In Need of a Mid Course Correction

This article is prompted by a comment made about our outdoor dining experiment. Here’s the key part of what someone wrote online:

Please you speak up so often on issues where you feel in the right but here you are silent. What is your plan for the businesses that have been impacted by this hasty decision. 2 blocks of Laurel street shut down for maybe 8 restaurants total open.

The street is closed on the 600 block of Laurel in front of Maverick Jacks, Ninos and Del Vitorrio Trattoria (All permanently closed) as well as Sneakers who is open for dinner only. Patxi’s is not using outdoor dining, neither are some of the restaurants on the 700 block. Town is building another monstrosity in front of their restaurant, why do they get a permanent park blocking the laundromat and more stores? Meanwhile the businesses on that street can’t get anyone to go in.

I have seen people say that 70% of tax revenue comes from the restaurants but how much are they truly making. What about all the tax revenue being lost because the other shops who can now open have no business?

What is the city council doing to help these businesses since you as a group were so quick to approve this motion without even a little bit of study on the other businesses involved. Or is this where the city is going to take its time now and do a proper study, causing many of these hard working entrepreneurs their livelihood.

from NextDoor

The timing of the post was amazing because it came in while I was meeting with a large number of the business owners on the blocks of Laurel which we converted into a temporary pedestrian mall. I wanted to meet with them after I heard their petition (which was presented to the Council at this week’s meeting) and because I’d been noticing for several days there were few people visiting our impromptu pedestrian mall. Which said, to me, we needed to make some adjustments.

I believe there are some pretty simple ones we could make which would make the experiment work better for more businesses. But let’s start by recapping how we got here.

The Council was well aware of the serious problems the pandemic-induced shutdown was causing. We’d been contacted by a variety of store and restaurant owners about it, too. There was a general desire that we should do something…but it wasn’t obvious what that something should be.

Normally the Council handles that kind of question — figure out what to do — by directing staff to launch a study effort. That involves doing research, talking to other communities, holding community meetings with interested or affected parties, making multiple reports back to Council to seek further guidance/clarification on goals, etc. Sometimes we go further and recruit/appoint a citizens commission to lead the overall effort, too1. Culminating in a major report to Council, discussion about alternatives, guidance to staff on what specifically we want to do, and then further discussion and a vote on the alternatives.

As you might imagine that takes time. A lot of time. Which makes it useless when trying to respond, quickly, to a rapidly-evolving major challenge.

So instead the Council took a different route. It appointed a subcommittee (Mayor Ron Collins and Adam Rak) to work with staff to come up with ideas, quickly. That process was launched in April and by the end of May had resulted in a specific proposal which the Council enacted. It was the subject of several Council discussions before adoption so there was an abbreviated form of the feedback/adjustment we normally use.

Not being on the subcommittee I don’t know precisely what discussions took place or their content. I do know efforts were made to contact different types of business owners, a number of whom provided valuable input. As did the Chamber of Commerce. But it was definitely done on an accelerated time frame because there was a strong desire by the Council to do something quickly. In situations like this an acceptable answer implemented quickly, even if it isn’t the best, is better than a better solution adopted later. Time is critical.

But implicit in that rapid response is the need to adapt, quickly, if things don’t pan out the way you expect them to. That’s where we are right now — we’re figuring out what adjustments to make, and get them made ASAP.

Here’s what I think went wrong: I believe the Council expected to see a significant upsurge in foot traffic as a result of creating a pedestrian mall. I know I did, so I’m to blame for what happened as much as anyone on the dais. The belief was those crowds would partake of outdoor dining…but also spend time shopping in our local stores. Because that’s how malls work — they attract customers with an array of offerings and make it attractive for people to hang out in them, visiting multiple stores and buying multiple products. The extra traffic would offset the loss of parking spaces immediately adjacent to retail shops.

That clearly didn’t happen. It was obvious, to me at least, the first couple of days I checked out the scene (I live nearby and spend a fair amount of time downtown, albeit less due to Covid-19). I’m sure it was equally obvious to my colleagues as well2.

