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Urbanization of downtown Los Altos could be good

I was on a cycling tour of England with 25 Boy Scouts. We entered a charming town in the Cotswolds and parked our bikes in the small town center. I commented, “This sure is a nice little town.” A nearby lady responded, “And it used to be quiet.”

Many in Los Altos are thinking the same thing as they look at the wall of new development on First Street. What is happening to our Los Altos “village”? It used to be so quiet. Some of those alarmed have been asking for a Downtown Master Plan to update the vision for the Los Altos City Council to follow in its day-to-day decisions. The stewards of downtown have done a good job over the years, but a review of our goals would be timely.

As a downtown resident, I find this a wonderful place to live. It is a compact area, easily walked from a condominium or a parking space. We have a great balance of stores and personal and professional services that meet most of our everyday needs. Downtown is friendly and family-oriented. When you tell people that you live in Los Altos or Los Altos Hills, they think of our downtown.

To update a plan, we need to agree on what to preserve, what to improve and what to avoid.

Our first priority should be to support our residents. We need to preserve the friendly atmosphere for pedestrians. We need to preserve a good mix of successful retail stores, restaurants and personal service businesses throughout the downtown triangle.

To improve the experience for residents, we need to bring entertainment downtown in the evenings. There is no gathering place to see friends and be entertained after dining at a nearby restaurant. We also need to increase foot traffic on our main streets during weekdays to help our businesses. More parking would help during peak periods. More downtown residents would add pedestrians, not cars.

I support increasing the density of development to bring more customers to our businesses, daytime and evenings. This benefits us all. But do this in a way that does not add traffic to our central streets, Main and State, and the cross streets. Here are some ideas.

• Large buildings along the edge of the downtown triangle establish a boundary separating this small and intensely developed (urban) area from surrounding parks and homes. We speak of gateways, but gateways are defined by a wall effect. Change can be upsetting, but a “hard edge” to the downtown triangle is a good design feature: fill in the gaps.

• We need to add 300 new parking spaces accessed directly via San Antonio Road and within a short walk of the central area. A parking structure would fill a gap in the boundary effect if located in the parking plaza next to Los Altos Grill. The San Antonio Road access would reduce the need for cars on Main, State and the cross streets.

• Build a new theater within the central area for our youth and community theater productions, and show movies on the other nights. Locate it on Third Street across from the new parking structure.

• Continue to allow/encourage residential condos throughout the downtown triangle. Encourage mixed-use developments with condos on the top level. There is a huge demand for condos here, including longtime residents wanting to downsize and simplify and young adults not ready for a house.

• Do not encourage more offices and employee cars in the central area.

King Lear is a Los Altos resident and former city councilman.

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