like a pretty compelling experiment.

Posted by Celeste, a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2007 at 10:01 am

I lived in Palo Alto for 43 years and come back there often. I think while your idea is good in theory, what happens to the elderly resident who cannot walk that far? Or the disabled person who tires easily and putting up yet another barrier just keeps them more isolated. Also if anymore "chain stores" go in I as a consumer won't be going there either. Read the blog about what Palo Alto used to be like here online. A compromise would be to have a special committee who determines which stores are viable and keeps the "chains" to a minimum and also if you want to figure out some way to make part of University Ave. carless or have a Mall somewhere close or attached to University Ave. then everyone wins.

Posted by Old Timer, a resident of Portola Valley
on Jul 7, 2007 at 10:49 am

In the 1970's, for a year or two, Palo Alto experimented with a Downtown Loop to keep cars off University. My memory may be flawed, but this is how I remember it.

The streets in the loop were High, Hamilton, a cross street near Middlefield, and Lytton. All were one way. You could still drive and park on University by entering from any cross street. But coming from Palm Drive, you were forced to turn right on High. Coming from East Palo Alto, you had to turn right at that forgotten cross street.

Although University was still drivable, businesses were adversely affected by the diversion of traffic. The six turns in the loop became bottlenecks; a drive through downtown took much longer. Drivers sought altermate routes, avoiding downtown altogether, which hurt businesses more.

The Loop was unpopular. It was undone. I believe the traffic official behind it left his job.

The pedestrian promenade idea is a bit different. Today's mix of downtown businesses is also different. But if University was closed to cars, traffic flow would still be an issue. I think the city would have to raze buildings and build diagonal connectors from both ends of University to Lytton and Hamilton to facilitate traffic flow. Doing so would have an enormous cost. Cities sometimes effect such draconian measures to enliven deserted neighborhoods. Downtown Palo Alto is slightly singed, but otherwise alive and well.

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 7, 2007 at 11:27 am

Warren and others,

I am still trying to understand your theory of why compensation is owed. If a new bookstore or restaurant comes into downtown, we don't prevent it unless the other similar businesses are compensated.

If a police station or low-income housing is built near my home, I don't get compensated if my property values go down (and I agree with this policy). There is no law that says you get compensated any time your property value or business gets harmed by legitimate public policy.

In all likelihood some of the extra traffic and parking would be near our home since we live near Hamilton where some of the diverted traffic will go. My own sense is that we have gotten too accustomed to not pursuing the community interest if a few people might be harmed in pursuit of public benefits. We live in a community in a broader region and all share the responsibilities and rewards of making Palo Alto a great place and a great city partner.

Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 7, 2007 at 1:44 pm

I agree with Steve Levy on this thread, and I supported this idea a few weeks back when it was started on a different thread.

I visited Boulder, CO (Pearl St. Mall) last fall, and the place was thriving, with what was formerly a main thoroughfare (Pearl St.) closed off to traffic and serving as a promenade for pedestrians and cyclists, et al. It got me to thinking how a similar approach on University should be considered (again--I was not here last time it was tried.) I am sure there was dis-location, some businesses that did not make it after the mall was done in Boulder, but every store front was occupied and the seemed to be doing well.

If a business establishment is presented with changing conditions (and, as a small business owner myself, I consider this to be the regular state of affairs) the owner can adapt, or seek another environment that is more conducive to his type of business. All that Palo Alto as a city should be expected to do is provide an environment that will provide businesses the opportunity to succeed or fail. If the collective opinion of our civic and private sector leaders is that making a major reconfiguration of how University Avenue will cause it to overall be a more attractive place for patrons who go there, thereby increasing revenues and taxes generated from downtown commerce, we should seriously consider doing this. It likely does mean that some businesses presently along University will not do as well, some will be unaffected, some will do better, and most importantly, we will attract other new businesses for whom the new environment is conducive. How many empty store fronts does my beagle sniff by every time we walk along University? Too many, and a much higher proportion that I saw along the Pearl St. Mall.

Look at what is happening at Town and Country Village. People may or may not like the decisions the new landlord is making about tenants and how it is "re-positioning the product." Ultimately, the landlords and those who do end up as tenants there are the ones who will bear the risk or enjoy the success. But those who cannot do well or are not being invited to stay are not getting a subsidy from T&C ownership for their troubles. I am sympathetic that their business situation has changed, and I hope they are able to move on successfully. But such is the way business works, it is not always going to go in a direction that positively benefits everyone when a change is made. Businesses that need a subsidy over a period of time to remain in business have bigger problems than a changing environment.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 7, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Old Timer makes a good point. If you look at Boulder/Pearl St., they have done what OT said was done here - one way streets going around the mall. Our unique problem though is that University is the only through street to the other side of Alma/ECR/train tracks - so traffic needs to re-route onto it. A challenge that would need to be addressed for sure.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2007 at 3:58 pm

Old Timer

Just because something didn't work in the 70s, doesn't mean that it won't work now. We are a different Palo Alto like we are different Americans. Back in the 70s gas was cheap and it was hard to get an American out of the car. Now we are more energy conscious, exercise conscious and for many of us, have spent time in other cultures where walking from store to store is the norm and pleasant. Yes, some traffic re-routing would have to be worked round to get cars across the railroad and yes some elderly and handicapped residents may need some extra help carrying packages or perhaps a golf cart type service could be organised at certain times, but I think we would get used to it.

