Los Altos council mulls options as restrictions hamper city, businesses

face covering sign
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Signs at a recent Los Altos Farmers’ Market on State Street call for face coverings and urge shoppers to “get in, get out.”

Prompted by continued COVID-19 restrictions, Los Altos leaders have been doing everything from funding small-business relief to examining the idea of temporarily closing downtown streets to cars to encourage outdoor shopping and dining. 

City council members last week also touched on a redesign of city hall and other facilities to accommodate social distancing, all the while dealing with reduced revenue and workforce in the wake of the lockdown.

All city buildings, playgrounds, bathrooms and parking lots at parks remain closed. Most city workers continue to work remotely, and hiring has been halted, staff reported last week.

More of the same

Even as restrictions begin to lighten, small businesses continue to struggle financially. And personal services, such as barber shops and fitness studios, won’t reopen until the third stage of California’s resiliency plan.

The city is partnering with local business organizations such as the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce, the Los Altos Village Association and Los Altos Property Owners Downtown to strategize on helping small businesses. A task force comprising the groups is establishing eligibility criteria for a small-business relief fund, for which the council allocated $250,000 last month. Task force members hope to build on that amount, setting a $1 million goal.

Little additional money has been raised and more promotion is needed, City Manager Chris Jordan said. The fund totaled approximately $255,000 at the time of the council’s May 26 meeting.

Street closures

The council was scheduled to vet options for temporary partial or full closure of Main and State streets at last week’s council meeting, but city spokeswoman Sonia Lee said the discussion was rescheduled to June 9 to allow additional preparatory outreach.

The city’s Complete Streets Commission reviewed options for a pedestrian-friendly downtown at its May 27 meeting and planned to solicit feedback from restaurant, retail and personal-service business owners during webinars scheduled Tuesday, after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

“The city wants to put forth a plan that serves our entire community,” Lee said in an email. “With this insight, city staff can craft a more effective plan that benefits our residents and businesses. This will also allow for a more robust and focused discussion with the city council.”

City engineers spearheading the study have proposed three options: (1) allowing cars and creating parklets; (2) turning the streets into one-way routes; and (3) completely closing the streets. The goal is to create additional outdoor space on either side of the streets to accommodate restaurant seating, outdoor retail and social distancing. A fourth option is to do nothing.

Local residents have already shown both support for and opposition to the concept. A petition asking the council to bar vehicles and support pedestrians, dining and retail space had garnered more than 3,000 supporters as of last week.

“The sidewalks downtown are way too narrow even without COVID,” one supporter wrote. “Pedestrians and bikes can share the vacant roadway with outdoor dining and some retail too. We will all be reminded (of) towns we have visited in Europe where this arrangement is commonplace.”

However, dozens of residents chimed in on Nextdoor with concerns about car overflow onto nearby streets and whether it would encourage too many visitors.

“Ridiculous idea,” a resident wrote. “I am disabled and need direct access to parking in front of the businesses on Main and State streets.”

Downtown merchants also appear divided on the idea.

“The governor has stressed outdoor space,” said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post restaurant on Main Street, in support of the petition. “This gives restaurants and other small businesses a chance to survive. Parking won’t be an issue, as we won’t be getting back to normal for months.”

But some retailers see the plan as further hampering businesses that are already struggling.

“This has been very stressful and upsetting for me,” said Khatchig Jingirian, president of Smythe & Cross Fine Jewelry on Main Street, who added that merchants have not been given enough opportunity to weigh in on the idea.

Jingirian said he talked to 10 other merchants about the idea, and most were opposed. He reminded proponents of the last time Main Street was closed for construction work in 2011.

“When the street was shut down, every small business suffered,” he said. “When you close down streets, you negatively impact businesses.”

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