The Laurel Street Non-Debate

The Laurel Street Non-Debate

Although many consider the moniker hokey, the “City of Good Living” is a fairly appropriate slogan for San Carlos (and of course, the inspiration behind the name of this website). The weather is mild almost all year long, we’re near hundreds of leading businesses, schools are strong, and most of its residents are open-minded and progressive. But nature abhors a vacuum, and when there aren’t big problems to tackle, we San Carlans tend to put way too much time and energy into the little debates (long-time residents will remember that it took eight years to decide whether to put a natural grass or artificial turf field at Highlands Park). Often there is a reasonable and honest disagreement about these issues, even if frankly they may not warrant the level of attention that get. Often our elected officials (the author having been one formerly) forget the selection bias in the way they receive input (most happy people don’t show up to public meetings or write their elected representatives) and intentionally or unintentionally fuel these debates.

Now imagine this taken to the extreme — an issue where an overwhelming majority of residents agree on an issue, yet we make it really difficult to make the obvious decision. Such is the case regarding Laurel Street downtown.

In June 2020, the city adopted a program to close the 600 and 700 blocks of Laurel Street and allow “parklets” (public seating platforms that convert curbside parking spaces into community spaces, often for outside dining) along much of Laurel Street as well as San Carlos Avenue (the city later re-opened the 600 block). The idea here was to give businesses the ability to expand into an outside space where people would feel comfortable being during the pandemic. Although this was mostly relevant for restaurants, a few other retailers also leveraged the outside space for commerce. The program was certainly an experiment and originally planned until the end of 2020. In November 2020, with the pandemic still raging, the city extended the program until September 1, 2021.

The program was more popular than anyone could imagine. People flocked back to downtown, and restaurants roared back to life. Some restaurants put up modest outdoor eating areas while others spent a fair bit in creating nice dining spaces along with heat, light, etc. The new crowds, ironically, made some people uncomfortable for a while — certainly until our country’s vaccination program was underway. It reminded me of the famous Yogi Berra quote: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Of course, any action that would disincentivize outdoor gatherings would clearly be a worse outcome (it’s relevant to note that San Carlans followed public health guidance very well — as of this writing, the town has had only 761 COVID-19 cases, and over 97% of eligible residents are now vaccinated).

In addition to being a lifeline for many businesses, the lifestyle improvement in San Carlos is undeniable. Laurel Street is becoming much closer to a pedestrian mall and people love the pleasure of outdoor dining. Although we’re unaware of any formal surveys done, it is difficult to find anyone in town who doesn’t prefer the new set up.

But, keeping with San Carlos tradition, there was pushback, mostly from non-restaurant businesses who claimed that the lack of parking was hurting their business. Although no doubt these retailers have suffered over the last 18 months, it defies logic to blame this on reduced parking along Laurel. If anything, the new set-up has dramatically increased foot traffic along the street, and there still remains very ample parking nearby (Wheeler Plaza has over 200 parking spaces). This is a good example of correlation not equaling causation. The retailers’ woes have nothing to do with Laurel Street parking, but rather are a direct effect of the pandemic itself. A restaurant has an advantage in that dining experiences can be set up to mitigate pandemic risks (by having spaced tables outside), but non-restaurant retailers do not have these advantages. Most retailers can’t bring their entire inventory outside everyday, and particularly during a pandemic, customers are not going to have a level of need to browse through antiques or clothing. Their problems are exacerbated by the “Amazon effect,” existing long before the pandemic but certainly accelerated by it, where most hard goods can be purchased online. Dry cleaners are doing worse not because of parking issues, but because of Zoom meetings! This fundamental risk to the business model of non-restaurant retailers is unfortunately not something that any change on Laurel Street can help or hurt. (I have heard from members of the City Council about the great pressure they’re getting from some of these retailers, but unfortunately those frustrations are misdirected).

But because of some of this pushback, San Carlos city staff in April recommended to the City Council to consider an earlier date (June 15) to end the program, but the Council did not, keeping the deadline of September. In June, Staff asked the Council to affirm the September 2021 end to the program, but the Council decided (on a 3-2 vote) to extend the closure until September 2022 and have city staff study a permanent solution. It’s important to note that the current policy by the city falls under the legal framework of an emergency order by the Governor, so in order to change Laurel Street on a permanent basis, the city must meet other legal and procedural requirements, including traffic studies, examining ADA requirements, etc. The extended time was meant to provide the city the ability to do this.

