There’s nothing like a weak economy to prompt us to reflect and see the big picture. So, amid declining sales and closing stores in downtown Los Altos, we’ve learned that the city’s central business district has an identity crisis.
We’ve discovered our downtown is suffering because it failed to change with the times. Many of the single-level, cozy storefronts filled with beauty shops and quirky niche stores look pretty much the same as they did 30 years ago. There are still too many businesses that offer limited hours. And although the downtown has shown some signs of a nightlife recently, it’s still by and large closed after 6 p.m.Some say don’t mess with tradition. But the recent economic downturn has sounded the call: Change or die.
To that end, city officials and community leaders have focused intently in recent months on revitalization plans. The latest effort, approved at last week’s Los Altos City Council meeting, involves allocating $55,000 for visioning workshops. The plan, involving three different consulting firms, would gather resident feedback on the prospect of rebuilding or enhancing the downtown. Consultants would use that feedback to create “shared community values” about what the ideal downtown would be.
It’s an obtuse way of saying, “What do the residents think about changing downtown?” The city’s Downtown Development Committee, formed last year, has already conducted several outreach meetings and received feedback that indicates a shift in attitudes about the downtown. For years, most residents liked the lack of activity and didn’t want it changed. But the latest feedback suggested more residential development downtown, increased building heights, more nighttime activities and a stronger mix of restaurants and retail. Residents now want “vibrant,” not “sleepy.”
The visioning workshops, set to begin next year, may likely confirm that shift in attitude. This is a good process to undertake. The outcome should be a clear consensus of what Los Altos wants.
But then comes the hard part. Where do we go once that consensus is documented and the consultants’ work is completed? A master plan would likely follow. But, as with the civic center plans, there’s the sticky matter of financing. Then there’s the issue of stakeholders, such as building owners, getting on board.
Still, other communities have revitalized their downtowns, and Los Altos has some key advantages. The city owns the downtown parking plazas, which make up approximately 25 percent of the total space. According to one expert’s estimate, no other Peninsula city has as much public property in its downtown as Los Altos. What an underused asset.
Developing office space and underground parking through public/private partnerships is among the recommendations of the Downtown Development Committee’s Opportunity Study.
All signs point to more vibrancy – and more density. This is change for the “village” that should be welcomed, not resisted.