Other Voices: The benefits of a pedestrian-focused downtown

Quarantine has not been easy for anyone, but it’s been especially hard on small businesses.

I am not a small-business owner myself, so I don’t claim this out of self-interest. But as we open up, I am saddened to see how difficult it is, and will continue to be, for anyone who owns a small enterprise.

As a family, we have done what we can to help out: paying for services we use regularly, despite not having used them in months; ordering takeout; buying from local stores; and contributing to GoFundMe accounts for local businesses that cannot offer alternative services while closed.

Closing Main and State streets was a success in many ways, and I am glad to see this is now planned through the end of September. We went three times over the first weekend of Open Streets Los Altos, and never had any trouble parking. The 13 restaurants and bars on or close to these streets saw a significant uptick in customers. As a resident, it was uplifting, with an almost festive atmosphere: walking down the streets and observing so many others doing the same under the banners that read “We are strong. We will get through this together.”

Frankly, I am appalled that some local businesses have made such a tempest in a teacup about the closures. Your business has a delivery? Use the loading zones you most likely have behind your store, or close to your store. Work with your neighbors to find solutions if you don’t. Be creative.

Your business volume is down? Whose isn’t? A fairer assessment is one over several weeks. Give the initiative a chance and let the foot traffic settle. Personally, I know I am more likely to patronize businesses that are committed and aligned with community initiatives than those that aren’t.

The fact is, a pedestrian downtown is:

• More environmentally friendly. You may not give a hoot about that, but it’s still true.

• Physically safer without vehicular traffic.

• Healthier. Think: mental health, bikes, walking and taking your dog to dinner or shopping.

• Pandemically safer. We can socialize and get closer to a “normal” life by eating out and sitting at cafes without running the risks that dining inside brings with it.

• Lively (because of the, uh, people walking around).

So, honestly, are we in this together?

The truth is, our downtown has never been a “destination,” and that is partially why it has struggled for years. But the recent additions of a few restaurants, bars, bakery and coffeehouses have finally made the town a more viable alternative when thinking of where to go for brunch, lunch, coffee, dinner or drinks.

It’s not the stores that make a town lively. It’s the businesses where people meet, talk and socialize that breathe life into a town.
The alternative? A downtown that has fared worse than most through the pandemic, with more than half of its businesses shuttered. The ones that escape closure will likely have lower volumes, because few residents come downtown anymore. An unattractive downtown will pull lower or no business rents, and property values will begin to fall across the board.

All because some small-minded businesses can’t see the forest for the trees.

If we are in this together, then show it. I realize street closures may not be ideal for some businesses. But for many others, it’s the only alternative that gives some hope of staying open when the pandemic is no longer – which may be a while.

In the meantime, we need to learn to work together to leverage solutions that work for most, in the hopes that it will eventually keep the whole town afloat. Together.

P.S.: If the closures are a success through September and we are still under the threat of COVID, which is highly likely, I would hope the town will give serious thought to keeping this arrangement as far into the end of the year as possible. Customers will adapt – it’s a question of donning a coat, scarf and hat.

Jennifer Mitchell has been a Los Altos resident for 15 years.

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