I visited the glass and clay festival today. Parking was terrible, but I saw many elderly and handicapped people enjoying the festival. We should give the elderly and handicapped more credit, they do get out and about and do not need to park outside every store they visit. To be honest, I am sure that in downtown Palo Alto it is very rare for them to find a parking space right outside the store they are visiting.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 7, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Resident, with due respect, I think OT's point was that a serious traffic issue caused problems then and likely would need to be addressed now. I don't think we should brush that off lightly, esp since traffic may actually be higher now than in the '70s due to growth.

OT did note that the pedestrian mall concept being discussed now is different from what was tried then. I don't believe he expressed a view that it wouldn't work at all - more that it may be expensive to make the traffic flow tolerable.

OT - I'm sure you don't need me to stick up for you, but just thought I would chime in!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2007 at 5:57 pm

Old Timer and Fred

Sorry if my tone sounded too negative, it wasn't meant to.

I do think things have changed and what may not have worked then may work now.

I also agree that the problem of what to do with traffic coming off Palm Drive would be a problem. However, I do not think it would be unsurmountable. I do not drive University at all so that intersection is not something I am familiar with and can't really come up with something that would work.

It strikes me though that having some sort of access to the Caltrain station would help with the idea of making it accessible. For example, for those who have come off the train from a day's work at the end of the day, why not walking to a suitable restaurant to meet friends or a date for the evening without having to go home and then come out again. So, advertising at the Caltrain tunnels and parking lots would be a gread idea.

Marketing innovative ideas of how to use a pedestrian promenade would give added use.

Posted by Walk on, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2007 at 1:33 pm

It would be wonderful for part (or all!!) of University Avenue to be restricted just to foot traffic. There are enough cars zipping around the world as it is.

Posted by Warren, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Paul Losch, "if a business establishment is presented with changing conditions (and, as a small business owner myself, I consider this to be the regular state of affairs) the owner can adapt, or seek another environment that is more conducive to his type of business."

With due respect, you're not a retailer.

How about this scenario? Let's say you have just begun business as a supplier to a nascent Whole Foods store. They open on University Avenue - one store. Your product is not necessary for WF survival, but the buyer decides to take a chance on you. WF and your business begin to boom. Unfortunately, about a year into this scenario, the store across the street from WF burns down, and University is closed.

A number of people in Palo Alto decide that it would be a good idea to convert University to a walking mall-type arrangement, instead of simply re-oping for business as usual. In the meantime - between disruptions caused by the immediate event of the fire, and the year or so that it takes to convert University, WF finds its business challenged. Revenues drop...WF goes under.

Sure, YOU can adapt, but how about WF, its employees, its investors, etc. - all to satisfy the whims of those who want convenience at any price.

The lack of noblesse oblige here is compelling. Retailers are people, with families to feed, and employees to pay. I'm sorry to say that there seems no enlightenment on this thread in that regard.

If you want to begin to turn a street into a promenade, take a look at what has just transpired on California Ave. - with the Farmer's Market. That was a 4 year process that worked hard to get retail buy-in. It hasn't been perfect, but most everyone is happy with the result.

Take it slow, and respect the sweat and dedication of hard-working retailers - many of whom have invested $$$ and passion to serve us.

Changing University to a promenade is not the action of a mall landlord, like your T&C example; rather, it woudl be a change by administrative fiat, based on the whims of a few people who want to walk from their homes in N. Palo Alto.

It seems that nobody here has even an inkling of how disruptive to _hundreds_ of hard working people's lives converting University into a promenade would be. What's even more surprising is the cavalierness of citizens toward the fate of retailers. No wonder we have such a horrible retail mix in this city.

Posted by Don G., a resident of Community Center
on Jul 9, 2007 at 4:55 pm

How about bringing back the Toonerville Trolley going up and down University if we eliminate the cars, let's at least have a vintage streetcar going back and forth.

