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.