The question then becomes, again, what do we do about it?

That discussion took place at this week’s meeting. The Council agreed the issue needed to come back to us for action3. That meant we would take it up at our next meeting4.

Which is why I was meeting with those business owners. I knew they were concerned, and wanted immediate action, but I suspected they weren’t aware no action could be taken until our next meeting, in early July. I wanted to educate them on the concept of special/emergency Council meetings and how to get one called5. I also wanted to offer them some advice on what they should be doing in the interim6, and to give them a chance to share their specific concerns directly with a Council member.

Based on that meeting they’ve modified their focus to include a push for the Council to call a special meeting ASAP to make the corrections.

I’m confident that special meeting will happen very soon7.

  1. We did that with the single family house size effort a few years back. 

  2. I don’t know how frequently they visit downtown and we’re not allowed, by law, to discuss matters within our purview outside of a properly agendized meeting. 

  3. That’s because the ordinance establishing the program did not grant the city manager authority to make the kinds of changes we are contemplating without Council approval. 

  4. Which is actually a rapid response although most people may not think so. Typically an item can take a couple of months to come before us because there are a lot of things we oversee. But this issue was deemed important enough to come back right away. 

  5. Short version: convince the mayor and the city manager one is needed. 

  6. That boiled down mostly to “keep lobbying the Council.” 

  7. Mayor Collins also told me there may be a way to make at least some of the adjustments before the Council takes action. Based on my research I’m not sure that’s possible but it would be great if it is, so I’m all for it. 

10 thoughts on “In Need of a Mid Course Correction”

  1. Karen L Sukle

    Mark: First of all thank you SO much for your continued support of our community. I really appreciate your wonderful communication. I just wonder why it appears that the city seems to focus on those two or three blocks of Laurel street, when many businesses are located on the other parts of Laurel. It seems like favoritism and must make those “southern” businesses feel as if they don’t matter as much. In an age of inclusiveness, is this fair to them? I remain your faithful follower, and again, thank you!

  2. LOL! I meant to address that and forgot…

    The Council directed staff to consider expanding the geographic scope of the program outside the northern parts of Laurel (i.e., the downtown core) because we have restaurants and shops all along Laurel Street. But it was given a lower priority, for two reasons: the density of such businesses is lower outside the downtown core; and expanding the scope would inevitably slow down implementation of whatever plan got followed.

    But it is an area of interest, and is being pursued so far as I know.

    FYI, the current program extends south to part of the 900 block, specifically targeting Refuge and The Arsenal.

  3. Mark
    I too appreciate your updates.
    I summary, my take away was that instead of taking a measured well thought out approach, they acted quickly and incorrectly……. now…. rather than admitting their error and rapidly correcting it…… they will drag their feet until July…..
    A refreshing approach would be for Mayor Ron to say “ I screwed up,” and remove the blockade by tomorrow morning.
    Oh well…. just a thought

  4. Hi Tom,

    To be fair you’d have to include me in the complaint since I supported what we’ve done. That’s what I meant when I said “the Council expected to see a significant upsurge in foot traffic.” That was my expectation, too (I’ve edited the article to make that clear).

    Moving quickly can result in mistakes which you also have to correct quickly. Because no one is smart enough to figure all the details out, and definitely not smart enough to do so under the gun.

    But waiting until you’re “sure” also exacts a price. In this case, harming other businesses (mostly restaurants) which are more constrained in their ability to adapt to the pandemic-induced restrictions than retail stores (e.g., because of social distancing requirements).

    Bottom line, while I wish we hadn’t made this particular mistake I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it…provided we learn from it, quickly, and make some changes, also quickly. The latter was my primary motivation for reaching out to the shop owners.

    I don’t want anyone to take that to mean “you owe me a free pass for the mistake” because I don’t mean that. We are all accountable for our choices, both the good ones and the poor ones, regardless of whether they’re made after intensive discussion or not. I’m just asking folks to remember the circumstances under which the decision was made and our willingness to recognize we needed to make changes and implement them quickly (provided we do, of course).

