Castro Street businesses weigh in on permanent street

After more than two years of allowing a few blocks of Castro Street businesses to utilize the street for outdoor dining, the Mountain View City Council is taking steps to turn this temporary program into a permanent pedestrian mall.

The city voted to close part of Castro Street to vehicular traffic in June 2020, following the lead of other cities like Palo Alto that implemented similar programs in response to the pandemic. The current Castro StrEATs program allows businesses and the public to utilize the car-free roadway on the 100 to 300 blocks of the street.

The city has conducted several engagement activities to get feedback about the program over the last two years, and according to a city staff report, the community has indicated a strong support for making the street closure permanent.

“I think it’s absolutely fabulous,” said David Gamow, manager of East West Bookshop located at 324 Castro Street. “We get a lot of walk-by traffic, and cars zipping past is not the same as people strolling Castro Street. I get people all the time that say, ‘This is fantastic, it feels like a European city or something.’”

But before the city can decide to keep Castro Street closed forever, there are a few steps required by the California Pedestrian Mall Law of 1960.

“What you’re doing tonight is the first step in establishing a permanent pedestrian mall … which is to adopt a resolution of intent to create this mall on the first three blocks of Castro Street,” Public Works Director Dawn Cameron said at a June 28 council meeting. “That kicks off a minimum 90 day public review period.”

After the review period, a public hearing will be held Oct. 11, where the city will take formal public comment on the creation of a pedestrian mall.

Staff said that if the street closure becomes permanent, the city will need to pursue some major changes to infrastructure.

“When you look around the country at other pedestrian malls, eventually we would have to do a complete reconstruction of the street so that it no longer looks like a street, everything is at one level,” Cameron said.

She said any reconstruction is at least a few years off.

“That’s going to be a major capital improvement project, it’s going to take time and effort to do thoughtful design, working with our community, and eventually constructing it,” Cameron said. “So one of the key considerations we have is, how are we going to handle this interim period or this transitional period between what we see out there today and the eventual reconstruction of the street.”

Chuck Imerson, CEO of the popular fast-casual restaurant Asian Box located at 142 Castro Street, said he supported the initial closure of Castro.

“I think the closure definitely benefits the full-service restaurants more that needed the outside seating during the pandemic,” Imerson said, whereas Asian Box is more of a grab-and-go type business. “At this point it’s probably kind of neutral for us.”

Imerson said he supports permanently closing Castro as long as it keeps driving increased foot traffic.

“I don’t have the statistics on if more people are walking around there because it’s a more attractive walking venue,” Imerson said. “If it becomes a more inviting walking space for the weekend traffic, where people want to go down there and just spend the day, then I would be in favor of keeping it closed long term.”

He said the closure can make it challenging for third party delivery services to navigate and pick up orders from restaurants like his.

“Those are the things that certainly impact us more directly,” Imerson said.

Juan Origel, owner of Ava’s Downtown Market and Deli located at 340 Castro Street, is in a unique position as his business includes both a retail grocery market and a dine-in restaurant component.

“We do have two restaurants inside the store,” Origel said, and having the street shut down benefits that portion of his business greatly. But some challenges arise with retail.

“The way Americans are used to shopping, they’ll drive around a parking lot 10 times just to get to the closest spot to the front of the store. That’s the kind of mindset that most Americans have. That has affected me,” Origel said. “… Even though there’s a parking structure behind us, there’s something about having that front door that people like to park close to.”

During the 90-day review process prior to the Oct. 11 hearing, Public Works Director Cameron said the city will continue to do outreach with business owners, property owners and the community to hear what these key constituencies want a pedestrian mall to look like, and what infrastructural improvements will help businesses thrive from the change.

“The entire street need not be used for dining purposes,” Cameron said. “What we’re looking at is how can we bring more public gathering, more public interest, a certain amount of maybe public furniture added to it. Maybe there’s a play structure. There’s a lot of opportunities there we want to entertain that create activation and engagement.”

Some infrastructural changes the city wants to make include improving intersection crossings to make it safer for pedestrians to navigate cross street traffic as well as accessibility improvements, like adding more ramps mid-block.

Councilmember Lisa Matichak moved to pass the resolution of intent to establish a pedestrian mall, the first step in the process toward establishing a permanent street closure as required by the Pedestrian Mall Act of 1960. Vice Mayor Alison Hicks seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.

“I think we have to give time not only to solving difficult problems in the city but also to making sure that the community feels fully engaged on things that bring joy to living in the city, and this is one that I get comments from members of the public,” Hicks said. “One of the happiest things they say has come out of the pandemic.”