Palo Alto Addresses Complaints of Downtown Merchants Crowding Sidewalks

If you’ve ever driven around Palo Alto, you know how bad traffic can get – especially downtown. However, it’s not just traffic on the road people are complaining about.

The city said it’s always gotten complaints about not enough space on the sidewalks, but that they peaked last fall.

Thomas Fehrenbach, Palo Alto’s Economic Development Manager, said the city requires businesses to have eight feet of sidewalk clearance or five feet with a special encroachment permit, which costs $920.

Fehrenbach added the city and the Downtown Business and Professional Association decided to reach out to merchants, especially those along University Avenue.

One of those merchants was Mistie Cohen, a part owner of Oren’s Hummus Shop on University Avenue. She said she’s had to remove the majority of outside seating.

“When you have the nice weather, why not enjoy it?" Cohen said. "So, definitely missing out on those tables.”

She added that the restaurant, one of the newer ones on the 200 block of University Avenue, has had to hire people to steam-clean the sidewalk twice a month.

“Cleaning of the sidewalk and losing tables, it’s a lot,” she said. “We understand but it’s definitely impacted our business.”

Michael Pilgrim of Mountain View was sitting at one of the outdoor tables Friday, along with his dog. He said fewer outside seating options would prevent him from returning to downtown Palo Alto.

“I would go somewhere else. They’ve always seemed to try to make this area quieter, I prefer it to be more lively,” Pilgrim said.

Nicole Cerra of San Mateo said she understands the business owner and customer’s perspective, but said other things should take priority.

“I understand where they’re coming from, but I also am a mom and I have had to walk the streets with strollers and things like that,” said Cerra. “And I’m sure if you’re in wheelchair or in crutches or something like that, then you might be more concerned. That has to take priority over dining experience.”

Russ Cohen is executive director of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, a non-profit that helped coordinate the meetings between the city and merchants. He said the city isn’t trying to bury businesses in regulations, adding it’s trying to protect them from liability issues.

“When you start putting street furniture out on the sidewalk, you have to be conscious of ADA regulations. There has to be enough room for a wheelchair to get through,” Cohen said.

Fehrenbach said the city gave the businesses, both retailers and restaurants, a few months to learn the rules about clearance. Code enforcement officers are set to check the downtown area and may levy a fine if the merchants have not complied.

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