How About a Downtown Pedestrian Plaza?

This is a comment I posted on Chuck Gillooley’s White Oaks blog. I thought it deserved a broader audience. It was in response to his article about the Council’s recent discussion of the temporary Laurel Street closure, and a poll he published asking if people would like to see it made “permanent”.

Just about every single Council member, at some point in their career (usually just after joining the Council), comes up with this idea. Or so Jeff Maltbie, the city manager, told me when I approached him with it back in 2012.

There are a lot of benefits to the change. But there are also a lot of costs, primarily in terms of reduced parking.

There are 56 parking spaces on the block of Laurel between Cherry and San Carlos Avenue, and a similar number on each of the other blocks. When you consider that the entire Wheeler Parking Garage only contains about 250 spaces you can see that each block converted to a pedestrian mall costs a non-trivial portion of San Carlos’ downtown parking capacity. That’s always been the primary reason the idea died on the vine.

But times — and the make-up of a community — change, and what was a requirement a decade ago isn’t necessarily one anymore. Many of the people who have moved to San Carlos in the last 20 years are more open to walking a bit further, getting to and from downtown without using a car, etc. At the same time the older San Carlans whose lives revolved more centrally around cars have been moving on, or passing away. So we may be at a tipping point regarding the impact of losing that downtown parking.

Another cost of the conversion has to do with the “ecology” of the downtown businesses. As can be seen with the pandemic-triggered experiment of closing off parts of Laurel the businesses that primarily took advantage of it were the restaurants.

This was the one thing which, personally, I did not expect when we launched the experiment. I expected the retail shops would take advantage of the increased foot traffic caused by people coming down to enjoy outdoor dining to move some portion of their business outside. That just didn’t happen, except to a very limited extent.

If the closures were made “permanent” (keeping in mind there is absolutely nothing government does which is truly permanent — everything can be reversed if you’re willing to pay the price) we’d probably see this dichotomy in usage continue, with the restaurants dominating the outdoor scene. That’s not necessarily bad…but it does change the tone of the downtown (e.g., making it deadsville, mostly, outside of meal times).

One of the bigger challenges the Council will have to face is how is the community going to get compensated for giving up the use of the public right of way? To be blunt, I won’t be surprised to see the restauranteurs — particularly since they, like all businesses, have been hard-hit by the pandemic — take the position that they should simply be allowed to use the public space since the public enjoys outdoor dining (and maybe shopping, ultimately) so much.

That would, to be frank, cause me to have a stroke. No one in their right mind, communities included, should give away something of significant value, for free. And don’t tell me we’ll get paid through increased sales taxes — cities get relatively little of each dollar of sales tax, and nothing comparable to the increased costs we’d bear in terms of having a great outdoor dining/shopping arena (e.g., required increased law enforcement activity).

No, any deal to use the public right of way needs to be cash on the barrel head. Even the Federal government doesn’t let mining and forestry companies use Federal land for free! We should lease out the space and use the money to cover the increased costs of having such a venue, plus use it to enhance other aspects of public life in San Carlos (e.g., more or better parks, anyone?).

With that caveat I hope we do try creating a pedestrian mall environment. As others said, the climate is ideal, and having to walk a couple of blocks isn’t that big a deal to me (and for those whom it is, why not use some of the fees we get from leasing the space to pay for small shuttles services that loop to, say, the SamTrans lots?).

– Mark Olbert Happily Retired Former Councilmember, Mayor and Chair 

3 thoughts on “How About a Downtown Pedestrian Plaza?”

  1. No one mentions the empty Cal train lot from Arroyo to the train station. This is a no brainer, close 600-800 blocks of Laurel to all auto traffic.

    1. It’s not quite that simple, Len. That lot is owned by CalTrain and they are under no obligation to offer it as free public parking, even outside of normal commuting hours. Could a deal to use it on nights and weekends? Probably. For a price.

  2. I love San carlos cıty should keep it like thıs ı have meet alot new people theyyre comıng from anıther towns bcs they saıd San carlos looks lıke lıttle european cıtıes like the way now

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