With garage construction continuing, Cal. Ave. businesses say they're between a rock and a hard place | News | Palo Alto Online |


With garage construction continuing, Cal. Ave. businesses say they're between a rock and a hard place

Owners, managers say fewer customers are coming in and revenues are dropping

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Anthony Haggard, store manager for FedEx's Palo Alto office of California Avenue, is concerned construction work for a new parking garage on Birch Street will harm his store. Photo taken Feb. 6 by Sammy Dallal.

Ten months into the construction of a 630-space parking garage in the California Avenue business district in Palo Alto, business owners and managers who lobbied for it say that foot traffic and sales have declined by whopping percentages — as much as 30% in the last year.

The garage is replacing a parking lot on Sherman Avenue between Birch and Ash streets, eliminating those 100 parking spaces during construction. Retailers say that customers are having a harder time finding a place to park, which is discouraging them from coming.

Restaurant owners are among the hardest hit.

"Year over year until last year, we had grown pretty much every year. This year we're off more than 20%. Lately we've been off more than that, even. It's really significant," said Peter Katz, owner of The Counter, which specializes in custom-made burgers.

Almost all of the decline coincided with the start of the garage construction, he said. The Counter is probably affected more than others because the construction is taking place is directly behind the restaurant, he said.

"The farther away you get, there are other parking areas. We're ground zero," he said.

Michael Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, which is a block west of The Counter, said his lunch business has declined by 20%, though at night, the impact is not as significant.

"Amongst other things, people are just not willing to drive around for however long it takes them to find a spot if they have a limited time for lunch," he said.

The restaurant has always grown for 21 years, he said, but "last year was the first year we noticed a significant impact."

Restaurants also have faced mandatory wage increases and other challenges.

"For us that significant increase in minimum wage — it's 60% in four years — that's huge. To add onto it a decrease in foot traffic is a little bit challenging," he said.

At Zareen's, which is next to The Counter, owner Zareen Khan said she estimates her business is off about 10%, but she's hopeful that fortunes will change once the garage opens. That's scheduled for late summer or early fall.

"In general, people are scared of parking on California Avenue. Even before (the garage construction), they said: 'It's easier to come to your Mountain View location than to keep looking for parking.' The impact was there and now there's a little more impact. But once the parking lot is there, hopefully people's mindset will change," she said.

Like Khan, Ekwall and Katz said they support having the new garage.

"We lobbied for more parking and the city approved it. Everybody's thrilled with that," Katz said.

But then, "it became obvious it was going to be an 18-month project, and we got very concerned," he said.

The restaurants aren't the only ones suffering.

Blossom Birth Services' Executive Director Dominique Vincent said that since construction began the nonprofit has experienced a 30% hit to its bottom line, the equivalent of about one month of revenue.

"That's a significant amount of money over last year. We were on track for growth, and last year there was no growth," she said.

Many mothers who come for classes arrive late because they can't find parking.

Anthony Haggard, store manager at FedEx Office, said his business has been hit by a confluence of factors, including the garage construction.

The parking lot directly behind the store, which is a block east of The Counter, was initially used for parking construction equipment and vehicles. That prevented customers from coming in FedEx's back door, which is how 75% of customers enter, he said. On top of that, the store was doing a remodel at the same time.

"Last year we missed $500,000 from our bottom-line sales," he said. "Customers in Palo Alto don't like to be inconvenienced."

Businesses with dedicated parking behind their stores, such as Summit Bicycles and California Paint Company, are faring better, however.

Jeff Davidson, owner of California Paint Company, said that from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., every parking space is taken on the street and public lots and garages. The five dedicated parking spaces behind the store are a saving grace.

"Without that, I couldn't have a paint store here. Painters won't drive around looking for a spot," he said.

Rory Shannon, sales manager at Summit Bicycles, noted that while his store hasn't seen a decline, he understands the impact of long-term construction projects on small businesses. In San Francisco where he lives, the street has been torn up for four years.

"I've seen many, many businesses close," he said.

Startups are also being affected. Kelli Mullen, office manager for BitGo, which is located a half-block from the construction site, said there is constant hammering and loud noise. Parking is a huge problem if one doesn't get to the area by a certain time, and city parking-enforcement officers relentlessly ticket people if they overstay the two-hour time limit, she said.

"We always ask customers to come in a half hour early and give them a parking pass," she said

The passes are only good for a particular day, though, so each day Mullin must go down to City Hall in downtown Palo Alto to get new passes, she said.

