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Vibrant, yet car-free: Residents envision what would make California Avenue come alive

Original post made on Dec 21, 2022

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.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, December 21, 2022, 9:00 AM

Comments (18)

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 21, 2022 at 11:03 am

Annette is a registered user.

I hope the City doesn't ignore resident input as they did years ago following the contest for the design of the fountain near the train station. What's there is not the design that won the vote. Palo Alto has a looooong established habit of having "check the box" meetings during which residents participate earnestly only to find that their input is, essentially, ignored. All the meetings about grade separation come immediately to mind. There are many Palo Altans who are expert in different fields and thus can contribute meaningfully to community discussions. If these voices are repeatedly ignored, they will eventually go silent.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 21, 2022 at 11:17 am

Online Name is a registered user.

I echo Annette's concern and get very nervous when the city talks about imagining redoing a neighborhood / street / traffic patterns and modeling itself on known tourist destinations when they only need to get out of their offices and drive to nearby Los Altos, Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Delusions of grandeur -- like the El Camino "Grand Boulevard Initiative -- that removes access to businesses but has pretty green painted lanes!

Let;s hope the city doesn't pull another "Glass Sidewalk Fiasco" like Jaime Rodriquez forced on Cal Ave which took forever and the city generously gave the poor merchants a few hundred dollars for their lost business.

Los Altos didn't need any city money to do its First Fridays which attracted 12 bands to play free on its downtown streets because a committed retailer did it. No retail consultants, just a concerned businesswoman.

Obviously the city needs to listen to residents instead of creating phony "surveys" like the fiber optic one where there was no way to say Nope, NOT A Priority.

Posted by pat
a resident of Los Altos
on Dec 21, 2022 at 12:30 pm

pat is a registered user.

Even after I moved from Palo Alto, I used to go to CA Ave once a week, primarily to shop at Country Sun. I'd often stop at the European Cobblery, bought paint and other supplies at CA Paint. The art store and salon are gone, but I was a frequent customer at both.

If Palo Alto wants to put more retail stores out of business, by all means, keep the street closed forever. Then you can have music and dancing and people eating on the tarmac of what used to be -- and should be! -- a roadway for cars, as well as bikes.

Public streets are not piazzas. Palo Alto is not an old European village. Closing streets may help restaurants and locals who can walk or bike to them. For the rest of us, it's the death of a shopping center.

Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 21, 2022 at 12:56 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

This won't work. Not enough nearby residents and it's too hard to get to by car. Caltrain service -- even with electrification -- won't have enough service.

Plus, I'm not sure the residents nearby really want to have too much of a lively scene....

Posted by SteveDabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2022 at 1:00 pm

SteveDabrowski is a registered user.

Years back when redoing California Avenue was being considered I posted that "like the song, I love you just the way you are". This had no effect and now a few years later most everything is gone that I liked, the bakery, the art store and so many others. It just stands as a tribute to the stupidity of professional planners as do so many other examples like downtown San Jose and several Peninsular cities that have traded popular but not so glamorous long term businesses for a silly rehab vision that just never works. Too bad.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Dec 21, 2022 at 2:49 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Eons ago in a faraway galaxy, I lived in a small midwestern town that had a main street full of thriving business. It was snow country. They put out the call to residents to ask how best to make shopping safer and easier, especially at Christmas. Nothing the residents suggested even got on the first planning agenda. The city did what they wanted and not only was it so ugly it stuck out like a sore thumb, it became LESS safer because they eliminated all the parking on both sides of the street. Then they built a parking lot around two blocks over, and like most towns with snow, a plow can only do so much when cars are in the way -- which they were. It wasn't a tourist town like Palo Alto wants to be (isn't that the purpose of trying to lure in customers?) and the residents were aggrieved and stopped going anywhere near downtown. Many business shuttered their doors forever, and the few that remained weren't vital services (they were bars). Long story short, after 10 years of getting almost nothing in the business tax buckets, the City decided to bulldoze everything they created in the name of "safety" but there was no luring prior businesses to come back. No incentives, no nothing. Still to this day, City barely gets a dime in taxes and everybody is too afraid to try to develop vacant buildings because once a City does something stupid like that, they'll likely do it again.

So, when Palo Alto decides to make Cal Ave a permanent car-free zone, perhaps a consultant with PROVEN EXPERIENCE in giving unbiased reports as to environmental, residential, business, and best practices that will HELP residents in the long run should be allowed financial and property records to see if it's really do-able. Preferably by not trotting out their usual set of suspects -- er, consultants -- to make a fair assessment of NEEDS that could be fulfilled. Not just how the City could benefit from it.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 21, 2022 at 3:20 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Also a consultant with LOCAL Experience would be a plus to avoid the monument syndrome of the Junior Museum and Zoo.

