Downtown Vison Plan-Vision, Wish List, or Nightmare?
Remember the Downtown Vision Plan? It was touted as the way Los Altos would be able to unify all the disparate views of our downtown and put a plan in place to ensure growth and prosperity. The previous Los Altos City Council spent over $300K on a Downtown Vision Study. The plan was driven primarily by Jean Mordo when he was a member of that previous City Council, and during his unsuccessful bid for re- election he touted the Vision Plan as his crowning achievement as a Council member. Now, more than a year has passed and nothing has happened to that report, other than it being “adopted” (“adopted” in this context simply means the Council officially acknowledges receipt of the report) by the new City Council in August 2018. The Council recently set as a priority for 2019 to identify elements of the plan that could be implemented in the short term, i.e., “low-hanging fruit” such as outdoor dining that were possible with little effort.
FOLA strongly supports a more vibrant downtown, but the plan is long on wish lists such as affordable housing, a downtown theater, hotel, and outdoor dining, but all of those are to be placed on our existing parking plazas. For instance, a downtown theater is a great idea, but it has never penciled-out financially due in part to the cost of land. Solution? Put it on one of the parking plazas. What about the lost parking? The downtown plan kicks that down the road with possible parking plazas that would take years to design and construct. It is the same with almost every other proposal – put it on one of the parking plazas. The problem is that we currently have little or no excess parking. The Vision Plan solves this “parking problem” not by providing additional parking, but by the sleight of hand of reducing the parking requirements below all those of neighboring cities, allow parking in lieu fees, and the future construction of above ground parking structures.
While we think that many of the other ideas, such as a large public plaza for dining and gathering would be a great attraction, we are unclear on how, when, and at what cost the City will be able to replace the hundred or more parking spots that will be lost. Unfortunately, the report does not address how all of this is to be accomplished, what the economics are (i.e., how much money the City will have to invest) and how and when replacement parking would be provided. Indeed, the only explanation provided is an obscure comment in the appendix that funding can be providing by selling part of the city hall campus which includes the community center and sports fields. We hope that future City Councils will be more thoughtful when engaging outside consultants to consider how we develop and change our downtown. Bottom line: long on concept, short on detail, or as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle”.
Meanwhile, the downtown seems more vibrant that ever. On a recent Saturday night, many of the restaurants were busy, often overflowing diners into the adjacent sidewalk areas. And things may get better. The folks at Los Altos Community Investments (LACI) who created a multi-year eyesore at 170 State Street are happily finally working on renovations of their building which presumably will help generate increased activity in a part of town that has been moribund for years. LACI is also making renovations to Bumble on First Street.
At the other end of First Street in the direction of Los Altos Hardware, numerous mixed use and residential projects are being approved with no apparent overall plan or design concept. It is notable
that at least one Council member, Neysa Fligor, has raised a concern that additional housing along First Street may impact the availability of parking for the area’s businesses who depend upon street parking. Given that BMR (below market rate) housing has a lower parking requirement than market rate housing and the general dearth of visitor parking for the new residential units, we share her concern.
So the real questions are (a) Where are we as a community going with our downtown development? (b) If the Downtown Vision Plan were implemented, would it lead us to a more vibrant downtown or a real mess without adequate parking and resulting loss of customers? Your guess is as good as ours.