I was inspired to write the following letter, which I may or may not try to find someone to send this to. Feel free to comment on it, especially if of the “what are you thinking, it would be an idiot move to let anyone official read this” variety, because I honestly have done 0 research in writing this. It’ll probably get polished before I send it to someone, as well. And if anyone knows who that person to contact would be, I guess that would be good, too.
My name is Kevin Leung, and I’m a junior here at Stanford University. I am writing to you because I wanted to give you another perspective on having a pedestrian mall along University Avenue. I had heard about it from friends on Facebook and have thought about the consequences of having it created. Particularly, a recent vacation to Athens made me consider what University could be.
When I think of Europe, I think about the clear differences in lifestyle. One of these aspects is the large difference in night life: Europeans tend to eat dinner much later than Americans, and a common image is a group of friends or family sitting around a table at a cafe past sundown, sipping coffee or throwing back beers. Until this past trip, I had never seen it, but my hotel happened to be down a street of cafes, bars and dessert shops. Already narrow, the street just barely had enough space for a single, very careful taxi driver to pass between tables. From 8:00 onward, the street was crowded with people around tables, enjoying their drinks and conversation. The insides of the restaurants were empty as everyone wanted to enjoy the weather and ambience. Even though I’m sure several of them had been drinking for hours, it wasn’t boisterous, but had that classic, calm, relaxing feel.
This model, of course, isn’t too different from University Ave. Indeed, it’s the striking similarities that made me compare these two places. Palo Alto is an upscale area, and that sense of classiness exists in both that street of cafes in Athens and University. The restaurants along University offer a wide variety of cuisines, with largely great quality. California weather also happens to be fantastic, and barring rainy season, I would be happy to be outside just about any other evening.
I appreciate it even more considering what I’ve been accustomed to. When not at school, I live in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where we have nothing that nice. Most apparently, the weather means that you never want to be outside. Sitting outside either results in great sock and t-shirt tans during the day or an unending plane of mosquito bites during the evening. Because of that, everyone drives from air conditioning to air conditioning, so casual streets have never developed. Moreover, Houston is largely urban sprawl, so everything is far apart, and many parts of the town are largely undesirable. Except for a small area near Rice University, I’m somewhat afraid to venture to downtown Houston. Given that, I hope you believe me when I say that I appreciate what University Ave. offers to local residents.
Perhaps it’s ungrateful part of me, but I would like to think that it’s my desire to see University fulfill everything that I want to see that is making me write this. What follows is my current perception of and attitude towards University Ave. Admittedly, this might be a very skewed perspective that is very unaligned with either what you see or the absolute truth. Even in that case, I feel like Palo Alto has misbranded itself, as I’m certain that my attitude is not uncommon among students.
Even though I live, eat, sleep, and study within 2 miles of University Ave, I will visit it about twice a quarter, which is slightly less than once a month. Given its proximity to Palo Alto, Stanford University and the “Stanford Bubble” doesn’t seem to extend into Palo Alto. I have often told friends that Stanford doesn’t really have a college town like UT has Austin, or Hanover has Dartmouth College. Instead, I gripe to my classmates that University is lined with uninvitingly upscale, expensive restaurants and Oriental rug stores. Instead, students will often go to surrounding areas to hang out. Castro Street in Mountain View seems more inviting. Redwood City has walks around the movie theater, giving it a very open feel.
Walking along University, I often get the sense that people aren’t stopping to enjoy it, but simply walking along it to get somewhere. Even with all of the tables pushed up against restaurant walls, the sidewalks are narrow, so a group of three or four friends can severely constrict traffic. It feels crowded, but not alive. More notably, I often feel like there’s nowhere that I want to stop at. While this might be an entirely separate issue, I think an important distinction between University and, say, Castro Street or downtown Santa Cruz is the presence of fun shops. On Castro Street, I’ve seen toy shops, music shops, and lock shops. In Santa Cruz, I stopped at a souvenir shop, a CD store, and an independent bookstore. On University Ave., I end up having to point out Facebook to visitors because I feel like there’s nothing else that would seem to interest them.
And for me, there’s little value to being in a car on University. Traffic is certainly slow enough to facilitate browsing, but one is typically too frustrated about traffic to point out the artwork outside of the Pizza, My Heart. Knowing better, I never take University to 101 because it’s so slow, and I really only end up on University to get to one of the side streets to park. Starting just beyond the Caltrain station and the turn to Alma, University feels like a dead zone of traffic that I would want to avoid at an time.
It seems unfair for me to stop with just criticism and no suggestion, so here’s my vision about what University could be. As I mentioned above, an important step in improving upon many of these shortcomings would be to make University a pedestrian mall, if even only for the evening and/or weekends.
A pedestrian mall would mean that restaurants could place more tables outside, allowing customers to dine with more space and without the din of cars driving by. Instead of just being somewhere to eat, University could become a place for students to “chillax”. I would hope that the greater reliance on outside space would shift customer behavior to more of a European attitude, where groups can just enjoy the evening around a table outside.
A pedestrian mall would means that foot traffic would increase. Instead of scrambling along a narrow sidewalk, people could walk openly in the middle of the street, seeing both sides of University without being hustled to get out of the way. This would encourage shops to move outside as well to approach their potential customers. I would imagine that foot traffic results in more sales than car traffic anyways.
Finally, a pedestrian mall would result in a place where the tastes of students and upper-class residents could meet. The better chance for students to hang out on University would help to chase away the student perception that University was filled for the richer residents and not the students. While a pedestrian mall would be approachable for students, Palo Alto could stay just as classy for the residents.
Admittedly, I’m not sure what the consequences of the change would be from a more official perspective. I don’t know how traffic would be re-routed, or if there would be legal difficulties, or how to get the buy-in of owners along University, or what the economic situation or plan of Palo Alto. To be honest, I actually didn’t even do much research on whether this plan has been considered before writing this (I should note, though, that such news hasn’t been made clearly available to students, and there’s a lot of interest in knowing the progress and setbacks and doing what we can to move this along). Given that, I’m certainly not the one to tell you how this will all work out because I have no expertise on the matter. I just felt that there were models of what University Ave. might be and to point out what I see to be the potential places for improvement in adding a pedestrian mall.