Palo Alto's effort to promote an eclectic and independent retail mix on California Avenue by limiting chain stores in the city's "second downtown" took a big step toward reality on Wednesday night when the Planning and Transportation Commission gave the proposal its unanimous blessing.
The 7-0 vote, which followed a long discussion over the details of the ordinance, came despite concerns from some commissioners about the details of the new proposal and a wide variety of concerns by individual members.
Commissioner Mark Michael, for example, proposed that franchises be excluded, something that the rest of the commission did not go along with. Commissioner Kate Downing, meanwhile, wondered why the city's revised definition of "allowed retail" expressly excludes nails salons and barber shops and argued that the city should not be trying to limit these establishments.
These cavils notwithstanding, the commission generally agreed that the general push toward promoting fewer chain stores on California Avenue is the right approach. Once the council reviews and approves the ordinance, it would cement beyond the current two-year timeframe the retail restrictions on California Avenue, which is at the epicenter of the city's hot construction climate.
The new ordinance applies to retail businesses, including restaurants, with 10 or more business locations in the United States. It also extends the retail district to Cambridge Avenue, which runs parallel to California Avenue.
"While Palo Alto has several commercial areas which currently house large scale formula retail businesses, the City of Palo Alto desires to retain and foster an eclectic, vibrant and diverse collection of retail and personal services establishments in the California Avenue area in particular," the new ordinance states.
The unanimous vote was notable given the commission's recent split with the City Council on other major issues, including reforms to the "planned-community" zoning and the proposal to create an annual office cap in downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
On Monday night, as the council discussed the planned-community reforms, the commission was chided for an apparent "disconnect" between the council's direction and the recommendation of the commission, whose role is to advise the council.
Councilman Pat Burt described the commission's recommendation of planned-community reforms (which would have permitted, among other things, developer payments for zoning exemptions) as the "opposite" of the council's direction.
"There seems to be a very strong disconnect between what the commission recommended or even considered and what the council gave as guidance, given that you as a commission are appointed by the council to advise the council according to the direction we provide and your best judgment," Burt said.
Similarly, the council and the planning commission have been out of step on the subject of the city's cap on office growth, which the council unanimously agreed to pursue earlier in the year but which the commission vehemently opposed at its meeting in July.
On Wednesday night, the commission reluctantly voted to support the office cap proposal by a 4-2 vote, with commissioners Michael and Downing dissenting. The commissioners also agreed that the new office cap should not apply to areas that have been subject to "coordinated-area plans," multi-year planning processes with heavy community involvement. The issue of whether these areas should be included in the ordinance was at the center of the council's dispute about the new ordinance in June.
But when it comes to banning chain stores, everyone was more or less on the same page. Even though some commissioners had quibbles, after a long discussion everyone voted to support it.
Jessica Roth, owner of European Cobblery and a leading proponent of the chain-store limitation, urged the commission at Wednesday's meeting to support the proposal, which she said is essential to preserving California Avenue's independent character.
"I feel there are great spots in Palo Alto for big businesses -- Stanford Shopping Center and some big spots downtown," Roth said. "If we don't do anything to protect Cal Avenue, we're going to lose the small mom-and-pop shops eventually."
Even despite the unanimous vote, the commissioners varied in their level of enthusiasm for the new law.
Michael Alcheck said he was a "big fan" of the proposal to limit chain stores, while Michael said he would support it on the basis of it being "good enough." He nevertheless argued that the city's energies would be better spent on long-term planning efforts like area plans and the update of the Comprehensive Plan.
Downing, meanwhile, marveled at the new definition of permitted retail, which require nail salons, barber shops and beauty shops to acquire conditional-use permits from the city before they can set up shop on California Avenue. The clause was put in by the council out of recognition that these establishments are already plentiful in the California Avenue area.
Downing didn't buy that argument, saying, "The fact that they're there and have been there for many years tells me they're successful. It means people actually use them."
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum countered that this argument can apply equally well to a McDonald's, a Starbucks or a Subway. The whole idea of the ordinance, he said, is to "artificially maintain an eclectic mix on Cal Avenue."
At the end of the discussion, he and the rest of the commission agreed to leave unchanged the recommendation from staff, which hews closely to the guidance it received from the council in May.
"You're trying to find a way to create a multi-culture versus a monoculture," Rosenblum said.