Make University Avenue a Pedestrian Mall | Nose Under the Community Tent | Paul Losch | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

Nose Under the Community Tent

By Paul Losch

About this blog: I was a "corporate brat" growing up and lived in different parts of the country, ending in Houston, Texas for high school. After attending college at UC Davis, and getting an MBA at Harvard, I embarked on a marketing career, mai...  (More)

View all posts from Paul Losch

Make University Avenue a Pedestrian Mall

Uploaded: Nov 28, 2012
I have written about this idea before, and it is worth bringing up again.

Driving home after a long Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, I thought about the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado.

I participated in a difficult discussion Tuesday night about the proposed development at what is euphemistically called 27 University. Lots to it, we had many local citizens and consultants speak in open session about the concept in its current form.

Commissioners had numerous concerns about the concept as it was presented to us. One thing that I brought up is traffic implications.

Whether or not this proposal in some form goes through for this section of town, I am of the opinion that we should turn University Avenue into a pedestrian only space from Webster to High Street. Lytton and Hamilton would need to be converted to one way avenues to deal with normal traffic flow at rush hour times.

This is how Boulder is set up, and my experiences there is that it works quite well. The mall itself has great character, and the adjoining streets seem to handle traffic flow effectively.
Such an idea is not part of the current design for this proposed project.

There are numerous implications that this 27 University project has. From what I heard last night, traffic flow beyond the immediate area has not been analyzed sufficiently. The area is a regional transit hub, but the proposed parking spaces underground clearly imply commuters in autos would be driving to work.
There are strong opinions about this entire idea.

I merely make the modest proposal that we convert University Ave. into the equivalent of Pearl St. Mall in Boulder.

Greater mortals than I will pass muster over 27 University and my suggestion for a University Ave. pedestrian mall.

There are plenty of postings about 27 University. What is your opinion about a University Ave. Mall?

What is it worth to you?


Posted by yes yes yes, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I am in favor. And it doesn't have to be all day. Open it up to delivery trucks or commuters before 9am or so. Some streets in San Francisco do this, then just pull a chain across the entrance during the pedestrian-only time.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As a former Palo Alto Planning Commissioner I think that this is a GREAT idea. And Menlo Park should do exactly the same with Santa Cruz between University and El Camino.

Posted by Midtowner, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

This would be so nice... and I believe University Avenues merchants would thrive. I am all for it too.

Most of my visits to downtown PA, by the way, are by means of bicycling down Bryant. I would love to be able to park my bike and enjoy a car free University Ave.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Wonderful idea! But it will make the parking issues (that everyone seems to want to study instead of fix) worse.

Posted by yes yes yes, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I'm very surprised that Peter Carpenter is in favor, since he is regularly a Stanford shill. Maybe he was trying to be sarcastic, but not funny enough to be understood? The biggest (possibly only) opposition to this idea are going to be Stanford car commuters who like to speed down University Ave between Hwy 101 and campus.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.


Don't let your preconceived notions of what someone else might be or do cloud your judgement so easily.

I think it is a great idea because it makes a lot of sense - I have no idea how Stanford, with whom I have NO affiliation, might respond.

Please tell us who you are and what are your affiliations.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm

This is an old idea, although I think it is a good one. It keeps getting knocked down due to traffic and business concerns. Every now and then the City shuts down Downtown, in order to run certain events, a possible precursor of things to come. If the business community is willing to buy in( will it get more or less business?), then the traffic concerns will be the big issue.

The partial shutdown, by time of day, makes some sense, probably a good place to start...just to see if it will fly with the neighbors.

I happen to know that neighbors of car campers hate it, but car traffic is a somewhat lower concern, even though it is still a major concern. The people will need to decide.

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm

I love this idea and have said so each time it crops up.

A pedestrian Mall is a great idea and it should be for pedestrians not bicycles. If a bike needs to use a pedestrian Mall it should be walked.

Unfortunately, I can't see it being agreed on.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Impractical. We need every street we can possibly get to move traffic through this town.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"We need every street we can possibly get to move traffic through this town."

