Businesses fleeing Cal Ave. (list at the end)

California Avenue in Palo Alto. File photo.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Since the city of Palo Alto reduced California Avenue from four to two lanes a decade ago, a total of 21 businesses that opposed the change are no longer operating on the street.

A bookstore, a pharmacy, a camera shop and different kinds of restaurants — Mexican, French, Chinese and Japanese — are among the casualties.

Some of the lost businesses were on Cal Ave. for a long time, like Maximart Pharmacy, which lasted from 1972 to 2019, and Keeble and Shuchat Photography, which was open from 1965 to 2016.

They were all part of a coalition of 58 businesses in 2012 that asked the city to invest in Cal Ave., but not to make major changes. They made their feelings known through full-page newspaper ads and letters. “Many of our customers arrive by car, and we believe two lanes would be inconvenient, potentially dangerous and detrimental to business,” said a letter by the coalition.

Improvements wanted

The coalition asked the city to provide better parking, to repave and repaint the street and to create raised and brightly marked crosswalks. They also wanted more lighting, plants and trash cans.

“The California Avenues Business District is already successful due to its unique character and the longevity of its local small businesses,” the letter said. “We hope that the city continues with safety and beautification efforts for the district, but leaves the existing lane structure intact.”

The coalition wrote letters, bought newspaper ads and some of its members filed a lawsuit. But their efforts were unsuccessful: Council voted in July 2012 to reduce the number of lanes and redesign the public areas. Construction was completed in 2015 for $7.2 million.

A similar dynamic exists today, although the coalition has 35 businesses, and they’re now asking for one lane to be open.

Jessica Roth of the Cobblery and Michael Ekwall of La Bodeguita del Medio are two of the coalition’s leaders, both then and now.

Cal Ave. has the highest vacancy rate of any shopping area in Palo Alto, around 15%, according to the city’s economic development consultant.

Consultant hired

The street was closed to cars in March 2020 to give restaurants more space for outdoor dining during the pandemic.

Council extended the closure for three years before making it permanent on Monday. They’ll now hire a consultant, Urban Field Studio, to come up with a design for the street.

City Manager Ed Shikada has acknowledged that the changes won’t affect all businesses equally.

“There’s an evolution that’s happening that will be more inviting for some types of businesses than others,” he told council in March 2022.

Businesses that closed since July 2012

Accent Arts
Antonio’s Nut House
Avalon Art & Yoga Center
Baume Restaurant
Cafe Brioche
Cho’s Dim Sum
Cigar House
Country Sun Natural Foods (closing in December)
Ingrid’s Suntanning
Keeble and Shuchat Photography
Maximart Pharmacy
No Knew Books
Office of Dr. Kenneth Seeman
Palo Alto Baking Company
Ramona’s Too Pizza
Spalti Restaurant
Szechzuan Cafe
Taqueria Azteca
The Industry Hair Artists
Zen Garden Nail Salon


    • Maximart and Ramona’s Two were part of the California Ave district. You sound like somebody from the City trying to fudge the numbers.

      • Unless the argument is that a 4 lane street going nowhere would have increased the foot traffic on adjacent streets, it’s hard to see why being part of the same district would have an effect on pre-COVID business closures. Car traffic in the California Ave district is alive and well, including new parking structures and revamped street side parking.

        • Right, he couldn’t sell his business that he had built up over a lifetime, and many others shut down on Cal Ave for the same reason. The street is an albatross. Going to two lanes cut the traffic available to stores. It’s impossible to succeed there.

  1. Time to allow more varied uses on Cal Ave (i.e. fix the zoning) and build housing withing walking/biking distance. More customers are the only thing that is going to save Cal Ave’s retail. New signage, paving, and festivals can only go so far.

  2. Mixing correlation with causation. Business close everywhere. It’s hard to compete with Amazon and other big stores. Restaurants close all the time, especially around COVID.

      • It doesn’t. There are vacancies and turnover in many business districts. On University Avenue and Santa Cruz Avenue businesses left in the face of huge rent increases.

        • Chuck, you got to leave Palo Alto if you’re comparing cities. Los Altos, Los Gatos, San Carlos, Mountain View, San Mateo and both Burlingame business districts are flourishing. And, believe it or not, they all face challenges in the form of Amazon and recovering from the pandemic. Your comparison is myopic to say the least.

          • Los Altos is definitely not flourishing. Mountain View has done well because they’ve built a lot of new housing near businesses to keep them thriving. That’s something Palo Alto won’t do.

    • I didn’t realize that Amazon and Covid only afflicted the businesses on Cal Ave. How is it possible that these two impediments only affected stores on Cal Ave and not downtown or Redwood City or San Mateo.

  3. This article is misleading…Over the past 10 years, most of those business may have closed due to other reasons. And where is the notification of increased rent from building owners. Businesses need to stay current with the needs of their customers, and maintain clean modern stores. The city is not responsible for run down dirty buildings…although stronger criteria/oversight for business building style and maintenance may be the answer!

  4. I agree this is a misleading article. California Ave is thriving today in a much-changed world from 2012. The city is moving with the times.

  5. A poorly researched article. Businesses close and open for a variety of reasons. The writer could have compared the close rate to that of comparable businesses in other locations. For example how many camera stores survived since the introduction of smartphones? What’s the life of a typical restaurant?

