The lingering pandemic continued to dominate headlines in 2021, so it's no surprise that a fair number of articles on the Palo Alto Weekly's list of most-read stories of the year are related to COVID-19 and its fallout. But that wasn't the only topic readers were interested in. Land-use issues and crime also captured people's attention, including multiple high-value retail heists and a plague of hate crimes. Complaints that a billionaire's residence was being used for business purposes also garnered plenty of interest.
Here's our curated list of stories that received the most views on Palo Alto Online during 2021.
10. Diners to give way to drivers on University
Dining al fresco came to an end on University Avenue in mid-October, when the city's main downtown thoroughfare reopened to vehicles after more than a year. The pedestrian-street format pitted restaurants, which gained ample room to accommodate customers outside, against retailers, who saw no increases in sales.
During a September meeting, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously voted to reopen University ahead of the holiday shopping season, a crucial time for retailers. At that same meeting, the council decided to keep California Avenue car-free for the foreseeable future and to make the city's parklet program, in which parking spaces are converted into outdoor dining spaces, permanent.
9. Residents-only rule for Foothills Park outlawed
The Foothills Park saga ultimately ended in January when a U.S. District Court judge issued a permanent injunction on the city, which was barred from reinstituting its residents-only policy at the preserve. The order settled a lawsuit filed by a coalition that included the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and residents from Palo Alto and other cities.
The council had earlier considered a plan to have voters decide on the park access issue in 2022, but the injunction also bans the city from sponsoring a ballot measure that "has the purpose or effect of prohibiting or restricting access to Foothills Park by nonresidents of Palo Alto."
8. Census reveals greater diversity
Few new homes and growing diversity: That's what early data from the 2020 U.S. Census showed us about Palo Alto. The decennial report confirmed that the city had grown by more than 4,000 residents since 2010 and that its racial diversity trended upward, with the Asian community leading the way. The population of multiracial persons also increased significantly in the past decade. But the data also detailed the city's slowness at facilitating the addition of new housing and identified which neighborhoods saw their housing stock actually drop.
7. Fuki Sushi owner subjected to racial-hate tirade
Lumi Gardner, owner of Fuki Sushi restaurant on El Camino Real, found herself in a tense situation with a customer who became enraged when told the business wasn't accepting cash due to the pandemic. He screamed at Gardner, a Palo Alto native, and told her to "go back to your country." Community members responded to the Aug. 1 incident with a rally to celebrate diversity and to support Gardner and the restaurant.
It was one of many events in 2021 in which people spoke out against discrimination against people of Asian heritage. Data shared in the spring showed reports of hate crimes and hate incidents have significantly risen in Palo Alto and Santa Clara County, as well as across the nation.
6. Farewell to The Counter, Tesla and others
The Counter restaurant was just one of many businesses that bid farewell to Palo Alto in 2021. The owner of the burger franchise over the summer declined to renew its property lease on California Avenue, a street where vacancies have been stacking up in recent years. It was replaced by Local Kitchens, a micro food hall with multiple restaurants that allows customers to place orders and pick up their food at one location.
One of the year's most high-profile departures was Tesla, which joined the California exodus by moving its headquarters to Texas. CEO Elon Musk said the move was prompted by high housing costs, long commutes and the region's growth limitations.
5. Families leave Palo Alto for in-person education
Frustrated with Zoom classes at home and stalled school reopening decisions during the pandemic, some Palo Alto parents opted to temporarily leave the Palo Alto Unified School District and enroll their children in in-person education programs in places as far away as Denmark, Norway and Texas. "I'm really sad, and I'm also really angry. I feel like we've been left no other choice," one mother said.
4. Google's Larry Page warned about use of home for business
After an Old Palo Alto neighborhood home connected to Google co-founder Larry Page caught fire on Sept. 14, it came to light that one or more neighbors had complained the home was being used not as living space but for business purposes, in violation of city laws. The city of Palo Alto issued a notice of violation to the entity allegedly operating out of the house, stating that the post-fire home was uninhabitable and referencing the neighbors' complaint.
The home, located at 2175 Bryant St., is one of the handful of Old Palo Alto homes owned by Page or limited liability corporations associated with him. Neighbors who were interviewed say that visitors who arrive at the house in a steady flow take up parking spaces on the street but that the people are generally quiet.
3. $150K in handbags stolen from Neiman Marcus
High-profile flash-mob heists struck the Bay Area in 2021, including a theft of more than $150,000 worth of handbags from the Neiman Marcus department store at Stanford Shopping Center on the afternoon of May 19, according to Palo Alto police.
The attack by what police called a "coordinated group" of at least 10 people was the first in a string of thefts targeting expensive handbags in Palo Alto within a month. Another group stole $100,000 worth of handbags from Louis Vuitton, also located at Stanford Shopping Center, during a similar heist on June 7. Two weeks later, a group of seven men raided The RealReal, a luxury consignment shop on University Avenue, taking about 20 handbags worth $50,000, police said.
2. What's allowed under the state's 'purple' tier
Santa Clara and San Mateo counties returned to the state's most restrictive COVID-19 level, the "purple" tier, after California health officials lifted statewide regional stay-at-home orders on Jan. 25. The return to the purple tier under California's Blueprint for a Safer Economy was one of many restrictions that were reimposed or lifted throughout 2021. Under the purple tier, outdoor dining, personal care services and professional, collegiate, adult and youth sports were allowed to resume with modifications. Mandatory travel restrictions, which require a 10-day quarantine for most persons who return to Santa Clara County after traveling farther than 150 miles, stayed in effect, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said at the time.
1. Here's who'll be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine
At the start of 2021, the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution program was well underway in Santa Clara County, with health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities receiving the initial batches of vaccines. Then health leaders announced that the next phase of the program could roll out as soon as the end of January, expanding eligibility to people ages 75 and older and workers in education, child care, emergency services, food and agriculture.
The doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna conferred a 95% immunity from the deadly coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the months, eligibility was extended to younger and younger groups, and in the fall booster shots became available to help people ward off the delta and omicron variants.
Palo Alto Online is taking one last look at 2021 all this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 30, 2021 at 9:05 am
on Dec 30, 2021 at 9:05 am
It is worth noting that Foothills Park is back to having the same numbers of visitors as previously. It shows that really it was just political wrangling and not that there were large numbers of people who wanted to visit. This proves the whole thing was just an expensive waste of time.
It will be interesting to discover just how much money this all cost and how much has been collected in gate fees. I hope the Weekly will do an in depth investigation showing the numbers of visitors, the cost of the additional measures and how much has been collected. It will be interesting to see just who has been buying the season passes and where they are from. The only people I know who have bought season passes are those who already live here.
My suspicion is that it is still basically just Palo Alto residents using the Park and we are now having to pay for something that we previously did not. Expensive exercise that has done nothing for the benefit of anyone.