Mon09222014

Downtown success comes with growing pains: Editor's Notebook

An ideal downtown achieves great balance through destination stores, no-hassle parking, special events and open space. It offers something for the young, the old and the in-between. Achieving that balance is difficult as downtown Los Altos grows and changes. There’s been a recent uptick in interest and business with the improving economy. But efforts leading to that uptick bother some of the old-timers who remember the downtown as a quaint little “village.”

The sounds of construction and the resulting steel framework serve notice that First Street between Main Street and Edith Avenue will never be the same. The new construction is good news, in one respect. People have an interest in investing downtown, which means the downtown is popular again. The downside is that Los Altos is becoming less and less a village. The smallness and quaintness of the area brought with it a sense of security, community and convenience. Visitors could usually park right in front of their favorite stores.

The growing pains ahead include the challenge of what to do about getting more parking. Will a well-placed parking structure be the answer? Maybe, but it also will be one more sign of urbanization.

Like it or not, changes were needed. The downtown had been in steady decline since the 1980s. Village quaintness did not translate into business. Los Altos became known as a sleepy town with lights out after 5 p.m.

That’s changing. Los Altos Forward, a grassroots group committed to bringing vitality to the downtown area, has sponsored First Friday events every month that encourage retailers to remain open a few hours later. Yes, it could be better, but it’s a start.

The arrival of Passerelle Investment Co. in 2009 brought purchases of many downtown properties along First and State streets, making Passerelle the largest property owner downtown. It has since addressed the long-standing complaint that downtown doesn’t offer anything for young people.

Mary Heffernan, a successful businesswoman from Menlo Park, moved to Los Altos and became Passerelle’s major tenant. Heffernan, a young mom with four kids, began opening one business after another, catering to families with young children and teens.

Are there some things from the past that we should keep for the present and future? You betcha. I’ve always enjoyed the friendly, unpretentious atmosphere downtown. I would like to see that element stay.

We have achieved better balance by bringing in a more modern, youthful element downtown. But let’s not go the other way. You want your downtown to be welcoming to all, not alienating to one group or another. Whether we can manage this balancing act in the future remains to be seen. I’m hopeful we can.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

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