Anecdotally, the talk among San Carlans is not only whether the city will make the program permanent, but whether it will actually EXPAND it — meaning closing more blocks of Laurel Street and/or putting more investment into the parklets. In making the program permanent, the city should certainly examine the appropriate regulations to ensure patron and pedestrian safety, put standards in for design, and look at other reasonable rules. However, in a town where everything becomes a debate, I hope people will see this one for the no-brainer that it is.

4 thoughts on “The Laurel Street Non-Debate

  1. I want Laurel Street back. Totally not a no brainer and the Council was negligent in their duty to the public to extend it until 2022.

    A) I miss the parking. Wheeler Plaza is a poor substitute.
    B) I don’t have any great desire to walk downtown for the sake of walking, and the businesses strewn all over the sidewalk block the ability to simply move freely.
    C) I don’t think it is right for our local government to choose that restaurants win and retailers lose. Let rents, business, and a normal market make those choices.
    D) It is effectively a massive giveaway of public land and the value represented therein to restaurants. I don’t want my taxes funding private business land grabs.
    D.0) Do those structures need to comply with ANY kind of building codes? Aesthetic rules? Any rules at all? Seriously.
    D.1) If businesses get such a giveaway, I would like to petition to expand my house well into my street, as I feel as a resident I am at least as deserving and the pandemic also affected my use of my private space. You don’t really need to get two cars past my house at the same time anyway.

    1. Jon — we will obviously agree to disagree.
      A) I’m not sure what parking you miss — it’s not like it was so easy to park on Laurel Street before the parklets. And I’m a huge fan of the Wheeler Plaza parking. It’s reliable, predictable, and I save lots of time just going there initially instead of what I used to do, which was circling around looking for parking.
      B) I don’t see how the businesses impede walking. If anything on the 700 block, you now how the entire road to use for walking.
      C) The city isn’t choosing winners and losers, as all businesses can use the outdoor space. It’s the market that’s choosing restaurants to win. That has been happening in San Carlos for some time.
      D) I certainly don’t object to having the businesses pay the city for the use of the public space, but ultimately this setup accrues a value to the entire community (and let’s not forget that the increased capacity actually brings in sales tax revenue to the city — so, it’s hardly a taxpayer giveaway). I think the job of the city is to continually improve the quality of life of its citizens, and this certainly does in my opinion. And I would assume that the long-term rules will certainly include safety and aesthetic requirements.

  2. A) I’m fine with Wheeler Plaza, but it shouldn’t be assumed to serve the entire length of Laurel St through the Post Office. Keeping street spaces make it feasible to run quick errands downtown. We must go at different times, because until lately, I rarely have had to circle.
    C) A friend is a local retailer and she’s quitting the business *after surviving the pandemic* because of the street remaining closed. Economic diversity is a good thing. Pendulums swing, and while Amazon/pandemic effect has changed things, other effects will change again in short order as we re-emerge and we should not drive nails in coffins before it’s time. Nothing but restaurants will create a weird and probably bad dynamic over the long run.

    Maybe the issue deserves some form of local referendum to see what the city residents actually want. It could be that you are suffering confirmation bias yourself in that people you typically talk to want it to stay, but a significant portion of others do not. Probably worth asking the public before committing to such a significant change in our use of the public space.

  3. I’m not against a referendum, but it would take a lot of time to do and it would be limited in the questions one could ask. Perhaps just a community survey would give the city some guidance, as they could certainly ask a variety of questions and get the results quickly (understanding that either of these would have some response bias).

    I am always cognizant of my own bias, but I feel more confident given that we’re seeing people voting with their feet already — basically filling up these outdoor spaces.

    As for the market, I agree that the pendulum often swings, but this change in retail is permanent — and, if anything, will only get more exaggerated over the next decades. The only retail that will survive (whether on Laurel St. or not) will be ones that create an “experience.” Admittedly that’s harder for some businesses (although some are doing a decent job at it, like the Reading Bug, etc.), but it can be done. All malls are suffering, so they are also scrambling to create more experience-centric retail. But if I were a dry cleaner right now, I’d shift my entire business to pick up and delivery. It doesn’t matter where it’s located — it won’t be able to afford the rents that experience-based retailers will be able to pay.

    BTW, if we want to think creatively and provide a solution that both supports all retailers and helps the residents of San Carlos, we should bring back SCOOT. Shuttles could drop anyone off right on Laurel Street, among other locations, and of course this would be good for the environment, reduce traffic, free up parking, be convenient for students, etc. That’s a win-win, methinks.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.