    I respect the right of anyone to demand their elected leaders make no mistakes. Me, I’d rather have ones who generally deliberate carefully but act quickly when circumstances demand it and always learn quickly. But that’s because I think any candidate who asserts they’d never make mistakes is a buffoon :).

  5. Carolyn Bierman

    Personally, I LOVE the pedestrian mall. Without it, I wouldn’t visit downtown at all. Most of the people eating outside aren’t wearing masks, even when waiting for food or after their meals are done, and walking down the middle of the street is the only way I feel comfortable and distant enough from other people.

    I also live in the hills and am planning on bringing my kids to the closed street to ride bikes (which are taking a while to arrive as we haven’t previously owned bicycles).

    I think one week of data is too little to proclaim that there isn’t enough foot traffic and that we need to change anything. Most of us are just now leaving our houses for the first time since March and need the extra space (literally and figuratively) to feel safe in the community again. The pedestrian walking area is fantastic.

  6. I really appreciate your regular communication and transparency! Presume you’re taking a look at what other nearby downtowns are doing and learning. Los Altos, Mountain View, and Menlo Park are all running pilots. I drove by downtown Los Altos on Sunday, and they had their two major streets in downtown completely blocked. They are doing it Thursdays – Sundays versus 24×7, per this article:

  7. Thanx for the link, Gretchen. Los Altos’ approach would probably be better, at least to start, for San Carlos (there are other choices, too, of course, which would be an improvement over what we’re currently doing). In hindsight we should’ve considered approaches that could grow “demand” for a pedestrian mall over time rather than opt for an immediate “solution” (e.g., by starting with limited closure hours and growing as and when enough people were using the pedestrian mall as a mall).

    1. Allison Chang

      I love the pedestrian mall, in theory. Because I live downtown, I’ve walked through many times. Mask compliance (among people *not* actively dining) isn’t nearly as high as one would expect under a state order. I do not feel safe shopping for non-essentials when it means dodging the maskless–and the nose-overs–while walking on the sidewalk or waiting in line. The pandemic isn’t over; California’s cases are spiking; we don’t have effective tracking and tracing in place. If the City wants us to shop on Laurel, provide free no-contact hand sanitizer downtown and insist on masks indoors *and out*–Laurel isn’t a hiking trail.

  8. The idea of closing the street to create an outdoor mall was a good one. Unfortunately, many San Carlos residents refuse to wear masks. This would be annoying by acceptable if they walked in the now-closed street. However, they insist on walking on the sidewalks, thru the seating areas. While we hoped to take advantage of this outdoor mall, we do not feel safe doing so.

    Perhaps if the restaurant seating areas we actually in the street, nincompoops wouldn’t walk thru it mask-less. Alternatively, the seating areas could be closed off with stanchions or other easily movable barriers, with a central entrance flanked on both sides by restaurant menus, as is done at outdoor eateries around the world, restaurant clientele, who must remove their mask to eat, wouldn’t be put at risk.

  9. Elisabeth Rossi

    Hi Mark,

    I have a comment and request.
    My comment: I also live near downtown and enjoy walking there. My husband and I took an early evening stroll the 2nd day of the street closure. I was pretty excited about having more space (the street) to walk in. There were a lot of other people out that evening and since many (perhaps even, most) were mask-less, I didn’t return as I felt uncomfortable. I also noticed that once people sat in at the outdoor dining areas (some, not all), they were closer than 6′ to each other – so that is another activity I plan not to do. Add going to my gym to that list as about 1/3 of the patrons were not wearing masks when I worked out last week. I ran an errand downtown this week and took a walk from SC Avenue down to Arroyo. I’m happy to report that EVERYONE was wearing a mask!!
    My request: I so appreciate your blog as without it I wouldn’t know half of what goes on in SC and I really try to be informed! I get notifications about the City Council meetings and agenda, but who has time to go through that package – not people who work full time. I’m on the Redwood City email list and they do a much better job of communicating with their residents. They send emails regularly about what is going on. My request is that before you leave the Council, you spearhead initiating better ways to communicate with the residents. That would be an incredibly useful legacy!

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