Mountain View's experimental closure of Castro Street during the pandemic has transformed the city's downtown corridor, replacing cars and parking spaces with a pedestrian mall packed with outdoor dining spaces and heavy foot traffic.
The pilot program, dubbed Castro Streats, has been a temporary lifeline to save businesses struggling to survive amid indoor dining and shopping restrictions. And as the pandemic winds down, so too will the traffic closure. The street is slated to reopen and return to normal two weeks after the local state of emergency has been lifted.
But city officials say the future of Castro Street is anything but set in stone. If there is a groundswell of support from businesses and the community, street closures could be extended or even made permanent. The decision ultimately falls to the Mountain View City Council.
"If at a point we come to a place in the program where the wind down of the Castro Streats program is in sight and there seems to be significant support in keeping one or more of the blocks of Castro Street open for outdoor uses, staff will return to council for further direction," said Tiffany Chew, the city's business development specialist, during a panel discussion last week.
Mountain View, like many Peninsula cities, cleared the way for outdoor dining in June last year as a short-term measure to keep restaurants and other small businesses alive. Up until then, sales were largely take-out and delivery only, and many restaurants along Castro Street had little sidewalk space for socially distanced tables.
Though the closure has evolved over time, the first four blocks of Castro Street now have a patchwork of distinct outdoor dining spaces for each business, connected by designated bike and pedestrian walkways. Lights for cross streets function as two-way stop signs.
After the first three months of the program, businesses reported anywhere from slight to significant increase in revenue -- though still fell short of sales prior to the pandemic. An online survey of customers found 70% of the respondents visited downtown multiple times since the pilot began, and that 90% felt positively about the program and wanted to see more of it in Mountain View.
The mood has been consistent since then, Chew said. Surveys in December found that a majority of businesses preferred to keep Castro Street closed even as county public health officials reinstated outdoor dining prohibitions, and a survey last month found businesses are still making more revenue since the start of the program.
At the same time, Chew said there is a minority of business owners who have asked for Castro Street to reopen. The way their customers travel to downtown Mountain View and the need for deliveries have made the street closure a hindrance rather than a help, she said.
Any decision to make the closures permanent would need "extensive outreach" with the downtown businesses, Chew said, to better gauge the interest in creating a pedestrian mall absent a global pandemic. The Castro Streats program was designed with COVID-19 in mind, and the ever-shifting public health rules under the state's four-tiered system. If that outreach comes back with overwhelming support to keep Castro closed, the city could consider extending the program or making it permanent.
Doing that kind of outreach seems premature right now, however, with many businesses narrowly focused on operating during a public health crisis, said Dawn Cameron, the city's public works director.
"Right now they are focused on their day-to-day survival with the restrictions in place," Cameron said.
Peter Katz, president and CEO of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, said it's tough to say where the downtown businesses will land on a permanent closure. While restaurants with limited outdoor space have benefited from the pilot, there are some that say the loss of vehicle access on Castro Street has curbed foot traffic. As much as the city likes to tout itself as a pedestrian-friendly destination, many people still use their cars to visit downtown Mountain View, he said.
As for traffic, Cameron said there have been no complaints or observed backups on Shoreline Boulevard and other roads that serve as alternate routes to Castro Street. The downtown corridor and nearby streets form a tight grid pattern, she said, which makes it easy for traffic to divert and disburse. Traffic accidents on Castro Street have also declined significantly during the program, with six collisions reported between July 2020 and March 2021, according to data from the Mountain View Police Department. By comparison, there were 18 collisions between July 2019 and March 2020.
The results aren't all too surprising. In an entirely separate project, the city is currently studying closing Castro Street at the Caltrain tracks, replacing access from Moffett Boulevard with a bike and pedestrian undercrossing. The traffic study for the proposal found no significant impacts to traffic in the area.
The caveat is that fewer people are on the road during the pandemic. Traffic volumes are way down during COVID-19, and many of the office-based downtown spaces remain dormant as employees work from home. It's unclear if the street closures would cause traffic snarls and parking problems once commuters return to Castro Street.
"It would be difficult to predict how traffic patterns would be impacted by these blocks being closed," Cameron said.
In the immediate term, city officials are expected to seek the City Council's approval next week to waive sidewalk cafe permit fees, which allows businesses to apply to operate outdoors free of charge. Applying for a permit wasn't necessary so long as Castro Street remained closed under the pilot, but would become important for an eventual reopening.