California Avenue has seen more than its share of change in recent years, as Palo Alto leaders spearheaded a streetscape renovation, constructed a six-level parking garage, saw an exodus of longtime establishments like Antonio's Nut House and The Counter and moved to close the street to cars.
One proposed change, however, proved a bit too ambitious on Monday for area merchants and the City Council alike: the creation of a two-way bike path down the middle of the centrally located promenade. The idea, which was proposed by city staff and championed by Mayor Pat Burt, was part of a broader plan to transform the haphazard assemblage of tents and dining tables that today fill the street just east of El Camino Real into something more stable and permanent.
The planned bike lane was part of a broader proposal to create new design guidelines for California Avenue, which is slated to remain car-free for the foreseeable future. But after an extensive debate, the bike path faltered by a 3-3 vote, with Burt and council members Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka supporting it and Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Alison Cormack and Tom DuBois opposing it. Council member Eric Filseth was absent.
The idea also proved to be a hard sell with area merchants and restaurants, even those who generally support keeping California Avenue car-free. Several said Monday they are concerned that bicyclists would undermine the pedestrian-friendly vibe of Palo Alto's second downtown. Zareen Khan, owner of Zareen's, a Pakistani-Indian restaurant on California Avenue, said she would like to see both cars and bicyclists excluded from the commercial trip.
"Many residents, including myself, would love to have a promenade — free of cars and bikes whizzing by — to stroll and shop local," Khan said.
Lisa Robins, owner of Vin Vino Wine on California Avenue, also suggested that the city's latest plans for transforming the street are too ambitious and potentially detrimental to the commercial district. She said she supported the city's decision to close California Avenue to cars in the early days of the pandemic, a step that she said was critical to supporting local restaurants. But with the city now embarking on a multiyear study to develop a permanent plan for California Avenue, establishing a new bike lane would be premature, she argued.
"Now, just when it seems like we ought to be making a thoughtful transition to permanent parklets and a return to the relatively gentle traffic patterns and open access that we used to have, you've decided to extend what was an emergency closure to infinity, run a bike superhighway down the middle of Cal. Avenue and risk the continued decline of the retail environment of the whole district," Robins said.
But while council members split over the bike path, they reached a consensus on other key issues pertaining to California Avenue. After a debate that stretched for nearly four hours, council members reaffirmed their strong preference to keep both California Avenue and a portion of Ramona Street closed to traffic at least until December 2023. They also moved to ban tents on California Avenue and directed staff to work with restaurants to transition to more permanent structures. And they agreed that dining areas in both districts should have "edge treatments" such as planters or barriers that separate them from the street. All of these guidelines advanced by a 5-1 vote, with only Tanaka voting against the proposal.
The council also directed staff by a 4-2 vote, with Cormack and Tanaka dissenting, to develop a plan to support retailers on California Avenue, potentially by creating a marketing program for the area.
Council members hit a stalemate, however, over the bike lane, which Burt argued would benefit retailers and visitors alike. Creating a designated area for bicyclists in the middle of the street would drive pedestrians closer to storefronts, he said.
"It becomes clear that bikes go down the center and pedestrians go on the sidewalk," Burt said. "This helps the retailers."
In making a case for a dedicated bike lane, staff from the city's Office of Transportation pointed to California Avenue's important role in the city's bicycling network, with the tunnel at the east end of the commercial area serving as one of the Palo Alto's few rail crossings for people on bikes or on foot.
"Because of the uneven distribution of bicycle and pedestrian crossings along the rail corridor, particularly to the south … and because California Ave. crosses El Camino Real and reaches Hanover, a gateway to employment sites at the Stanford Research Park, delineating bicycle access through the California Avenue street closure is important for local pedestrian and bicycle circulation, regional employment, and transit access," the report states. "Moreover, the installation of a dedicated bike lane encourages continued bicycling to the closed streets and cycling to adjacent business districts and also connects our residential community via interconnected bike routes while providing for cyclist and pedestrian safety."
But Cormack questioned whether implementing a two-way bike lane would undermine the city's long-term ability to create a more pedestrian-friendly California Avenue with green spaces and plazas in the middle of the street. She suggested that it would make more sense for bicyclists to use Cambridge or Sherman avenues.
DuBois agreed and suggested that approving a new bike path even on a temporary basis would represent a significant deviation from the council's initial vision for California Avenue as primarily a dining area.
"I think biking to Cal. Ave. is fine, but this plan is really a bike path through Cal. Ave.," DuBois said. "When you reach a pedestrian destination, I think walking your bike or parking is fine."
While the bike path idea fizzled, council members showed no appetite for bringing cars back to California Avenue, as some merchants had urged. Mike Stone, owner of the Mollie Stone's supermarket, said the business district is dealing with a "perfect storm" of challenges, including inflation, supply chain issues and rising gas prices and interest rates. Aside from restaurants, he argued, many businesses want to see California Avenue reopen to cars.
"You're shutting off the main artery," Stone said. "Please, for the life of the street, open it. It's hurting more businesses than it's helping."
City surveys, meanwhile, suggest that the street closure remains broadly popular. In a recent survey of more than 600 respondents, including business owners and visitors, 80% said they would like to see the city continue to allow street dining within a roadway that is blocked to vehicular traffic and 75% voiced support for dining on parklets adjacent to a road that is closed to cars. Only 43%, however, favored dining at parklets next to a road that is open to vehicular traffic.
Council member Greer Stone alluded to these numbers and said the council's next objective should be to give both California Avenue and Ramona Street some "consistency" after a period of rapid change and to enhance the dining experience in both areas.
"It's clear the community really loves these closed streets," Stone said.