Ekwall said the impact mirrors that of the streetscape work that took place six years ago when parking was also limited. Ekwall said business did recover, but slowly.

"When you have a reduction in your sales, whether it's 5 to 10%, it could be basically all of your profitability. I think that's pretty significant," he said of restaurants.

Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, wondered whether customers who are going elsewhere during construction will ever come back.

"Fingers crossed they don't form new habits. That's a concern for small businesses," she said, adding that "there's a lot of businesses that would appreciate people coming down.

"Parking really isn't bad but the perception is that it's bad. If you have one bad experience and come down and search for parking for awhile and don't find it, you just don't come back," he said.

Those customers visiting the district have a more forgiving outlook on the construction. On Wednesday during the bustling lunchtime, customers told the Weekly they weren't perturbed by the construction. Many said they take alternative transportation such as Uber or Caltrain to come to the area and others said they live within walking distance.

"I leave the house a little early," Deanna Wong said. The parking issue caused by construction is "a temporary obstacle. I still love this community," she said.

Barbara Stephik, who was enjoying lunch outdoors with her husband, Mark, said she has a "parking goddess."

"We've been very lucky. When we come here, we just get spots," she said, pointing to their car, which was just steps from their table.

Mark Stephik said parking issues won't deter them from continuing to frequent California Avenue businesses.

"At Stanford Shopping Center and Town & Country everything is very pricey. This street is more affordable and has a more interesting mix of things," he said.

City spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said staff attends monthly meetings of the California Avenue Business Association to update the group on the construction progress and discuss ideas for minimizing construction impacts. The city is leasing Santa Clara County's parking lot at the corner of Grant Avenue and Birch for public parking, reconfiguring the lot behind FedEx (between Birch and Park Boulevard on Sherman) to add more parking, obtaining 44 day permits for construction personnel to park in the Caltrain parking lot and is offering free valet parking from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the lot behind FedEx.

The city is also installing temporary signage to direct motorists to the available parking and has a free shuttle bus, SPRGo!, from Stanford Research Park, she said in an email.

Retailers are hunkering down for the long term, though. Come the fall, following the completion of the new garage, the city will start construction of the new public safety building in the lot behind FedEx. That's expected to end in 2023.

The new garage should provide adequate parking during the police headquarters' construction, Horrigan-Taylor said.


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23 people like this
Posted by Neighbors
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 8:18 am

I thought the new urbanism planning fairies make everything right when there is no parking.

There’s always El Camino which is now pretty much a parking lot most of the day... New urbanism planning fairies will fix everything by turning people into coral who can’t move from their spot in their high rise building.

I find this article interesting since I have gone to Cal Ave less myself because of the flight of longtime businesses and the city’s obvious attempt to turn it into Univ Ave Mini me, I.e. another unneeded office park that will displace store fronts with gyms and cafeterias.

I will make a point of frequenting my favorite businesses again, but I have no choice but to drive. (Just pointing out that Uber isn’t really rude share and an Uber picking me up does more driving than me driving point to point. San Francisco has realized it’s traffic woes are from circling “rideshares”. Not exactly better environmentally. Just saying.)

Getting serious, my heart goes out to the businesses on Cal Ave - see ya soon.

15 people like this
Posted by Get rid of all parking
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:51 am

They pushed for the garage, now they are whining? How Palo alto. Shouldn't the plan be too get rid of all parking near California Avenue, so then people will bike and walk? Isn't that the Palo alto way?

32 people like this
Posted by California Avenue Like Downtown PA...Ruined
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:59 am

Palo Alto simply should have left the California Avenue area ALONE. It was doing OK before all of this new parking-related mess.

Like Leland Stanford...go take your neurosis somewhere else.

22 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 10:07 am

>> foot traffic and sales have declined by whopping percentages.

It is all the millennials speeding down the sidewalks on their scooters and segways and etc. Too dangerous to walk into and out of businesses.

8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:10 am

'It's easier to come to your Mountain View location than to keep looking for parking." You have to be kidding! I am never able to find parking spot at lunch time. Mountain View is far worse than University or California Ave...

20 people like this
Posted by A sweet ride...
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:49 am

I live on the Mountain View border. It takes exactly 17 minutes to bike from my home to Cal Avenue on a flat, shady, mostly car-free route down Park Boulevard--a pleasant, leisurely ride. Even before the project, it was faster to bike there than to drive and find parking.

