California Avenue will remain closed to cars at least for the foreseeable future as the eclectic strip is likely headed toward another major transformation.
In a marathon meeting that reflected the community division about the future of the city's second downtown, the City Council clashed on Monday night over what to do about the long-term future of the ever-changing street, which was shut down to car traffic in the early days of the pandemic and which was due to welcome back cars on June 30.
After hearing from both proponents and opponents of reopening California Avenue for the second time this month, council members indicated by a 5-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council member Tom DuBois dissenting, that they would like to keep the car closure in place until December 2023.
They also unanimously agreed that the street needs major improvements and launched a master plan for the retail-and-restaurant strip, an effort that will roll out over the next two years. The goal is to give the charming and somewhat haphazard strip a stronger sense of identity and transform it into something more akin to State Street in Santa Barbara, a car-free thoroughfare that evolved into a thriving dining, drinking and retail destination with a distinct identity over the course of the pandemic.
Though the council did not explicitly preclude the idea of cars returning to California Avenue, the combination of the two votes makes that prospect extremely unlikely. DuBois and Kou argued that keeping cars away from California Avenue hurts area retailers, some of whom spoke out against the closure on Monday night. But DuBois' suggestion that the city explore keeping it car-free only on the weekends failed to win over his colleagues, most of whom supported limiting the strip to bikes and pedestrians seven days a week.
"I think it is kind of unsightly right now," DuBois said. "It seems like if we don't reopen the street soon, we'll have effectively closed it for three years while we're going through COVID and the planning sessions."
Others were more sanguine about keeping the street closed to traffic, even as they agreed that the current configuration is less than ideal. Mayor Pat Burt and council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone were particularly enthusiastic about transforming California Avenue into something more dynamic.
"I don't think it's a problem to be solved. I think it's an opportunity to be seized," Cormack said.
Stone also favored the Santa Barbara model, which relied on a series of design charrettes and architect teams to develop concepts that were then integrated into a master plan, according to Bruce Fukuji, an architect who gave a presentation about State Street to the council.
"The only way we can really embrace this opportunity to the greatest extent is to really be looking for opportunities for permanent closures," Stone said.
Because the interim status of California Avenue was not on the agenda, the council will have to hold another meeting to formally approve keeping the street closed to cars until end of 2023.
Even those council members who agreed over the long-term vision for California Avenue split over what process to use. Burt proposed launching a design charrette for the street — a collaborative design process that involves participation from all the stakeholders in the divisive debate. Santa Barbara's planning effort resulted in improvements such as a dedicated bike lane, new street furniture and planters.
With most restaurants supporting the closure of California Avenue to cars and many retailers opposing the closure, Burt maintained that bringing everyone to the table would eliminate the "winners and losers" dynamic.
"I think we'll have solutions that will have winners and winners," Burt said. "And that's what comes out of this stakeholder process."
But most of his colleagues opted to stick with the type of long-term plan that was recommended by staff, which will require soliciting a consultant and spending between 12 and 18 months and as much as $500,000 on analyzing everything from traffic and parking demands and bicycle improvements to the proper design of parklets and landscaping.
The council is taking a similar approach on a small stretch of Ramona Street downtown just north of Hamilton Avenue, which was transformed into a pedestrian area during the pandemic. Much like in the public debates over California Avenue and University Avenue — which the city reopened to cars in November — the decision process for Ramona created a schism between restaurateurs who supported the pedestrian-only design and merchants who advocated for the return of cars.
Cherry LeBrun, whose store De Novo Fine Contemporary Jewelry is located on the closed-off portion of Ramona, argued for returning cars to the area.
"Not having through traffic means there's no drive-by visibility that allows people to discover my store and it makes it difficult for existing customers to reach my store because access is limited and complicated," LeBrun said.
Rob Fischer, owner of the restaurant Peninsula Creamery, which is located just beyond the closed-off portion of Ramona, also proposed bringing cars back.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to have the streets open," said. "If you want life to get back to normal you have to act normal."
Others suggested that keeping Ramona Street and California Avenue closed to cars enhances the two streets and attracts diners and shoppers. Midtown resident Lorenzo Manueli said he recently visited California Avenue with his grandmother to celebrate her 75th birthday and they had a great time walking up and down the car-free street.
"It's become one of my favorite areas in Palo Alto because of the closure and pedestrian walkway," Manueli said. "Even though the street look the same way as it did when it had cars on it."
The street has suffered over the course of the pandemic from growing vacancies and decreased foot traffic — a function of the fact that the many employees who traditionally supported local businesses are now working from home. At the same time, Burt suggested that the new configuration of California Avenue has given people more reasons to visit and that it is now showing signs of recovery.
Burt also agreed with DuBois that the current street configuration — a collection of scattered tents with no unifying theme — is less than ideal. And he also expressed some frustration about the length of time it's taking the city to improve the streetscape.
"We're overdue … What we have is sloppy compared to surrounding communities," Burt said.
Editor's note: The story has been modified to note that the council will have to hold another meeting to formally approve keeping California Avenue closed until December 2023.