Posted by Daniel S., a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 9, 2007 at 5:02 pm

I personally would vote FOR a pedestrian University Ave from High Street to Cowper Street.
Here are the changes I would make:
1. Make Hamilton and Lytton one way between High and Cowper.
2. Make Cowper also one way to complete a loop around University.
3. Make sure the lights are synchronized so that going half way around the loop can be done fast without any red light once started.
4. Make the parking on that loop NOT parallel and easy to get in and out (it would increase the number of parking spaces on these streets.)
5. Make the parkings on all streets between Hamilton and Lytton in the "loop" reserved mostly to Handicapped Parking and short term parking (15/30 minutes). (All these strets would be dead-end with a U-turn area)
6. Allow stores/restaurants on University to use the sidewalk.
7. Move the Saturday Farmers market to University ave.--generating additional foot traffic.
8. Have merchants in the area organize "synchronized sales" to attract customers...

Note 1: is it really the case that stores get customers that stopped only because they were driving through and saw a store of interest?
Note 2: I was here when the loop experiment was tried and failed. Reason it failed is that it was only half-heartedly tried: Lytton and Hamilton were not one-way. Lights were not synchronized. There were no initiatives to bring pedestrian traffic to University. It was just a driving mess, with no serious thought on making the area attractive to both drivers and pedestrians/shoppers...

Posted by retailer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2007 at 5:11 pm

options 1-5 would be carried out and funded by who?

option 6 - I'm sure that the VC's and banks would love to use the sidewalks. Most businesses that want to use the sidewalks, already do.

option 7 - move the Farmer's Market? Maybe...

remember, probably the bulk fo university ave. business comes from outside palo alto. go ahead and change things and see what happens. at a time when we are starving for retail tax revenue, this whole idea, presented as it has been, seems whacko

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 9, 2007 at 7:12 pm

Warren and Retailer,

Can you help out by explaining which retailers on University are going to be hurt and why?

Which retailers do you think depend on drive by impulse shopping and why? Which stores get most of their business from out of town people and why does that depend on drive by?

Are you aaying that people are coming to University to shop at drug stores, cell phone shops, coffee shops and bookstores that are in most local communities AND that they wouldn't buy as much if they couldn't drive by?

If the traffic were diverted to Hamilton and Lytton on your theory these stores would get more business, right?

If the traffic is not able to be handled then the promenade probably would not be good public policy but you have been arguing that promenade advocates are insensitive to retailers and offer nothing but assertions. If you are expert in retailing explain who will get hurt and why. And whether some stores might benefit.

Posted by retailer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2007 at 10:25 pm

steve, there are reams of data that speak to 'habitual consumer behavior'. i hate the american system of transport -- too much overdependence on cars...crazy. but that's how people tend to get around...palo alto is a destination city, unlike many on the peninsula, people DRIVE here from FAR AWAY...many of those people LIKE to drive and park in front of a store...many retailers have spent a LOT of money to lease prime university ave real warren asked, are yuo willing to put up $$$ so that if this experiment fails I will be compensated?

think about what would happen to retail if the major way to access downtown by car was to divert traffic to lytton and hamilton...why do you think there is no major retail activity [[compared to Univ ave]] on lytton and hamilton? it's because they are NOT the MAIN STREET.

retail is about location, location, location, my friend...that's a retail truism, established over a century as valid...there are a few thousand people working on univ ave that would have to pay the price for your whim...sure, new stores would appear, and eventually thrive, but is cutting the throat of those currently renting on univ the way to go about it? i don't think so...

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2007 at 9:28 am

Main Street, is main street because it is a tradition. The main street of a city used to be the main thoroughfare and everyone had to pass along it and that was what made it main. Obviously, the retail value of having a business there was what made retailers desire space there which be a reason for paying extra rent to achieve.

This is not the case nowadays. Main Street is where you go to do shopping, only if there is something there that attracts you to it. I do most of my shopping at retail magnets and their supporting stores. For me to go to downtown Palo Alto to shop, there has to be a reason for me to go there. Either I need to go to Borders, or the Foreign Exchange place, or a specific restaurant, etc. While there I may shop in some of the other places if I either see something that attracts me or if there is something I need and I might as well get it while I am there.

I honestly can't say that I would stop my car, looking for a space to park if I was just passing.

What would attract me to downtown Palo Alto, is a pleasant place to take an afternoon stroll, maybe get a coffee, do some people watching, and perhaps get a couple of errands done at the same time. In other words, make it a pleasant experience and it will become a destination. At present, going somewhere downtown is a chore and I do my best to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

I feel that I am far from being alone in this assessment.

Posted by been there, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 10, 2007 at 11:12 am

Burlington Vt. has Church Street - several blocks - I think 4-6 are closed off year around for pedestrians. Restaurants, coffee shops,retail stores, and plenty of casual outdoor seating provide a wonderful community atmopshere. We have visited there several times as our daughter goes to school there. The population seems very similar to Palo Alto. The area is festive and very family friendly. Business seems to be booming. I would love to see this in Palo Alto.

Posted by steve levy, a resident of University South
on Jul 10, 2007 at 2:11 pm


One last try. Can you give any specifics of which stores you think will be hurt and why?

