Mountain View's experimental closure of Castro Street to make room for outdoor dining has been extended through the end of the coronavirus pandemic, along with new rules that clear the way for other businesses to migrate onto the street.
Traffic has been closed on the first four blocks of Castro Street since June in an effort to revitalize restaurant activity after county health officials banned indoor dining in March. The roadway has since been converted into a bustling open-air food court, bringing back at least some of the customers who used to frequent downtown Mountain View.
City officials say the improvements have benefited businesses struggling to survive during COVID-19, and suggested that the traffic closure stay in effect through Dec. 31. The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, Sept. 8, to approve the extension through the end of the city's emergency declaration, which is expected to go beyond 2020.
Since the street closure began, participating restaurants have reported from slight to significant improvements in revenue -- albeit still lower than pre-pandemic levels -- and largely support keeping the program going at least through Dec. 31, according to a city staff report. A survey of downtown visitors found that a vast majority felt "positively" about the program and wanted to see more like it in Mountain View.
The main criticism from patrons was the perceived lack of restroom access, despite an explicit city requirement that restaurants make bathrooms available.
The extension of the pilot program comes with new rules that will allow businesses unrelated to food services to take advantage of the roadway real estate as well. While county health orders still prohibit many indoor activities, fitness centers, gyms, hair salons and barber shops are all now permitted to operate outdoors. At least one business on Castro Street has already requested to hold fitness classes outside during the morning and early evening hours.
In the lead-up to the Tuesday council meeting, Peter Katz, CEO of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, said he encouraged the city to extend the street closure beyond Dec. 31. While it would be great if the pandemic would peter out before then, he said the city should be prepared for COVID-19 restrictions and the loss of business to linger through the beginning of 2021.
"Our businesses are not going to be at full capacity for the foreseeable future, let alone the end of the year," Katz said. "The chances of doing indoor dining are anybody's guess right now."
One major concern on the horizon is the weather. While outdoor dining, hair cuts and shopping might work during the dry, balmy days of summer, cold weather and rain could quickly push customers away. At the Sept. 8 council meeting, Councilwoman Alison Hicks suggested that the city could do more to create commercial centers, complete with tented areas, heating, lighting and decorations, that would make outdoor dining and shopping more appealing through the winter season.
Expanding beyond Castro Street
With the apparent success of outdoor businesses along Castro Street, city officials are now seeking ways to replicate the downtown program elsewhere in the city without having to shut down roadways.
In a second vote Tuesday, the City Council approved a new framework that would allow businesses citywide to operate outside on private or public property, paving the way for restaurants, retail stores and other businesses to set up shop in parking lots and outdoor spaces. No permits will be needed to move outdoors, and businesses will only need a no-fee license agreement with the city to use public property.
Under the set of rules, which are expected to change over time, businesses will be allowed to set up a maximum of 100 square feet of tents or canopy structures, and can use up to 25% of their parking lot. Plazas and other multi-tenant sites will have to share apportioned parking lot space, city staff said. Businesses will be allowed to operate outdoors until 9 p.m. during the week and 10 p.m. on the weekend. Outdoor speakers for group gatherings can only be used between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Across the board, council members said they were largely prepared to relax pretty much every rule, particularly the constraints on parking lot usage, covered areas, music and amplified sound. Councilman Lucas Ramirez said he wants the city to be flexible when possible, and that it could make sense for businesses to use in excess of 35% of their parking lot.
"We don't want our regulations to restrict outdoor business activity if there's no negative impact, because every table you can put out there is an opportunity for a business to generate revenue," Ramirez said.
Rather than tinker with the language of the program, council members voted to empower City Manager Kimbra McCarthy to make substantial changes to the outdoor business rules without having to seek council approval.
In an effort to spur support for small businesses, downtown Mountain View will be hosting an event this weekend called "Passport Weekend," during which numerous businesses will be offering steep discounts and other promotional deals. The Mountain View Chamber of Commerce is also hosting a sweepstakes promoting the city's "universal gift card," which can be used at more than a dozen different locations in the city.