Unfortunately MOVING traffic contributes very little to either the economic welfare of businesses on University Ave or to the ambience of the urban space. It is time to be both bold and creative.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm

>Unfortunately MOVING traffic contributes very little to either the economic welfare of businesses on University Ave or to the ambience of the urban space. It is time to be both bold and creative.

Peter, I happen to agree with you on this issue. However, the people (majority) rule, not the minority, and this is the essence of deomocracy. The City Council is allowed to make bold moves, as elected representiatives, but they will not, on major issues...lack of intestinal fortitude. This is why major issues should be put to the vote of the citizens.

Posted by lets vote, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Yes, we should schedule a vote to allow the bulldozing of Craig's home so that a car camping lot can be built (and as we all know not every vote is right or constitutional). BTW, the idea to turn university avenue into a pedestrian mall is ridiculous.

Posted by claustrophobic, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 6:18 pm


I agree that this impractical.

Mr. Losch,

Look at Boulder- it doesn't have nearly the amount of economic or residential activity on either side of their pedestrian downtown. Nobody needs to continuously get to the other side from a 101 or a 280.

It might be nice for tourists, but as a resident, I would feel boxed in, and claustrophobic.

Posted by claustrophobic, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Mr. Losch,

Actually, nobody even needs to get to Boulder.

lets vote,

Ridiculous is probably the best way to put it.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm

>Yes, we should schedule a vote to allow the bulldozing of Craig's home so that a car camping lot can be built ...blah blah

That would be a democratic decision. Of course, you would need to pay me a fair market price. Perhaps my neighbors would not appreciate it, though...all those car campers might make them very uncomfortable, just as they do to the neighborhoods that have to put up with them.

I agree: Put it to a vote.

In general, I think the big issues should be put to the vote in Palo Alto.

Posted by Ducatigirl, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm

This is a wonderful idea. I love the pedestrian malls in Zurich, Munich, and other European towns. I remember the one in Boulder, CO from long ago, too. The one in Munich, though, goes on for a couple of miles, at least, and contains every kind of shop you could ever want or need, including groceries, furniture, shoes, and other necessities, not just high end stuff. My husband's family in Switzerland goes there annually for Christmas shopping.

It is so much more relaxing to shop without worrying about traffic, and the whole street is your sidewalk.

Posted by claustrophobic, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm

P. Losch,

Missed your last last question about a 27 University Mall.

I like a 27 University Mall MUCH better than office towers.

At least a mall would bring in sales tax revenues. Palo Alto has demonstrated it can attract top stores. Stores do a better job of keeping things on the up and up, with security guards looking after windows, similar to the Stanford shopping center.

A mall near transit is also very appealing. Of course, under 50 feet because who wants to arrive in Palo Alto to encounter ugly buildings. Less is more in this space which by the way is 4 acres?!! There are houses in Old Palo Alto with more land. Fitting four office buildings there defies common sense.

A 50 foot building with a mall, another 50 foot with offices. Twin midget "towers" is plenty for that amount of space. A home for Theaterworks elsewhere.

Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Paul Losch is a registered user.


Respectfully, you appear to be conflating the 27 U idea with the notion of Palo Alto's current University Avenue, and my suggestion that the existing University Avenue become a pedestrian mall.

The proposals for the 27 U property have nothing to do with malls, although some of the design ideas do include retail at the ground level.

Posted by Sharon, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 8:38 pm

The reality is that University Ave would turn into a haven for the indigent beggars, drug/alcohol addicts and the mentally ill.

That is what has happened in Sacramento and other CA towns that made the same mistake.

University Ave is bad enough-why make it worse.

Comparisons with Boulder are not valid, Boulder has a freezing climate in fall, winter and early spring-not attractive to the indigent beggars-among other major demographic and major economic differences.