The people who lobbied for building this parking garage are now worried about the impacts of its construction. Something of this scale takes time to construct. This can't really be a surprise. Talk with your landlords who will be the long-term beneficiaries of this tax-payer funded project. Maybe they will give you a break on your rent through the construction period.

Just imagine if the city had spent those many tens of millions of tax dollars on affordable housing for people, instead of housing for parked cars. This is just one small example of how taxpayer dollars subsidize America's driving habit.

Let's please consider trying alternatives to driving as often as possible.

BTW...We need more bike parking on Cal Ave. I like to bike there, but secure bike parking supply is inadequate at certain times of day and during the Farmer's Market.

24 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 7, 2020 at 12:15 pm

We wish the city would build a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the Caltrain tracks from Midtown (maybe near Colorado Ave) to the California Ave train station. Not everyone wants to drive a car to get to the businesses on California Ave. The county changed the timing on the pedestrian crossing lights on Oregon Expressway, so walking to that tunnel on the north side of the expressway is now much slower and walking across the expressway is really scary even when you have the green light. This bridge would be way cheaper than a new parking garage and would bring in many new customers without all the car congestion.

5 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 7, 2020 at 1:46 pm


I still drive down for breakfast at Joanie's. I go early and generally find a parking spot close by. The new parking garage has been a small inconvenience in my life because I used to park there where the construction is going on.

21 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 6:05 pm

The parking garage is being built to help commercial property owners and real-estate developers NOT residents and merchants.

For residents and merchants it is going to be all pain and NO gain. Don't be fooled by the propaganda coming out of the real-estate industry city and city hall.

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 7, 2020 at 8:07 pm

This garage project didn't come out of the blue. Why didn't nearby businesses plan for the possibility of reduced patronage? This couldn't be a surprise, honestly. These business will naturally fare better when parking becomes available in the fall. Incidentally, the last two times I went into the Fedex store, the wait at the counter was so long that I decided to go to another location; the parking wasn't an issue.

15 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2020 at 10:49 pm

Those poor merchants had to put up with the long, drawn out and costly sidewalk refurbishing where they also lost patronage and revenues. After a lot of excuses from the city, they finally got a mere pittance in compensation. You'd think the city would have learned from this. but no.

Too bad our highly paid visionaries couldn't anticipate the problems BEFORE they created them.

Echoing the posters saying it's easier and faster to go to other towns to dine and shop. I can get to the Menlo Park Trader Joe's much faster than the one in Town & Country that's 1 1/4 miles away. (Insert rant about the long-standing traffic light problems which our transportation czars have promised to address just as soon as they can meet with the "stakeholders"_

10 people like this
Posted by Anon, what's your point?
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 8, 2020 at 10:24 am

Anon of Old Palo Alto responded to Zareen Khan's quote (of *customers* who'd said 'It's easier to come to your Mountain View location than to keep looking for parking') as follows:

'You have to be kidding! I am never able to find parking spot at lunch time. Mountain View is far worse than University or California Ave...'

(1) Besides presuming that the quoted customers were somehow kidding, do you even refer to the same location Zareen did? (Her original restaurant, near Google and the Sports Page bar.) Fair amount of dedicated parking there, since those are the only hospitality businesses.

(2) Anon's comment I just quoted carelessly lumps together all of MV, but if it means the downtown restaurant cluster, the many mid-block parking lots and two multi-story free garages are very seldom filled mid-day *except* an hour or so between 12 and 1 when they are filled up by people going there at the most popular time possible. Come at 11:40AM or 1:30PM weekdays, you'll have no trouble parking. It has worked for decades.

If you insist on going at the worst possible time, then you are adding to the very problem you complain about.

4 people like this
Posted by lunchtime woes
a resident of Los Altos
on Feb 9, 2020 at 3:05 pm

It doesn't help when you come for lunch and get ticketed $49 for parking in the center "permit" section. The signs are posted way at the end of the row. That has turned me off from going there again for lunch.

8 people like this
Posted by Merchant
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 9, 2020 at 3:53 pm

The merchants on Cal Ave did understand from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult period during construction and worked with the City to the best of our abilities to mitigate the impact. Our community is an amalgamation of residents, restaurants, small and large businesses and workers, all of which contribute to making it such a wonderful place to be. The merchants are only saying that this is a difficult time and we would all appreciate your patronage to make it a little easier.

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