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An Alternative View

By Diana Diamond

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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help …  (More)

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Uploaded: Dec 3, 2021

Once again, Palo Alto residents are being asked to submit a list of their priorities for the city council to tackle in the upcoming 2022 year.

The council has an annual retreat, usually in late January, at which members always set their priorities. Last year’s were economic recovery (including from the pandemic), housing for social and economic balance, social justice and climate change

Nice words, although I am not sure what kind of social justice improvements the council wanted — I suspect more control over the police department since that was the time right after the George Floyd incident. The economic recovery priority certainly didn’t get far, given the $4.8 million surplus we have this year compared to $34.1 million surplus the previous year.

As I recall, no goals are included in the priorities, so we don’t know how the city performed in pursuing its priorities. It certainly would be great to have a report from the city manager before the retreat describing what the city did and did not accomplish in 2021.

Sure. it’s fun to set priorities, but if there are no established goals included or requirement for reports on what happened, why even bother with them? The priorities seem to just float away.

For me, forget about every other need; there is only one priority for 2022: Deal with Palo Alto’s decaying downtown.

My husband and I went on a three-city tour last weekend, starting in Palo Alto. We drove up Hamilton Avenue to Middlefield, then down University Avenue, and then up Lytton Avenue. It was a troublesome area to view.

It seemed as if nearly 50 percent of the retail stores and restaurants are closed or boarded up. There were few people walking around, few customers in stores, and the whole area looked a bit shabby.

A pandemic ago, downtown Palo Alto was a wonderful, bustling place — weekend brunch goers, weekday luncheon restaurants filled, restaurants crowded at night, and people who strolled around all day window shopping.

Now? The President’s Hotel, once a pleasant residential hotel for lower income people, is closed. The tenants were tossed out, a Chinese group bought the property, and I have seen no sign of anything happening to that building on that prized corner lot. Walgreen’s is gone. Restoration Hardware is moving to Stanford Shopping Center.

Shopping, and small businesses have shuttered. Thank goodness Apple is still a shiny glass retail magnet, still filled with customers. University Avenue is one-way now, to accommodate the many outdoor seats for restaurants. I haven’t checked yet to see how busy they are. Lytton has turned into a street with banks and business offices; few retail stores to be found.

We dipped down to California Avenue, which is now a huge collection of outdoor chairs and table, many heated by big flaming propane flares. (I wonder how much that helps our environment.) Since Cal Ave is now closed to cars, I couldn’t drive by to see if any retailers were open — or how many had closed.

On to Menlo Park, which showed signs of move-outs but not as drastic as in Palo Alto. My guestimate: about 20 percent are closed or boarded up.We then went to Los Altos. That village has really remodeled itself and is most attractive. A variety of retail stores are open. Many sidewalks were lined with green shrubbery. There are a variety of indoor and outdoor restaurants.

And so where does this leave me? Palo Alto officials have to focus hard on making this city become alive again. Council needs to hire consultants who know how to get retailers to locate here. It’s a learned skill. Menlo Park once had a great guy who knew how to convince upscale stores to his downtown.

Won’t Palo Alto be better after the pandemic when people are back in offices, my neighbor asked.? Not sure, I responded. Office workers may bring in new restaurants but if we become the new restaurant row, as Mountain View once was, it becomes harder to get retail into town.

City officials should also talk to Los Altos leaders to find out how that city transformed their downtown so well, and call other cities in the country to find if they have solutions for attracting retailers.

If Palo Alto officials don’t act now, I fear a continuing downward slope. I don’t want to lose our downtown.

NOTE: To send our priorities to the city, go to this url, and scroll down to the bottom to get an entry form.

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