Encouraged by strong public support for a lively and pedestrian-friendly downtown, the Mountain View City Council agreed Tuesday to keep Castro Street closed to vehicle traffic through January 2023, and signaled support for converting the street into a permanent pedestrian mall.
The first three blocks of Castro Street have been closed off to cars for more than a year now as a temporary, short-term measure to save struggling restaurants under tight COVID-19 public health restrictions. But as the pandemic has eased and indoor dining has returned, residents and businesses alike have come out in support of keeping the street closed.
City officials are now shifting gears, and are looking at the street closure independent of the global pandemic. Council members agreed not only to an extension of the street closure, but to invest in improvements that would add permanent signage, fix up barricades and make it more obvious where pedestrians are supposed to walk.
"What we set up out there today was the response to the pandemic, doing everything possible to help those restaurants survive and giving them as much space as we could while maintaining pedestrian walkways," said Public Works Director Dawn Cameron. "We're starting to move beyond that."
Even before the pandemic, the city had considered closing Castro Street at the Caltrain tracks and converting the first block into a pedestrian plaza. Since then, the city has developed three options for what the street could look like -- each proposing varying degrees of removing vehicle traffic.
Public feedback, both from residents and business owners, overwhelmingly favored removing vehicle lanes between Evelyn Avenue and Villa Street. The most popular option was to go a step further and reconfigure Evelyn Avenue to make more room for pedestrian uses, though city officials warned it would be a tall order. It would require cooperation from two major transit agencies, Caltrain and Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and would almost certainly mean the removal or relocation of the station building.
But to downtown visitors, COVID-19 and the temporary closure provided real-world proof that more blocks of Castro Street can thrive and attract pedestrians without traffic lanes. An online survey of 1,500 respondents found that nearly 90% did not support returning Castro Street to the way it was prior to COVID-19, and that over 87% supported extending the pedestrian mall concept to include all three downtown blocks.
Resident Paul Blumenstein told council members that passing vehicles, with loud sound systems and heavy exhaust, detracted from the downtown experience, and that there isn't enough room to navigate Castro Street during the heaviest hours of pedestrian foot traffic. Both these problems went away when the street was closed, and it's worth keeping it that way, he said.
"We have stumbled across a good thing, and we should preserve it," Blumenstein said in a letter.
Resident and former councilwoman Ronit Bryant also gave a strong endorsement for the pedestrian mall, and encouraged council members not to shy away from rerouting Evelyn Avenue to improve the project. The concept, dubbed option "C," is a logistical challenge and could take between five and 10 years to construct, but it's also the design people want most.
"The preferred concept is clearly concept C," she said. "It's more expensive, it's more complicated and it will take longer to implement, but it represents what the community wants."
Council members didn't take a formal vote during the study session, but largely agreed to explore both options that remove vehicle traffic between Evelyn and Villa. Doing so would add 34 feet of extra space for outdoor dining, public events and bike and pedestrian circulation.
Council members also strongly supported folding the 200 and 300 blocks of Castro Street into the pedestrian mall design, which would permanently close off the streets to traffic.
Though a majority of businesses surveyed are on board with the closure, the city is required under state law to compensate restaurants and retailers that will be harmed by the pedestrian mall conversion. The Pedestrian Mall Law of 1960 gives property owners and tenants the opportunity to file claims for damages, which must be addressed prior to removing the road, according to city officials.
The state law also allows businesses to rally against pedestrian mall conversion, and that a bare majority of affected property owners can block the city from moving forward. This appears unlikely, as nearly 70% of the businesses surveyed to date have come out in favor of extending the pedestrian mall to all three blocks of Castro Street.
While the City Council gave broad support for closing Castro Street to traffic, there was less unanimity in how the design of the pedestrian mall should proceed. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak made a pitch that the city ought to hold a design competition and have firms come to the city with ambitious ideas for revamping the downtown corridor. She said the city should consider a wide breadth of options, and that a contest would be a good way to come up with new ideas.
"This is our chance to make this really great, and maybe somebody has other ideas we should consider," Matichak said.
While council members agreed to have city staff explore the idea of a competition, some city officials were wary of soliciting designs outside the normal process. Cameron said it's not clear whether consultants would be willing to put in the time and effort without guaranteed compensation, and that each firm would likely have to work with VTA and Caltrain in order to draft a design that uses transit agency property.
The City Council is expected to formally vote to keep Castro Street closed through January 2023 in December. Interim improvements to Castro Street will be made at some point in 2022, according to a city staff report.