As Palo Alto's car-free street experiment on California Avenue enters another year, the city is asking residents to envision what an attractive retail district should look like.
The evaluation comes more than two years after city officials shut down the major thoroughfare to car traffic and parking in 2020 in response to the pandemic. Back then, the idea was to allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining for customers during public health mandates, which restricted indoor eating due to COVID-19. While many restaurateurs have benefited from increased sales, other retailers have told the City Council their businesses have suffered. The road will remain closed to traffic at least through 2023.
Earlier this month, nearly 70 people gathered for a city presentation of other successful urban car-free downtowns, held at the PerformanceGaines fitness facility at 310 California Ave., and to discuss their vision for the street.
Bruce Fukuji, principal at Urban Design Innovations, the consultant for the Downtown Palo Alto Arts and Innovation District, said at the Dec. 7 meeting that COVID-19 changed retail districts in a multitude of ways. The pandemic transitioned everything from shopping to work: the retail district as a social gathering space; impacts on frontline workers and the risks they took; difficulty finding employees; social distancing; and mental health. All are factors that changed brick-and-mortar retail, he said.
What does the convergence of all of these lingering factors really mean for retail districts?
With many employees working remotely, the foot traffic and patronage of services near workplaces have declined. Such patterns are likely to remain to some extent. The reasons people will come to a business district may also have to change if it is to regain vibrancy.
Fukuji said California Avenue could take lessons from multiple models of successful car-free retail districts, such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, State Street in Santa Barbara and Pike Place in New York City's Manhattan, which created "outdoor living rooms" filled with spaces for adult games, entertainment and performance arts and outdoor retail stations where stores could more visibly sell their merchandise to passersby. Santa Monica hosts up-and-coming entertainers, for example, he said.
Yet, car-free streets aren't always successful, he cautioned. About 89% of downtowns that tried closing to traffic pre-pandemic returned to vehicles; only 10% of the closed streets survived, Fukuji said.
"California Avenue is a little challenging," Fukuji said.
Still, there are signs the district could thrive as a destination for entertainment and gathering. A restaurant-led initiative providing live music has brought increased foot traffic and dollars to some venues.
At Terún and iTalico restaurants, business is up 40% due to the outdoor seating and live music. The restaurants have added three more employees, co-owner Maico Campilongo said.
"I like the idea of this street as a piazza," he said. In Italy, the town square is a place where people want to bring their children, dine and socialize, he recalled.
Residents at the community meeting also envisioned California Avenue as a vibrant social space with more entertainment, children's play spaces and events and programming.
"With COVID now escalating again, I can't impress how important it is to have the street closed off. We need a refuge," Ann Balin said.
Clustered in groups around maps of the avenue, the residents drew up a list of promising improvements, which were presented by each table at the end of the meeting. Some pointed to a need for wayfinding signage to help visitors find their way to the retail district's hidden gems: the barbershops, tailors, nail salons and other small businesses along the alleys feeding off the main street.
Others said although car traffic is currently limited, the district needs bicycle facilities to connect cyclists to El Camino Real and California Avenue. The street also needs clear designations for bicyclists and where they and pedestrians should be. The area is a main cycling route and people are currently confused, residents said.
But how to entice visitors to use more than restaurants on a regular basis to make up for lost foot traffic due to remote workers is another question.
Some residents said the city should encourage fairer usage of so-called "parklets," parking spaces on the street where restaurants have set up tables and tents to attract outdoor dining. Restaurant uses might impinge on the visibility of a neighboring retail shop, an issue that was raised to the council in October. The use of that space could also be shared for outdoor activities and sales of merchandise by the other retailers, residents said.
Vibrancy for those types of retail establishments might also necessitate new sources of population growth. Additional nearby housing, such as at the former Fry's Electronics site, would help bring more shoppers to the retail district, the residents said.
University Avenue downtown was also the site of a car-free street experiment from summer 2020 until fall 2021, when the city reopened traffic and parking long after the outdoor dining-only mandate was lifted. The exception was a block of Ramona Street, between University and Hamilton avenues, where diners can enjoy an outdoor and indoor experience along what has become a sort of restaurant row.