A number of years ago, I wrote a column for the Weekly on the deteriorating state of the Midtown Shopping Center along Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. The entrance had a bed full of weeds, the center was bereft of greenery, trash was evident around the curbs, andmany small shops were, well boring. I suggested that this center, with buildings dating back to 1955, needed some upgrading and facelifting.
Ten years later, practically nothing changed at this shopping area.
And now it’s a quarter-century later, and, once again, I am very concerned about Midtown Shopping Center. It is still declining and deteriorating.
Some 15 businesses in the Midtown area in the last five are gone, and most of the existing ones are personal services, rather than retail. Midtown contributed about 1 percent of the city’s total sales tax revenues, which means sales are way low.
The center still looks like an unplanned mess. The entrance now has a sign and, instead of weeds, a scrawny bush. There are large concrete planters in front of many stores – some filled with bushes of all shapes, a few of which are dying. Unlike other commercial areas; there is no green continuity here.
The Midtown shopping area encompasses retailers on both sides of Middlefield between Moreno Avenue to the north and south of Colorado Avenue. Walgreens, CVS and Safeway are the anchors of the district.
For several years now, the center had a majority of kid-centered services – 13 of them such as a gym, a robotics store, rock music and after-school learning shops.
Fine for the kids, but what about us adults? Well, there are five beauty, barber and nail salons, filling up the retail area, a couple of small restaurants and take-outs, and a few service shops like a shoe repair a cleaners. There also are two banks. No wonder that sales are low here.
I asked several local residents how they would describe the Midtown Shopping Center: frayed, outdated, stuck in yesteryear, bland, unattractive, okay, I guess, not enough interesting stores, and it looks like a strip mall.
Not a very positive response.
Think of the Town & Country shopping center at Embarcadero and El Camino. That was rejuvenated several years ago with uniform signs on stores, wonderful beds of flowers, streamlined parking and a variety of unusual and interesting stores. Although there are a few vacancies, the place is always bustling.
I want something new and more exciting in Midtown, and much more retail -- such as a book store to browse through, a gift store with creative offerings, a garden store with indoor plants, and decorative objects for outside gardens, a distinctive clothing shop, a hardware, etc. And keep the ice cream store!
Mike’s Diner in trouble
And now the one favorite Midtown restaurant, Mike’s Diner Bar, may be evicted, because owner Mike Wallau paid his $22,052 monthly rent ONE DAY LATE(!), explaining his family had a medical emergency. Wallau told the Weekly that since the pandemic, he felt the owners were less friendly to him.
Nevertheless, Wallau poured $2 million into upgrading the restaurant, across the street from CVS. It was owned by the Scher couple, and after they died, inherited by their family. I understand two of the sons are running it under the listing of Scher Holdings LLC and Finebaum Savings Survivor Trust.
This is a strange story that I’m trying to find more about, e.g., why did the owners call for an eviction because of a day-late payment? So far, they have kept quiet. Is it their motivation to build a more revenue-producing building where Mike’s now stands? Is there something more nefarious going on?
As seen from my vantage point, it sure does make the current owner s look mean and unforgiving. I hope Mike’s survives.
However, Midtown still needs more comfortable sit-down restaurants, because people like to eat out.
My Midtown to-do list:
I’ve been thinking about needed improvements to have Midtown come to life again:
• Midtown needs help from Palo Alto city officials -- the city needs to use its clout and cash to assist Midtown. It helped University Avenue businesses in a number of ways, paid for many landscaping and infrastructure improvements. And on California Avenue the city updated the area widened sidewalks, added a fountain at the end of the street, helped restaurants expand its table sittings into the street so more residents would flow into that area. But the city has done little for the Midtown shopping district.
• The city has to help coalesce the property owners and store owners to organize a functioning merchants association. Annette Glanckopf, a Midtown resident and ardent leader of the Midtown Residents Association and Len Filppu, head of a neighboring association, have tried for a couple of years to reorganize merchants to promote the center, but they find enthusiasm lacking. Yet such an association is needed to get things done in an organized and professional manner.
• Midtown needs to hire a shopping center manager who will serve, initially and primarily, as a business economic director and go after new retailers that will relocate here, perhaps with a city tax advantage, or other carrots.
• The city also has to beautify Midtown – more landscaping, mini-lights on trees, as the downtown area has, adding some juried art, and converting the garden area in the back to, perhaps, a neighborhood gathering place.
The City Council, mayor and its economic development officials must work with the property owner, the merchants and residents to get moving on this shopping center, or else it will atrophy and die a slow, painful death.
The city cannot and should not continue to disregard businesses south of Oregon Expressway. It is simply unfair to fucus only on north Palo Alto.
As Glanckopf told me, “Things are dire now in Midtown. We need help to improve it. We’re is n the CPR stage.”