People do much more shopping at places like Stanford Shopping Center where they park and walk than on University. Why do you think University will die if people have to walk a bit while shopping centers thrive with more walking from where you park?

If people have "habitual consumer behavior" as you claim why will they drop a store becasue the parking is a few feet further away. There are very few parking places on the street anyway as opposed to in lots benind stores or on side streets and they are usually full. So most people who shop on University are not parking on the street most of the time.

We may be a destination city/street. Wouldn't it help business if University Avenue became known as a unique downtown promenade rather than a regular crowded downtown street? What do you say to the people who have written it and say they would be MORE likely to come to University if the traffic was gone?

Give me some examples of what you are thinking. Are you saying that people come from far away to shop at Long's or Walgreen's or Starbuck's or the local cell phone stores? Are you saying that people come downtown and look for a new restaurant by driving by rather than parking and walking by where they can actually check the menu, prices and ambiance.

Do you think any retailers might benefit? and what about all of the other people who work on University--do they have any say in this?

Posted by jmiranda, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 10, 2007 at 2:27 pm

I would love to have a small section of downtown be pedestrian only. It's not like a few blocks provide a huge number of parking spaces - realistically speaking, it's more of an income source for the meter person, right? - and most of the parking that we've done are at the parking garage anyway.
Someone mentioned that the failed attempt at Buffalo/Liberty/etc.
As anyone who has ever lived anywhere near those places knows, the weather does not support this kind of open shopping/downtown promenade concept. Palo Alto's weather DOES.
I would be much more likely to come to downtown on evenings to window shop, enjoy outdoor dinner with family, take a leisurely walk (who wouldn't on a beautiful night!), and (most likely) pick up a few things from downtown that I would normally not if I were in a hurry to get away from the traffic choked street.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 10, 2007 at 2:36 pm

I don't know much about all the issues with setting up a pedestrian mall, but it seems to me that most stores on Univ do well because of the foot traffic there, not the car traffic. It doesn't seem much like a drive by, see a store, stop and take a look situation; as you say, Retailer, it is a destination shopping area, which means to me that people drive there, park, and walk (which is what I do, staying away off University itself if at all possible!). Cutting off the drive-through traffic seems like it might facilitate walking/shopping behavior.

As others have pointed out, though, there would need to be a lot of work and trials done to really make it work.


Posted by retailer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2007 at 5:02 pm

burlington, vt.? the u of v is integrated into the ciyt of burlington in a way that stanford u is not - it would be hard to find two more different college towns...not a good example

s. levy go ask any restaurant or retail business how they feel about suddenly changing the way that people access their store...go ask any landlord what will happen to rents on lytton and hamilton if they become feeder will go UP...why?

currently, why is university a traffic bottleneck, and not lytton or hamilton

what happens to coppola's restaurant and other businesses if shopper parks on hamilton to walk to pa bicycle...then walks a few blocks back to their car...people won't know coppola is's hard to walk the length of downtown...middlefield side becomes more ghettoised is open again...yeah....and my business is coming back!!!

maybe 2015 we see a trial...till then...enoy a few parades...have fun!


Posted by Mike, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2007 at 6:40 am

If we closed the street to cars, University Ave would just become yet another mall. And there's already a nice mall on the other side of El Camino. I, however, say a partial closing from Friday evening until Sunday morning would be appropriate.

Posted by Southgate resident, a resident of Southgate
on Jul 11, 2007 at 1:07 pm

I think this would be a great idea.

I too spend very little time on University Avenue due to all the traffic. I have spent time in Santa Monica on Second street, Burlington Vermont also has a nice downtown mall.

I think more people would go to stroll, browse and eat. We could have actual sidewalk cafes and street vendors.

Posted by Adam, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 11, 2007 at 5:17 pm

I am from Vermont, and this works really well on Church Street in Burling, for both the businesses and for shoppers. It's roughly the same arrangement, and it's so nice to be able to just walk along the street. It also brings out some really neat events such as the Jazz Festival that would be difficult otherwise. University St. reminds me of home, lets make it better!

Web Link

Posted by retailer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2007 at 6:00 pm

note the dramatic differences between the last poster's web link, and university avenue - two different worlds. burlinton and palo alto couldn't be more different as college towns - in many more ways than appearance

and note the relief by local retailers when university avenue re-opened to TRAFFIC

don't fix it if it ain't broken, and if you wanna do that, do it sloooowwwwwww

business is back...yeah! nuf' said

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2007 at 7:46 pm

Retailer - not sure I get your point. The Burlington picture looks like New England, but not sure what the difference is you are pointing out. I agree, it might work differently if University were next to campus, but that doesn't rule it out in our case IMO.

Agree that any change would need to go slowly. I don't see a big premium for speed here...


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