Palo Alto's popular experiment with car-free downtown streets will stretch at least until the end of September after the City Council rejected Wednesday a proposal to reopen California and University avenues to cars sooner.
Bowing to overwhelming resident demand, the council turned down a proposal from City Manager Ed Shikada to reopen University and California avenue to cars on July 7 and Sept. 6, respectively. In voting 6-0, with Mayor Tom DuBois absent, the council members also signaled their desire to take a broader look at redesigning the popular commercial strips in the coming months and consider the optimal alignments for both of those streets, as well as for a half-block segment of Ramona Street between Hamilton and University avenues that has also been closed to traffic.
For many, the closure of University and California avenues, which the council approved a year ago to facilitate outdoor dining, has been a rare success story during a bleak period. More than 400 residents have submitted letters to the city in recent weeks urging the city to keep the streets closed to cars, while just six urged the city to restore their former alignments. And more than 95% of responders to city surveys indicated in April that they would like to extend the closures.
"There isn't a single resident in Palo Alto that I have spoken with that wants to see these streets reopened," Irene Au, a resident of Evergreen Park, wrote to the council before the Tuesday meeting. "People celebrate the vibrancy of the streets and the beautiful spaces many restaurants have invested in to increase their capacity for more people to enjoy. Suddenly these streets have become cool destinations within Palo Alto that bring people out."
But while most residents see the closure as a positive development, business owners along University Avenue have been quick to point out that the benefits of the closure are very uneven. Downtown retailers, including Lululemon Athletica, Footwear etc. and b8ta, have reported that their Palo Alto locations have seen sluggish sales when compared to their stores in other cities. Meanwhile, restaurants outside University Avenue have argued that the street's closure gives their counterparts on the main thoroughfare an unfair advantage.
Megan Kawkab, owner of The Patio, an Emerson Street bar and restaurant, was among the business leaders who spoke out against the closure of University Avenue, which she argued helps out certain businesses at the expense of others. Her business has invested more than $60,000 into its parklet, she said. But the constant flow of traffic past her restaurant makes dining outside both unpleasant and dangerous, she said.
"While the idea was noble, helping a few only to starve the others is a very dangerous position for the city to be taking," Kawkab said of the University Avenue closure.
Guillaume Bienaime, owner of Zola, a restaurant is on the corner of Bryant Street and Hamilton Avenue, concurred.
"Really, when we say we're all in this together, I think the people on University and California are in it together and the rest of us are left behind," Bienaime said.
Major downtown developers have also requested that the closed streets be reopened. Roxy Rapp, speaking on behalf of a group of developers that included John McNellis, Charles "Chop" Keenan and John Shenk, called the closure of University to cars "disastrous" and urged the council to consider other options such as parklets to facilitate outdoor dining.
"We've got to give back the roads to the cars in Palo Alto," Rapp said.
Other business owners saw things starkly differently. Nancy Coupal owns two Coupa Café shops, one on the closed stretch of Ramona Street and another on Lytton Avenue, which is open to cars. While some retailers suggested that the street closure dented their business, Coupal noted that the Lytton location has fared far worse than the Ramona one. Forcing restaurants out of the streets, she argued, would simply bring fewer people downtown.
"The people need a safe place to go to hang out, to bring their families, to bring their children, to be able to work safely, to not have cars zooming by as they dine, because nobody likes that," Coupal said.
The majority of the council shared that view. Council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone both cited the positive response they've been getting from both residents and out-of-towners. Cormack said her phone has been lighting up in recent months with texts, photos and videos of people enjoying the new downtown.
It's critical, she said, for the council to take the expressed preferences of visitors and residents into consideration.
"I think we should use this crisis as an opportunity to make change," Cormack said.
While the council's direction extends the closure of the streets to traffic, it stops well short of making the change permanent. Council members Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka both said they would like to see more data about the impact of street closures on retailers before implementing any long-term changes. The city would also need to move ahead with an environmental review before approving the street closures on a permanent basis.
DuBois, who attended the bulk of the discussion but left the meeting before the council's vote, pointed to the importance of University as a commute route and leaned toward adopting Shikada's recommendation to reopen University to cars on July 6, notwithstanding the popularity of the closures among the general public.
"It goes down to fairness," DuBois said. "There are some people who have taken a huge amount of street space. We heard from businesses that are not on the closed streets. They're basically competing with someone who has gotten a large amount of free real estate."
Kou, however, suggested that because restaurants have already made significant investments in constructing tents and parklets, the city should support them by letting them keep these structures in place at least until the end of September.
"These businesses have invested a lot into getting their business in a different model," Kou said. "I kind of want to help them. I think that as a city we should be helping them continue a little bit … before we yank it from them."
While approving the short-term extension of the street closures, the council also agreed to consider broader and more lasting changes for the commercial streets. Vice Mayor Pat Burt recommended working with the local chapter of American Institute of Architects and the city's Architectural Review Board to consider improvements to California Avenue, including establishment of performance spaces. That proposal moved ahead by a 4-2 vote, with council members Eric Filseth and Kou dissenting.
"I think it's premature getting architectural designers until we've given direction and agree as a council on what direction we want that to go in," Filseth said.
Like others, however, Filseth acknowledged the popularity of the city's nascent outdoor-dining program and suggested that he would like to see it remain in some form.
"I think there is enough demand and enough interest in the community for outdoor dining in the two downtown areas that I think we need a strategy for it," Filseth said.