Mountain View's bustling downtown has been car-free for one year now, cut off from vehicle traffic in order to make room for restaurants and other businesses to operate outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But with nearly all public health restrictions lifted last week, how long will it last? City officials are proposing that Castro Street remain mostly closed through the end of the year, and are leaving open the possibility of a permanent closure to vehicle traffic.
Mountain View City Council members are expected to vote Tuesday, June 22, to keep the first three blocks of Castro Street closed through Jan. 3, 2022. The plan means parking and driving along the downtown street could return some time between Jan. 4 and Jan. 18, with a timeline that is no longer bound to the city's emergency declaration.
The 400 block of Castro Street, stretching between California and Mercy streets, is excluded from the extension and will reopen to traffic at least by July 9 this year.
The split approach comes from the businesses themselves. When surveyed, a majority of those on the first three blocks of Castro Street supported the closure through the end of the year -- many of which have limited storefront space and will lose most of their outdoor dining space when traffic resumes. Customers also generally prefer outdoor dining, and it would take time and money to tear down tents and other outdoor dining setups.
But things are different on the 400 block of Castro Street, where outdoor dining is both less popular and less available. City officials said the southbound lane of Castro Street had to remain clear of obstructions for fire access to the Mountain Bay Plaza building.
The reasons for the continued traffic closure of Castro Street are shifting. The original closure in June 2020 was tantamount to disaster relief, giving restaurants a lifeline to serve customers outdoors while indoor dining was prohibited. And while the measure didn't bring business back to pre-pandemic levels, it was a significant improvement.
Today those public health restrictions no longer exist, yet only a minority of businesses on the first three blocks of Castro Street want the street reopened to traffic this year. Some also raised the possibility that Castro be reopened at the Caltrain tracks to allow for travel across Central Expressway.
Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in on the debate surrounding outdoor dining and street closures, encouraging local governments to consider expanded outdoor operations through the end of 2021. To that end, Newsom is allowing restaurants across the state to continue selling alcohol in outdoor dining areas through Dec. 31, and will continue to allow restaurants to sell alcohol to go.
"This will both promote public health by encouraging outdoor dining and promote the economic recovery of the restaurant sectors by allowing restaurants and bars to benefit from the substantial investments that they have made in their outdoor operations," Newsom wrote in a June 3 statement.
In the coming months, the city is planning to survey the public and businesses alike on the future of Castro Street. Though the feedback is ostensibly meant for the city's plans to permanently close Castro Street specifically at the Caltrain tracks, participants will also get a chance to weigh in on the permanent closure of the 200 and 300 blocks of Castro Street as well.
Thus far, closing Castro Street has not caused any noticeable traffic problems along Shoreline Boulevard and other roads that serve as alternative routes in the downtown corridor, but it's difficult to say whether that will continue. Many downtown employees have been working from home, and a return to the office over the next year could cause problems. Parking, though constrained in the "core" area of downtown Mountain View, remains available elsewhere during peak hours despite the loss of on-street parking along Castro.
The proposal to keep Castro Street closed through the end of the year is on the City Council's consent calendar for the Tuesday meeting, and is expected to pass.