Over the past few decades, Palo Alto’s California Avenue has managed to maintain its quirky low-key vibe, with local, independent businesses, like Palo Alto Eyeworks and Campus Barber Shop sharing sidewalk space with the Christian Science Reading Room and Ivy Tutor offices.
But California Avenue will soon experience a makeover, as the city engages in a major renovation project that includes expanding the sidewalks and reducing traffic lanes from four to two. Some business owners — having seen some long-time businesses forced out by higher rents already — are expressing fears that the upgrades, known as the Streetscape Project, could force them to relocate too.
“It is going to make it a very desirable place for a lot of big-name businesses that small businesses can’t compete with in terms of rent,” said Jessica Roth, owner of European Cobblery — which has been at its current location, 410 S. California Ave., since 1982. Her great-grandfather first opened the shop at a different location on California Avenue in 1940.
The future of California Avenue is being debated as the City Council tinkers with a comprehensive plan to guide future development. Some council members say California Avenue has room to grow and want to see it as bustling as nearby University Avenue.
But many native Palo Altans worry that the street could lose its distinctive characteristics and that long-standing, independent businesses will be replaced by chain stores.
City Council Member Greg Schmid explained the clash of views: “One is that California Avenue should be a local shopping center with one or two-story buildings,” he said. “The other is that it should be more of an ‘office-based downtown.'”
In April 2012, a group of California Avenue business owners took out a full-page advertisement in the Palo Alto Daily News to oppose the Streetscape Project.
“We fought it tooth and tail,” European Cobblery’s Roth said. “We like California Avenue the way it is.”
Some businesses have already felt the transformation to a more upscale strip.
Cho’s tiny dim sum restaurant at 213 S. California Ave. is slated to close on March 23 after more than three decades. The owners, Cho and Daisy Yu, received a 60-day eviction notice on Jan. 16. The landlord declined to renew the lease, saying she is renovating the property. One resident circulated an online petitionto keep the restaurant open that has amassed more than 2,000 signatures.
Other long-standing businesses have already left because of changes on the strip.
Bill Burruss, 68, opened his used bookstore, “Know Knew Books,” on California Avenue in 1988. After 25 years on California Avenue, Burruss moved the store to Los Altos last October, after he says his lease expired and rent increased by $2,000 per month to $7,600.
“The difference between 1988 and now is substantial,” Burruss said. “I think the community isn’t there anymore.”
Burruss pointed to the decrease in retailers and increase in restaurants. “It went from a place that had a steady flow of local people throughout the day to a more time-oriented area — lunch and dinner,” Burruss said.
Arthur Keller, a member of the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission, expressed sympathy for the local businesses’ concerns but said he couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t be forced out amid future development.
“We don’t have rent control for commercial stores,” Keller said. “I don’t think we can make sure local businesses are not priced out, but what we can do is at least make sure that they don’t have to compete with chain stores that are more deep-pocketed than the local businesses can be.”