University Ave will become Hogarth s " Gin Lane"

Web Link

as a result of your proposal

Posted by Johnny, a resident of ,
on Nov 28, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Where I grew up, in the suburb of a large city (that ends with "...ago"), they did exactly what you are talking about, but they did it in the 70's. That's how it was until I was in about 7th grade, when the merchants complained that it was killing business. After some debate, the ped-mall was bulldozed, and the street ran through again (as it had before the 70's).
There are some benefits. It was a nice place to walk around. I remember it fondly. I think the idea is probably just impractical in this day and age. I can imagine the building owners complaining (or likely suing) that they wouldn't get as much rent, which might be true.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 4:01 am

I think a University Avenue Pedestrian Mall is a great idea. Ped-only streets are common all over the world, why wouldn't one work in Palo Alto?

Could this be done temporarily (say, for a week at least) to see if it would work? Maybe more people would visit and spend money downtown. Maybe the traffic patterns wouldn't be so much different. How can we know unless we try?

A far less drastic change to University that should be considered is changing the timing of the signals. They are timed for a "green wave" of 25 mph, so if one could theoretically drive or bicycle at that speed, one would never have to stop at a red light. But of course 25 mph is impractically fast on University through downtown, so you end up getting stuck at a red light at least twice on your way through. Perhaps change the signal timing to 15 mph, the speed both motorists and bicyclists actually travel?

Posted by Anon., a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 11:11 am

> Impractical. We need every street we can possibly get to move traffic through this town.

I agree with this, though study of the idea might possibly prove otherwise. For driving and parking cars still have to go through Palo Alto and without some kind of traffic relief this would make things worse, and push people from even going downtown at all. People would get desperate and impatient and be speeding and driving crazy all around this thing making it unsafe. If people do not go downtown the downtown area is not going to thrive.

If there was some way to put an artery up from 101 to Alma that would be different. Expand Willow or Embarcadero, but there is no way for either one to change much. The best solution is to have more and easier Palo Alto parking. Turning University into a Mall seems like it would look nice, but I think the reality would be that it would not work and do permanent damage to downtown.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 11:27 am

FYI Boulder downtown has 2 major highways (119 and 36) directly adjacent to it's pedestrian downtown. Both are very busy high-traffic arteries. The highways are 2 short blocks away, the equivalent distance of Forest Street and Everett Street relative to University Ave.

If you want to have University and Santa Cruz become pedestrian only, where does the 101 traffic go? Or, is demolishing 101 part of the Palo Alto Plan?

Posted by sigh, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 11:28 am

I used to think this was a good idea. However, having lived near downtown for a number of years, the current model works best.
Trying to send cars up Lytton instead of University is going to cause havoc. It's bad enough when they have the parade/downtown street fair. Living with that permanently would be a traffic nightmare.
The current solution allows for drive-through traffic. Turning it into a mall isn't going to improve anything apart for a few people that may want to wander from side to side.
This topic was brought up a number of times and it's been pointed out that a number of towns that tried this have been digging up their malls.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm

And how would you prevent all of those cars from continuing down/up Hamilton into the residential area on the other side of Middlefield? Same question for Lytton/Palo Alto Avenue?

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I don't see why University is thought of as a through street from 101 - 280, or even Middlefield - ECR. I know I do my best to avoid University unless I have to, I usually go in through Hamilton and park in one of the lots there.

Through traffic should not be using University, it doesn't make any sense. Even signs on 101 for Stanford are showing Embarcadero as the sensible way to get to Stanford campus or shopping center.

I suspect most of the University Avenue traffic is not through traffic but residential or employee of downtown, or those wanting to visit downtown.

Is there anyway that it can be definitively determined if traffic is local or through traffic?

Posted by sigh, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Any event/game going on at Stanford turns University Ave into a parking lot.
Embarcadero is much better to anyone that knows but a lot of people still get off at University.

Posted by Joe, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 7:11 pm

> Is there anyway that it can be definitively determined
> if traffic is local or through traffic?

This is easily done with automatic license plate readers. The plate numbers could be looked up off-line, and the city/zip codes retrieved from the vechicle data base of all California vehicles.

