College Terrace Market, the longed-for grocery store at 2100 El Camino Real in Palo Alto, finally opened on June 14, but the hoped-for crowds of customers have been slow to materialize.
After a promising opening day, the market initially averaged only about 60 customers a day, said Ron Jensen, the market's director of operations. In the last couple of weeks, that number has grown as employees have moved into the First Republic Bank offices in the center's upper floors.
But Miki Werness, one of the market's partners, estimated the market needs more than 200 customers per day to thrive. He said he did not anticipate that a summer opening would be so slow, adding that he anticipates many more customers will come with the start of the school year.
The shaky start — and other factors potentially conspiring against the market — has customers and neighbors in College Terrace concerned. Under the planned community (PC) ordinance by which the College Terrace Centre development must abide, a grocery store has to be located in the 8,000-square-foot space, whether it's financially thriving or not.
Many residents have said that no one knows the market is there, despite its location on busy El Camino between Oxford and College avenues.
"There's not a lot of pedestrian traffic here, and that's always concerning," said Paul Hansen, who works from his home in the nearby Evergreen Park neighborhood and only recently noticed the market had opened. He began frequenting the store just this last week, crossing El Camino to get sushi there.
The market's lack of clear signage, residents and customer said, is an immediate threat to the grocery store's bottom line. But the City of Palo Alto also is allowing a competitor to open in the center: First Republic Bank, which is the primary tenant in the two buildings, is plunking down more than $700,000 to build a cafeteria for its employees. The cafeteria will offer a deli, bread and salad stations, sundries, coffee, hot food and soup — just as College Terrace Market does.
Stanford University also plans to add a small convenience store to its new Escondido Village housing development a few blocks away.
The market does have three signs: Two logos — a red apple in the shape of a "C" with shopping-cart wheels and a green apple-leaf handle — with "Market" in black block letters below affixed near the top of a 40-plus-foot spire at the corner of Oxford. Above the store's corner entrance is a third logo sign with the words "College Terrace Market."
But they lack visibility: Pedestrians said the spire signs are too high up; customers note that the entrance sign is in an alcove hidden behind the spire's base.
Along the front, the store's windows are tinted, making it difficult to tell what kind of business is inside and obscuring another sign posted on the inside of the front window.
By contrast, First Republic has aggressively branded itself with six large green signs — one that covers two sides of the building — three banners and two stately flag poles.
"The market does not stand out. The bank suffocates the store. There are too many signs," College Terrace resident Ann Lafargue Balin said.
Diane Finkelstein, another resident, agreed.
"You have to know the market is there to even discover the current sign," she wrote in an email. "The city should make the bank take down the huge sign over the market, and it should be replaced with one for the market so it is visible from El Camino."
Russ Reich, Palo Alto development-services planning manager, said the College Terrace Centre can have multiple signs, but the city has not received any such signage applications from the building owner or the market. Previous sign requests have been approved after about two months, according to city records.
Werness said the store's partners are planning to add a large sign to the building's El Camino facade. They've added a banner along the railing of the front dining patio to direct traffic to the center's underground parking garage, which has an entrance on El Camino.
In addition to the signage issue, also somewhat puzzling to the store's neighbors, is the bank's planned cafeteria.
Hillary Gitelman, Palo Alto director of planning and community environment, said the city can veto things such as cafeterias and other competing uses when projects are in the planning stages. The city has discretion over employee cafeterias when they are offered to ensure workers don't drive during lunch, creating traffic, and to justify a reduction in required parking spaces.
"The city reviews new development projects that propose employee amenities such as cafeterias, and in recent years we have not supported cafeterias where there are retail uses and services nearby because we want office tenants to patronize nearby businesses. Where there are not retail and services nearby, we have supported employee cafeterias as a way to reduce vehicle trips, because it means employees don't have to get in their car and drive to lunch," Gitleman stated.
"In this case, the cafeteria was proposed by the applicant as an amenity unrelated to any reduction in parking. Thus the city didn't see a justification for denying the request," she stated.
But customers expressed dismay that the cafeteria will be opening.
"I'm kind of horrified to learn they are allowing a cafeteria to go into the building," said a neatly dressed, 40s-ish lawyer from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati who declined to give his name. "It was hard to get someone in here in the first place. You'd like to see the planning process account for that and give the store the advantage to survive."
He's walked from his Page Mill Road office to the market for lunch every third day since it opened, passing a no-man's land of office buildings, apartments and small storefronts. He could eat at fast-food joints along El Camino or head to a California Avenue restaurant. But instead he makes his way past the Jack in the Box drive-through and the cars weaving in and out of the Shell gas station.
First Republic has cafeterias in all of its large offices, according to bank spokesman Greg Berardi.
"It keeps all employees closer and in the neighborhood, and it brings them closer to the market. The bank is already actively working to support the market and will continue to do so," he said.
The bank and the market are working on a number of initiatives together, he added. He declined to elaborate on the joint initiatives.
Residents at a College Terrace Residents Association meeting in early June also expressed concern over a proposed Escondido Village market on the Stanford campus. But Stanford spokeswoman Jean McCown said this week the 1,900-square-foot convenience store would be similar to one that exists in the Munger graduate student housing today.
"It is not sized to be a full-service grocery store, but what will be provided has not yet been determined and is a few years out," she said.
Within College Terrace, the market has its supporters. Lafargue Balin's family has lived in College Terrace since 1926, and her grandmother and aunt went to now-shuttered JJ&F Market.
"We need this neighborhood spot to foster community in the neighborhood. Not to whine, but we have lost so much of the character of College Terrace with constant construction and crushing cut-through traffic that it is sweet to have a market in our neighborhood," she said.
Husband Fred Balin said the new market is "a worthy successor to the beloved JJ&F," but now that the market has opened, the community must come out to support it and help it succeed.
He called on the property owner to bring businesses into the vacant, adjacent 5,000-square-foot retail space that will draw customers to the center and on the store managers to effectively run the market itself.
College Terrace Market has the potential to be a great community gathering space, said the Wilson Sonsini attorney, who extolled its sandwiches as he sat at one of the patio picnic tables under a red-and-black umbrella.
"I think when the school year starts there will be kids wandering in for lunch. ... But as word gets out, there also will be longer lines."
That's good for the market but not so good for him, he said.
"My concerns are entirely selfish. I want them to stick around."