Other Voices: Reframing the vision of downtown Los Altos


How do you measure vibrancy for a downtown area? And what does “vibrancy” mean, anyhow?

Urban planners often use retail sales as a proxy measure, but given recent trends in merchandising – with increasing numbers of people doing most of their shopping online and at brick-and-mortar shops clustering in high-traffic locations rather than dispersed in small shopping areas – we think retail sales is the wrong measure for downtown Los Altos. Instead, we suggest thinking fundamentally about what our downtown means to our community.

The significant number of responses to the recent survey by RRM Design Group, the city’s Downtown Vision project consultant, describes the desired activities of a post-retail village center.

Not surprisingly, personal services and grocery shopping rank highest; however, those activities are immediately followed by community events and meeting friends to enjoy coffee, snacks and meals together. These activities mirror what we’ve seen on our pop-up downtown greens. Retail shopping trails as eighth on the list.

Looking at these rankings, we could safely say that the essence of what residents want downtown is simply community – meeting and enjoying one another’s company. So shouldn’t we work toward a vision of a people-friendly downtown instead of worrying about making it retail-supportive?

What ideas look practical when we use this community-friendly lens to evaluate recent strategies proposed by local property owners and our vision consultants?

In the short term, we might change our zoning requirements to allow a broader range of activities on the ground floors of buildings on Main and State streets instead of reserving them for retail merchants. We also could make our renovation permitting process more tenant-friendly so that it doesn’t take two years or more to open a new restaurant, brewpub, wine bar or coffee shop.

Medium term, we could use planning variances to encourage developers to create outdoor gathering spaces of all shapes and sizes – from small patios for outdoor dining to large, multipurpose plazas. We could take advantage of our year-round good weather with more outdoor cafes.

Perhaps we could make our streetscapes more conducive to informal meetings of parents with children. Wider sidewalks and reduced parking on our core streets would provide space for coffee or dining with reduced pedestrian congestion and less vehicle noise. Redesigning the pavement and curbs also could make it easier to stage the parades and street festivals that rank No. 1 on the survey preference list.

Longer term, we might work with developers to generate funding to create additional parking on the periphery of the downtown core. The reclaimed areas could be used for performance spaces, plazas and even affordable rental housing for seniors and public employees.

These are only some of the possible strategies to enhance our downtown. With a stronger sense of community, we might even attract more specialty retail stores. If we measure our success by the number of people who enjoy our downtown rather than just by the amount of money they spend, we might be able to achieve a vision of Los Altos as a community-friendly village with a vibrant downtown heart.

Bette Houtchens is managing partner of Community Insights Group, and Gary Anderson and Larry Baron are principal consultants.

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