Posted by Joe, a resident of ,
on Nov 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm

> Unfortunately MOVING traffic contributes very little to either
> the economic welfare of businesses on University Ave or to
> the ambience of the urban space

Traffic has to MOVE to get to downtown PA. And those vehicles bring shoppers, and merchandise. It's absurb to claim that vehicle traffic moving up/down University (even the segment in downtown) does not contribute to the economy of downtown.

Retail is dying in downtown now--and doing anything to rock the boat would be crazy.

Posted by Marianne, a resident of ,
on Dec 2, 2012 at 8:17 am

We have more than one business on University Avenue, and we are all for this idea. Whenever people say that business fear decreased in traffic because of the closure, they are talking about a handful of loud mouths, not the overwhelming majority of businesses.



Posted by happylawyer, a resident of ,
on Dec 2, 2012 at 9:11 am

The idea will kick off plenty of lawsuits against the city depend on which road the traffic takes to route!

Posted by Garrett, a resident of ,
on Dec 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm

What might not work in one city might just work in another. Try closing University Ave for a limited time, improvements made over time. It seems traffic, cars and road space is more important then people.

Posted by Toady, a resident of ,
on Dec 4, 2012 at 11:52 am

Are you guys up for upsizing the parking garages around Palo Alto to handle the parking lost on University? Or maybe everyone in Downtown North and University South won't mind having even more cars vulturing for parking space.

Everything has an unintended consequence....

BTW, people get off at University to get to Stanford because, perhaps, the name of the Avenue is "University?" Not to mention the main entrance for Stanford is, oh, by the way, directly off University.

Pedestrian malls require good public transportation to really work. And that's something we don't have. Caltrain? What a joke.

Posted by phoenix envy, a resident of ,
on Dec 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm

A far more sure bet as far as making a strolling shopping district is just to make California more like Castro, which it's been crying out for for 25 years. I certainly hope that it's finally happening.

Posted by Nick Baldo, a resident of ,
on Dec 9, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Thank you, sir, for writing this. Cars on University Avenue are an unwelcome disaster that turns what should be a welcoming environment into a dangerous and stressful one. The nicest cities and towns the world over are what they are because of a pedestrian focus that is as old as urbanization itself. A University Avenue Ped mall is a no brainer and a great first step.

Posted by Carol Gilbert, a resident of ,
on Dec 12, 2012 at 10:36 am

I think reducing lanes and streets is a bad idea for managing traffic. My first recommendation for University Ave. is to disallow left turns. That's what backs up traffic the most. If you have to go left, loop around the block to the right.

Posted by MadamPresident, a resident of ,
on Dec 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm

sigh, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood is right

others, it's not only connection to 101, but the only one direct to Dumbarton bridge

Posted by random idea, a resident of ,
on Dec 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Prob rejected off the get go, but what about a tunnel under the pedestrian mall for the "through" traffic

Posted by Found A Better Way, a resident of ,
on Dec 19, 2012 at 9:16 am

For decades they warned us: "If the number of cars keeps increasing, we are in for huge traffic snarls in the future"

Welcome to the future.

That new Mercedes looks great sitting in bumper to bumper must really enjoy it, but I couldn't stand it so I got out of my car. More power to ya if you love sitting in your car, but don't say you weren't warned about the traffic issues. We have reached a sort of critical mass and no amount of road redesign will fix it.

Posted by Christina, a resident of ,
on Dec 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm

This is a fantastic idea that will bring the good kind of traffic: foot traffic and bicyclists. I only wish that it this sort of pedestrian focus was taken more seriously when they decided to make that awful cloverleaf design around El Camino that leads straight into the downtown. It doesn't actually seem that bad for pedestrians, but it's a nightmare for bicyclists (read: lazy students from Stanford who were barely convinced not to drive).

Posted by pat, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm

> ?Unfortunately MOVING traffic contributes very little to either the economic welfare of businesses on University Ave or to the ambience of the urban space."

I agree with Joe, who says, ?Traffic has to MOVE to get to downtown PA. And those vehicles bring shoppers, and merchandise??

