News

University and California avenues will stay car-free through September

City Council to consider design changes at commercial strips to support dining scene

Diners eat at tables on the street along California Avenue in Palo Alto on June 25, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

What's local journalism worth to you?

Support Palo Alto Online for as little as $5/month.

Join

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.

Diners eat outside by the strip of restaurants on a car-free University Avenue on June 27, 2020. Photo by Lloyd Lee.

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.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

"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."

'I think we should use this crisis as an opportunity to make change.'

-Alison Cormack, city council member, Palo Alto

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.

A front row seat to local high school sports.

Check out our new newsletter, the Playbook.

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Stay informed on important city government news. Sign up for our FREE daily Express newsletter.

University and California avenues will stay car-free through September

City Council to consider design changes at commercial strips to support dining scene

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 23, 2021, 12:25 am

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.

Comments

some other information
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 23, 2021 at 10:48 am
some other information, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 10:48 am

I sat through most of the meeting last night and spoke for keeping Cal Ave closed, and available for outdoor dining, permanently. Others will weigh in on why, but I wanted to compliment PAW's reporter, Gennady Sheyner, who has done a superb job here at summarizing the most important elements from over 2 hours of staff presentation, about 15 comments from the public, and different councilmembers' perspectives and analysis. Those who didn't have time to sit through all that can simply read this story and get 80% of the benefit. This is top-notch local journalism that makes me (yet again) glad to be a PAW subscriber. Thank you!


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Jun 23, 2021 at 11:00 am
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 11:00 am

If the council works for the public and 95% of the public wants streets closed to cars and it doesn't create a traffic nightmare the discussion should be short and implementation soon. Please do not debate this for years. It's what we want!


Andy
Registered user
Stanford
on Jun 23, 2021 at 12:08 pm
Andy, Stanford
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 12:08 pm

Closing streets sounds great for people who hate cars and like the idea of dining outside but it’s not wise public policy.

In addition to adversely affecting certain businesses by reduced access, it also means more difficultly for elderly and disabled who might typically get dropped off or park next to the business.

Ideally, streets would have been designed for bigger sidewalks AND cars but the solution for dining is NOT on the street.

Parklets sound great…until you get hit by a car.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2021 at 12:41 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 12:41 pm

This has to be a good move although there are some good points being raised about why it is not.

Diners will vote with their feet. If they cannot find what they want in Palo Alto, they will go elsewhere to get their patio dining fix. Online shopping has taken over from physical stores apart from perhaps impulse purchases. Patio dining may well be taking over from sitting inside crowded restaurants on Summer evenings. Only time will tell.


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:39 pm
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:39 pm

Andy,
Please explain "not wise public policy." Thanks


Evergreen Park
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:48 pm
Evergreen Park, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:48 pm

I am one person who lives in Evergreen Park who is not in favor of keeping Cal Ave closed UNLESS the City develops a better plan. It very tonic that a lot of people who like to be car-free Sri w thru my neighborhood to get there - racing past Leers Park, usually failing to stop at stop signs - almost running me over twice - and causing a great loss if business to treasures stores. Molly’s Stone’s says that it cannot keep its store open with the street closure. I would hate to lose Mollie Stone’s so that people can drive across town to eat in the street. Several restaurants aren’t even open for lunch, so the City is depriving other retailers of business all day for only a few resaturants. I treasure the Cobblery and Leaf and Petal. Closing the street at night is one thing. Closing it all day with no traffic plan to protect the neighbors or to help those going to other stores find parking and actually get there is another. It would help if the City planned more carefully and was considerate. Please Mr Burt, but live performances next to your house.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:50 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:50 pm

It's easy for those of us who don't have to deal with any of the downsides from closure to demand that it be made permanent. But a long-time acquaintance who owns a non-restaurant business on University tells me that the closure has made things worse.

When traffic rises back to pre-pandemic levels, we would have to re-route the 12000 cars per day that normally use University. Experience shows that when University is slow (not even completely closed) those cars spill over onto the streets of the adjacent neighborhoods. I sometimes read suggestions that Hamilton and Lytton could be made one-way, but they already carry 8000 cars/day (Hamilton) and 11000 cars/day (Lytton); they don't have the capacity to deal with University's traffic too. Redesigning/rebuilding the intersections at Middlefield and Alma would be a multi-year project by itself.

I keep reading that State law prohibits permanent local closure of arterial streets, though I have yet to see a reference to confirm that. I understand that public property can't be turned over to private use without a fee, something that many restaurants might not be able to afford. And many restaurants won't survive anyway unless daytime workers return in full numbers.

I get the sense from their reports that Staff is aware of all this. I guess the problems are fixable, but probably not quickly or cheaply. On the whole, it's a very tricky decision, and I'm glad I'm not one of the people who has to make it.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 23, 2021 at 2:20 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for the traffic counts above. Maybe you can send them to our highly paid city transportation and planning staff since they claimed their latest counts were from 2016.

These are the same types of outdated numbers they use to claim 1) We've got no traffic problems in Palo Alto; take alternate routes (Liz Kniss), 2) We've got no traffic problem around Casti on Embarcadero based on our numbers and the always memorable, 3) Not to worry; no one wants cars or parking and the classic 4) Oh, we didn't factor in increased POPULATION numbers either when we decided to marrow the roads, invest in road furniture etc. and 5) Express lane tolls will decease congestion.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Jun 23, 2021 at 2:45 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 2:45 pm

@Online Name: Probably Staff and I are using the same numbers. The ones I quoted are from the "2017 Engineering and Traffic Survey" published by the City (Web Link The University Ave measurement was done in August 2016. You're right; the post-recovery numbers are likely to be higher because of growth after 2016. More people means more cars.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 23, 2021 at 3:41 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 3:41 pm

[Post removed due to inaccurate factual citations.]


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.