Re a wayfinding system for Cal Ave, remember what PA spent in 2014 to help people find their way around a single building! Taking bets on how much will be spent on a whole business district. Web Link

'Wayfinding' program to bring signs, monument to Palo Alto City Hall
City embarks on $300,000 effort to make Hamilton Avenue building easier to navigate

:Visitors who have a hard time finding their way around Palo Alto City Hall will soon get plenty of help from the city, which is embarking on a $300,000 effort to install a network of signs in and around its primary civic hub.

The ambitious sign program, which is part of a $4.5-million effort to make City Hall more welcoming and inclusive, includes 21 separate signs, including building signs, freestanding signs and direction signs leading people to the Civic Center's underground garage...."

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 21, 2022 at 4:58 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Does the City have a plan for what it intends to do when PAPD and PAFD relocate? Or are we going to pay for fancy new signage for spaces that will be vacated and then re-populated by other departments?

Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 21, 2022 at 5:00 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I say, "open it up"...but it will never be the same as I remember it from the early 60's and up into the 90's. The retail businesses from that era are never coming back: a bakery, a pet store, a book store, a stationery store, a movie theater, a barber shop, a music store, a flower shop, a family owned department store (Harriman's), a dime store, a Rexall drug store, a hardware store with a lumber yard, and a service station (now I'm really going back in time and showing my age). There was also a German deli and another hardware store on Birch. There are a few survivors from that era, but not many.

Shopping centers and box stores killed all of those family owned friendly stores and businesses. You could meet friends and neighbors while shopping in those stores. Our church, Wesley United Methodist Church, is located just a block away on Cambridge, and that's the same street where our first family doctor, Dr. Jenks, had his private practice, just a few doors down from the church. Bob Dylan always gets it right..."the times they are achangin". I like and frequent the restaurants on Cal Ave and side streets, and will continue to do so, even when they have to move back inside. Let's give the last remnants of retail businesses on Cal Ave a chance to survive.

Posted by Jerry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2022 at 5:13 pm

Jerry is a registered user.

@MyFeelz I completely get that since I have a similar origin story. The thriving and safe snow-country town of my youth is now a business ghetto. The local newspaper headlines alternate between DUI busts and meth house raids. Didn't help that the primary manufacturing companies moved out decades ago. Ain't comin' back.

Let's face it, the Bay Area won't be able to support the European walkable cities concept without having the designated streets ringed with 6 story parking lots. Ironically that's because there isn't enough housing density to make it economically viable. And of course, the automobile mindset.

You could argue that Santana Row is a success story, but to me, it feels like Stanford Shopping Center with a bunch of apartments built above it. That's a much more expensive proposition. Not just a matter of setting up some outdoor tables and Jersey barriers.

Posted by midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2022 at 8:30 pm

midtowner is a registered user.

I used to spend a lot of time (and money) on California Ave, from 1982-2015. Since then, all the attractive retail has gone. All the ones which "pat" mentioned, including the bookstore, the pet store, the bakery - also the music store, the art store, the pharmacy, the dry cleaners, the camera store, and Bargain Box. The best modest places to eat or gave a drink with friends - Antonio's Nuthouse, Cho's and countless small places have also gone. California Avenue has become utterly boring, a mere shadow if itself, with only a few fragments of its glorious past left. Rents have become unreasonably high, and closing the street to traffic is absolute madness; it excludes those who cannot walk the distance from parking lots a full street away, such as many older people. Not everyone has the necessary legs and fitness.
I seldom go there nowadays although I live in Midtown; I find Main Street in Los Altos infinitely more lively. You can drive down it, locate the shop you plan to visit, find a parking spot near it on the street, or at worst, on a close side street.
Trying for an imitation European "piazza" on California Street is an terrible idea. Try to rescue it by inviting more retail and allowing traffic to pass through it again, bringing it alive instead leaving it the dead zone it is now.

Posted by Joe
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 21, 2022 at 10:43 pm

Joe is a registered user.

Although with the huge new parking structure finished parking doesn't seem to be a problem anymore, it sounds like the other concern about getting to the Cal Ave downtown by car is that not everyone can walk a block from their car to a restaurant. Is it possible to redesignate the end of Ash St as 100% disabled parking spaces and loading zones, instead of the double-parked car trap it is now? And the alley next to Country Sun?

Posted by Bart Anderson
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 22, 2022 at 6:26 am

Bart Anderson is a registered user.

Thank you for the article.California Ave is an example of where we should be going in urban design. I live nearby and it's a much nicer place than it had been.

