Palo Alto Bowl owner Rhythm Smith sat Monday facing a sea of empty lanes, wringing her hands -- her left, with its long, milk-white nails, and her right, the bowling hand. She was distraught about the impending closure of the local institution, which still bears many of the sights and sounds reminiscent of its founding days in 1957. Its shutdown on Sept. 16 represents not only the loss of her business but the continuation of a nationwide downward spiral for traditional bowling alleys.
Palo Alto Bowl has been on death's door for some time. The fatal blow landed in December 2009, when the Palo Alto City Council approved a plan to demolish the alley, as well as the nearby Motel 6 and a small retail strip, and replace it with a mixed-use project consisting of a major brand hotel and 26 townhouses. Since talk about the closure began surfacing around six years ago, more than 5,000 Palo Altans and others have signed petitions, joined Facebook groups and protested the decision at City Hall in vain.
Demolition was initially scheduled for last fall, but Barry Swenson Builder chose to postpone the redevelopment and extend Smith's lease, citing economic constraints on construction. According to Smith, Aaron Barger at Swenson informed her of the current timeframe "two or three weeks ago."
Barger said he now hopes to begin construction prior to the end of the year.
At 4329 El Camino Real, nearly halfway between Charleston and San Antonio Roads, Palo Alto Bowl sits on prime property. Though Smith said the alley was and is financially stable, the revenue from the center simply hasn't been enough for the property owners to justify keeping a sizable parcel of Silicon Valley land wrapped up in recreation.
Since the owner of Mel's in Redwood City decided to shut his doors in May, the closure of Palo Alto Bowl leaves the Midpeninsula without a single lane -- a striking condition considering the former significance of the bowling alley within American community life. Smith said she doesn't foresee a new center opening anytime soon -- available land is too small and too expensive -- forcing local bowlers to drive to Cupertino or San Mateo.
For many avid league bowlers, the commute will be surmountable, if inconvenient. High school students will choose other activities.
But for others Sept. 16 represents the final frame in a longer, more meaningful game. Smith said that Palo Alto Bowl is the only house in the area that caters to special-needs groups such as the Special Olympics and blind and disabled veterans. Smith became particularly agitated speaking about the effects of the closure on such groups.
"My veterans are more upset than anybody," she said. "They're asking me to do something, but what can I do?"
Smith added that she has numerous regulars in senior leagues, including many in their 90s, who can't travel and will have to hang up their shoes in September.
"One woman who has a solid 110 average just bowled a 201 the other day. She was so happy," Smith said.
Opponents of the closure have cited the alley's importance to local special-needs and disabled communities as among the primary justifications for its preservation. In an email to the Palo Alto Weekly, Dan Mart, architect of the "Save the Palo Alto Bowl" online campaign, accused the City Council of "institutional discrimination toward the disabled." He also decried the loss of a locally significant establishment that has brought "character" to the city. Similar sentiments have been echoed throughout opposition efforts, which have targeted not the developers but the City Council, for voting for the redevelopment.
Smith, too, noted that she gets along well with Barger and has no animosity for Barry Swenson Builder or the property owners. But she had hoped the city would step in.
More than 52 million U.S. adults and almost 20 million children bowled at some point last year, making it the nation's No. 1 sport in terms of broad participation, according to studies provided by the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America. Bart Burger, vice president of development for the association, said bowling stands out because it has "very few barriers to entry."
However, he noted, while overall participation appear to be holding strong, the number of bowling facilities in the U.S. has been in steady decline for decades. At its height in the 1960s, Burger estimated that there were 7,000 to 8,000 alleys in operation throughout the country. Now there are only about 5,000.
A major contributor to the drop, he said, is that many proprietors who opened their alleys during the bowling boom in the 1950s and '60s have been unwilling or unable to upgrade their facilities to compete with larger family-entertainment centers, which offer bowling along with other amenities such as indoor climbing and laser tag. Rising property values, an enticement to sell properties, have also been a factor in other areas.
Burger said family-entertainment centers and smaller "hybrid" bowling centers that remove a few lanes in order to offer other amenities, may be the most viable means of survival for alley proprietors.
Burger also said that something must be done to compensate for a major decline in organized league play.
"Imagine a restaurant that had guaranteed patrons for 30 weeks straight," Burger said. "Unfortunately, people aren't making as many long-term commitments like that anymore."
After the last pins drop at Palo Alto Bowl, Smith said she's not sure what she'll do.