First Street park would enhance charm
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in Asher Kohn’s article in the March 29 Town Crier (“Have we lost that Los Altos feeling?”). We need more buildings in Los Altos like the Packard Foundation headquarters, and the “village charm” of Los Altos can be maintained even as we develop a vibrant downtown.
To preserve the village look and feel, we can use scale and design. Buildings that come up to the lot line but conform to city code can (as we have seen) create a canyon effect, but new buildings need not go all the way to the edge of the property line. They can instead be stepped back so that any third-story element is basically invisible from the adjacent sidewalks, and trees and green space can be an integral part of their plans, as the Packard building has successfully shown.
When I think of a village, I don’t think of a place that puts the automobile front and center. A village is not all about cars. While we need to take parking into account, we can do better than typical asphalt parking lots, which often detract from the beauty of a building or landscaping. The visual impact of parking lots at street level can be minimized by putting them underground or behind structures.
A village is about people. Adding pedestrian activity to downtown includes sponsoring family-oriented events, concerts, community meeting space, farmers’ markets and outdoor movies. The First Street Green proposed by Los Altos Community Investments would provide underground parking and make downtown a livelier, more inviting destination, with more community space and more green space. That’s a good thing.
We can have a vibrant downtown and preserve Los Altos’ small-town charm at the same time. The solution is reasonable growth that encourages our residents to come downtown for entertainment and to shop or dine, so they don’t necessarily have to go elsewhere. The First Street Green is a sensible, creative idea that would help us get there.
I read the March 29 Town Crier article on the downtown visioning process (“Have we lost that Los Altos feeling?” with more than a passing interest. As a 30-year (wow, that went fast) resident, I have a deep interest in the tenor of the town.
I see we’ve hired a professional to guide us in this process. While I am happy for professional guidance, I must say it doesn’t really comfort me.
We have been working on this for years and it feels more like “Waiting for Godot” than “Finding Nemo.”
More importantly, I never felt that a place’s vision is a thing you can assemble. It’s not, “Let’s get some new buildings, a few recovered-wood benches and some bright-colored planters” and the world will beat a path to our door. Ambience is much more the result of everything that comprises it. A company’s culture is not about the T-shirts and snack selection, someone’s personality is not about a fancy new pair of shoes, and a town’s feel is not about architecture, banners or lights on trees.
Paradoxically, a town’s ambience is about everything and about nothing. It is rarely one single thing that makes a place what it is, but rather about how all the pieces come together to create a whole.
It is easy to focus on the process. Let’s get the community’s feedback. Let’s reach out so that everyone’s interests are heard. Hold some working meetings. I don’t believe you do these things from the bottom up. It just doesn’t work.
Why do I say this? In my experience, you can rarely get five people to agree on the color of the sky, never mind agreeing on something that involves personal preferences like which movie to see or a restaurant choice for dinner. Besides, I believe that most people don’t want to get bogged down in the details of building heights and setbacks – they just want it to look good. And yes, it can be done. Exhibit A: Compare the delightful job Abigail Ahrens did with making Enchanté Boutique Hotel look absolutely inviting with the big-city feel of the view of First Street from the corner of First and Main.
We need a plan for our little town. This is not a teardown. Let’s analyze what makes the town special and do more of those things. And minimize those things that are at odds with or threaten those “special” components.