There's plenty of parking a block away.

A small correction. The headline now reads "Vibrant, yet car-free".
It should be "Vibrant, BECAUSE car-free".

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Dec 22, 2022 at 7:43 am

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Bart that should be revised to "UGLY because of barricades and cones saying STAY OUT", or perhaps "Disabled Customers Not Welcome Here".

Does anybody but me recognize the way PA thumbs its nose at Federal ADA laws to pad their payroll? They can tell the Grand Jury to F. Off but not the Federal Government.

Every time I drive through the maze of circuitous routes surrounding Cal Ave (because nothing makes a barricaded street uglier than detours around all of the detours around construction) I realize I never see children anywhere in the zone unless they're in a stroller.

There is nothing to offer to kids in that entire area unless they are planning on getting hit by a car or bulldozer, and we shouldn't be offering that as genuine recreation to anyone. Whatever the City has up its sleeve, it doesn't sound kid friendly, and if you have to go from block to block to find the map to see where you're going (especially if you're in a wheelchair) you'll be exhausted before you get there.

CC is proposing gastric recreation only, and for physically fit people only, or bicycle enthusiasts. Nothing for old folks, young folks, or differently-abled folks. At prices that exclude poor folks which unfortunately in this day and age, also excludes most POC.

This is just another pie in the sky idea by the CC, an invention to fritter away money that is desperately needed for infrastructure. We are not Disneyland. The wayfinding maps at Disneyland are such that no matter where you wander, you are at the Happiest Place On Earth. Here, unless you are hungry for an al fresco experience on a plastic chair, there are no attractions to offer on Cal Ave. Office buildings are not Happy Places. But you WILL become an expert at getting gum off your shoes. Unless you like bringing what fell out of someone else's mouth to your house and transferring it from your shoe to your own floor.

Would that be "portable ambience"?

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 22, 2022 at 9:35 am

Bystander is a registered user.

People who are elderly should actually enjoy the car free areas. Plenty of space for their walkers or mobility scooters and more handicapped spots at the perimeter of the no car zone. Buy a shopping cart on wheels to help bring purchases back to the car. Even elderly people can enjoy a short walk to keep them healthy. If you are able to walk around Costco, Target or WalMart, you should be able to walk from a parking spot to a Cal Ave destination just as easily.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Dec 22, 2022 at 11:52 am

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Bystander, you are presuming they have a way to get to some kind of motorized accessory that will be available for their use that is fully charged and ready to take them wherever they need to go? Every time you see one of those electric carts in the middle of the walmart or target parking lot, think about why it's there. It's there because that's where it died. Without juice, it's impossible to move it. And if you're old and need one of those carts and have ever been on one that ran out of juice, you know the predicament of: "HOW DO I GET ME AND MY BAGS OF CRAP BACK TO MY CAR?" And then I just thought of something! You're a BYSTANDER! Ready to help any and all people who suddenly are left in the lurch without transportation and differently abled.

Obviously you're not elderly and you're not differently abled. If you were, you wouldn't be writing about how healthy it is to walk when you have no legs and you're a walking target for robbery.

Have you seen how many elderly people this year have been attacked and robbed on the PA streets? Guess their little walk didn't help their health or their pocketbook and I think they were not having any fun while that was happening.

Posted by Rick Federline
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2022 at 12:41 pm

Rick Federline is a registered user.

Closing off CA Avenue for dining and amateur musicians will adversely impact the local merchants and eliminate an easy access to ECR from the Evergreen neighborhood and municipal court.

A dumb idea.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 27, 2022 at 3:47 pm

Resident is a registered user.

I encourage those who comment actually go down to Cal Ave and enjoy the amazing food, scenery, and on some lucky nights, amazing local live music. It’s never a problem getting there or home, and it’s very clear that many hundreds of people enjoy it on a daily basis. I frequent Terun because of the amazing service, family oriented vibe, incredible food, Beautiful ambience, and stellar cuisine, but I especially never miss the live music nights. Many of my friends and colleagues come just for the incredible music, amazing food, outdoor scenery, and being treated like family. This is a huge benefit to the City of Palo Alto and they would be wise to increase the amount of shops on Cal Ave since the restaurants are driving so much business there. After a rough two years, everyone benefits from the success that this music/restaurant program has provided, bringing revenue to the City, and giving locals, tourists, and corporate travelers a great place to eat and shop. Thanks to all of the positive attention this program has gotten, thousands are having a wonderful time enjoying it, and businesses are thriving. The City of Palo Alto should be nurturing this as much as possible and seeking to make Cal Ave the next Santana Row.

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