By definition, traffic is "moving." Do businesses agree that traffic does not contribute to their economic welfare?

As for "urban space," I?m tired of so many City Hall denizens pushing new urbanism. Many of us prefer to live in suburbia, which Palo Alto has long been. We don?t want dense housing, office parks and tall buildings.


How many business owners do you represent, Marianne?

> ?This is a fantastic idea that will bring the good kind of traffic: foot traffic and bicyclists.?

Here we go again: ?Pedestrians and bicyclists good, car drivers bad." Ask the merchants if they could survive without customers who drive? If they can, we should just ban cars from the entire downtown area.

Posted by Anon., a resident of ,
on Dec 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

People driving through the area will just be displaced from University to the other streets ... adding traffic and noise and pollution to Hamilton and Lytton and further out.

Maybe this could work if you made them both one-way and created a big circle around University with plenty of parking garages so people could drive to the proximity of where they want to go and park easily. But if you buy something large ... how do you get it back to your car? How do trucks get in to service businesses on University?

Posted by SallyP, a resident of ,
on Dec 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm

I have to agree with Sharon that this idea would lead to way more homeless people sitting around in even larger groups and making the downtown environment even more uncomfortable to visit.

Posted by the changing times, a resident of ,
on Dec 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Passed through town the other day for a holiday visit after being away awhile. What's with all the "activity" (um, dudes with bottles in bags, loitering, just hanging out, etc.) around the 7-11 and the green space across the way. Dudes just sittin around on the bench outside the former Lytton Roasting Coffee Co. Didn't use to be like that. Now I'm reading about all of these liquor store robberies. WTH? Heard about all these assaults downtown. Palo Alto is on a slippery slope.

Posted by RoyS, a resident of ,
on Dec 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

This pedestrian mall idea on University Avenue was tried 30 or more years ago. It was a disaster, because of the inadequate turning room at the corners. A counter-clockwise pattern was established that took north-bound University Avenue vehicle traffic onto High Street, with a left turn onto one-way Hamilton Avenue. The one-way traffic turned left onto Cowper or Webster Street (I can't remember which) offering an opportunity to turn right onto University Avenue. South-bound University Avenue traffic, from Middlefield Avenue and US 101 were forced right onto Cowper or Webster for a left turn onto a south-bound one-way Lytton Avenue. The counter-clockwise one-way pattern continued with the left turn on Hamilton Avenue, allowing for a right turn onto University Avenue.

The narrow roads, restrictions of roads across the railroad tracks, and the effective loss of a traffic lane for turns to and from University made for severe traffic congestion. This was done at a time when the number of vehicles was significantly less than today.

Please stop all thoughts of a pedestrian mall on University Avenue, because is has already been proven to be an impediment to vehicle traffic moving between El Camino and Bayshore. With less vehicles entering the area, the merchants will again suffer business loss.

Spoken with the voice of experience. I was there. I saw it fail.

Posted by pedestrian , a resident of ,
on Jan 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Check out how San Francisco is making Fisherman's Wharf into a pedestrian friendly zone. No reason Palo Alto cannot do the same. Web Link

Posted by Anon., a resident of ,
on Jan 4, 2013 at 1:13 am

Fisherman's Wharf is nothing like University Ave ... at least in San Fransisco they have whole giant buildings full of parking spaces, and no one needs to get though or around Fisherman's Wharf ... it fronts against the bay. You post makes no sense pedestrian.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Vietnamese restaurant that may offer special menu for canine customers coming to former Wahlburgers site in Palo Alto
By The Peninsula Foodist | 4 comments | 3,884 views

I Was At The Stanford Shooting. Let’s Do Better Next Time
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 2,910 views

The clothes we wear: Cool, chic, casual -- or just plain sloppy?
By Diana Diamond | 31 comments | 2,492 views

Some of the best jobs around
By Sherry Listgarten | 4 comments | 2,149 views

People and Relationships Never Stop Being a Work in Progress
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,062 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 29 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away more than $9 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.