    • But all those things you and the City cite for reasons of small business failure afflict all business districts. So given that those factors apply universally, why does Cal Ave have more empty spaces than Castro in Mountain View, Laurel in San Carlos, downtown Los Altos? What’s different?

      • Well it can’t be the traffic lanes because Castro also has closed a majority of the street primarily around it’s restaurant space to traffic.

      • You make a very good point I think the difference is the City of Palo Alto is more concentrated on University Ave & that surrounding business district.

  6. This is a terribly misleading article.

    Restaurants come and go – as I went through the list, 90% of the restaurant spaces listed as having closed have reopened as another restaurant. Accent Arts was driven out by high rent. The reduction of traffic on Cal Ave had little, if anything, to do with these closures.

    No Knew Books? Why didn’t the author reach all the way back to Printers Ink? (Yes, I miss them both, but they were killed by online shopping and increased rents, not reduced car traffic.)

    Cal Ave is thriving. It would do even better if some of those buildings got refreshed.

    • This article is spot-on. California Avenue has an unusually high vacancy rate compared to other business districts. And here’s a news flash for some of the commenters above and our city leaders: Amazon exists in every town in the peninsula. So the Amazon effect is as strong on California Avenue as it is in downtown San Mateo or Burlingame.

    • Cal Ave isn’t thriving. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the shabby buildings and ask why property owners aren’t spending money to improve them? They’re not going to throw good money after bad. Wake up! Cal Ave is dying!

  7. Cal Ave is much better without cars. I live in the neighborhood and new businesses are opening up with lots customers, even around the corners near the new police station. Why don’t you mention the new boxing gym, 2 yoga Pilates studio, Board Game Center,Zarren expansion, mini golf course, new hand made cake store just opened this week, MJs, Treasure palace, Nepali restaurant…..these are happened with NO CAR and people can enjoy their kids running so run and chill anywhere with public tables

  8. You make a very good point I think the difference is the City of Palo Alto is more concentrated on University Ave & that surrounding business district.

  9. Local residents are confusing their desire for a new public park, chock full of freebies, with a healthy business district. Now they’re criticizing the businesses that they’re failing to sufficiently support. Are they still gonna want to walk in a ‘car-free’ street if the vacancy rates continue to climb?

  10. Palo Alto business district landlords want about three times the rent a traditional retail/restaurant business model could justify for the area. That started with Facebook taking up so many retail spots downtown when they were expanding. When Facebook pulled out, there was a wake a vacancies with stubborn highballing landlords. Bistro Elan pulled out of the spot Terun is in because their rent was tripled when the lease came up for renewal. The next tenant failed. The Terun folks are very dynamic, opening a lot more seating out back, for example. No sleepy mom and pop business can cope with the rent on Cal Ave. or downtown. Landlords seem to be better off sitting on a vacancy for a few years and waiting for someone to pay the high rent they’re asking, rather than discounting to something more reasonable. A friend of mine ended up opening his dream business down in Monterey. If anything, sales are higher for him than they would be in the Palo Alto area – with a bigger space, lower rent, less restrictions, etc.

    • Hi Insane,

      Would you know what the average commercial rent is on Cal Ave? I mean, you’re such an expert that I’m sure it will take you just a second to answer this question. And I’m sure you’ll cite your source. Waiting …

  11. If this is such a good idea why doesn’t Burlingame,Los Gatos or San Carlos ban cars? Because they don’t live in a fantasy world businesses need cars and for all the pathetic commenters who blame the businesses for the city’s decisions try running a retail shop with only foot traffic so glad I sold my shop on Cal Ave all the retailers knew it was doomed see Lucky Plaza that’s what u get when citizens and the city overreach its called failure. Enjoy the few restaurants that are profiting at the expense of Mr Shikada refereed to businesses that don’t belong your social engineering is a failure.

  12. Accent Arts and Avalon Yoga Center closed because their rent was raised.
    Antonio’s Nut House and Taqueria Azteca closed because the landlord wants to redevelop their building.
    Baume changed the dining model that lasted for many years and didn’t succeed with their new approach.
    Ingrid’s Suntanning was on Park Boulevard, barely in the California Avenue shopping district.
    Keeble and Shuchat closed primarily because the photography business changed. Camera shops are closing everywhere.

    It’s nonsense to blame all this on reconfigured traffic patterns. Correlation is not causation.

      • I can’t speak for every commercial landlord on the peninsula, but the properties I’m familiar with on Cal Ave have seen their rent go down. Landlords don’t want them to close because it’s better to have some money coming in the door than none at all. Cal Ave is a dead zone right now because nobody wants to locate there if they have other options. But the poorly capitalized businesses will flock to Cal Ave because of the lower rents.

  13. This article is so sad. Just pathetic example of weak propaganda. And comical to see who are the fools of Palo Alro trying to pull the rest of us down with them into the grave as they hold on dearly to the past.

    • I’ve got to wonder how many of the comments above came from City PR employees. I wonder because I remember that after the New Year’s Eve flood, Council Member Lythcott-Haimes said she thought the city should deal with the flooding by having PR staffers make comments on social media, I guess to sway public opinion. And the opinions being expressed above aren’t shared by merchants or shoppers. Something suspicious is going on here.

  14. Good article! This needed to be said. The city is largely to blame for Cal Ave’s problems, and City Council won’t take responsibility for their actions.

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