This Bay Area city plans to ban cars, expand outdoor dining for good along its ‘crown jewel’

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This Bay Area city plans to ban cars, expand outdoor dining for good along its ‘crown jewel’

Even as some Bay Area cities pull dining tables off of the streets and reopen their downtown strips to motorists for the first time in 18 months, Mountain View leaders have no intention of doing away with what they see as one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the contrary, Mountain View plans to make some serious investments to transform the city’s oldest commercial corridor — Castro Street — into a permanent pedestrian mall for residents and visitors to enjoy car-free for decades to come.

“Castro Street has been successful and I know some folks say ‘well, it took a pandemic to do this,’ but there are silver linings to the pandemic and this was one of them,” said councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga.

Like many cities across the Bay Area, Mountain View in the summer of 2020 closed off Castro Street from Evelyn Avenue to California Street to allow restaurants and shops to move their operations outdoors when public health orders banned them from serving customers inside.

In the months since then, the city’s main downtown drag has become a lively and bustling outdoor gathering destination for friends and families to eat, drink and shop.

A recent city survey of more than 1,500 Mountain View residents and visitors found that more than 85% of respondents supported maintaining the road closure.

“Castro is more vibrant now during this unprecedented time than it has been in decades,” said resident Yonatan Shamgar. “Let us make Castro into the crown jewel of this area and continue making it the place that everyone wants to come to have a good time.”

The Mountain View City Council on Tuesday night endorsed a plan to keep the temporary three-block closure of Castro Street in place until at least 2023, with the intention of gathering feedback and pursuing a broader vision of turning that segment of the roadway into a permanent pedestrian mall.

Their decision comes as other cities like Palo Alto and Pleasanton have gone in the other direction — taking down barriers that once blocked off cars from downtown streets and putting an end to their beloved outdoor business scenes. Meanwhile, San Jose recently hired a consultant to analyze the potential ramifications of keeping its San Pedro Street car-free permanently.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – SEPTEMBER 14: Mountain View’s Castro Street has been closed to traffic for outdoor dining. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic provided Mountain View with the opportunity to test out the viability of a pedestrian mall, the city was already considering the concept prior to March 2020.

With the impending electrification of Caltrain, Mountain View plans to overhaul its Transit Center, located adjacent to the north end of Castro Street, and build a tunnel for pedestrians and bicyclists under the Caltrain tracks and Central Expressway at the north end of the main drag.

As part of those plans, the city council in 2019 expressed interest in creating a pedestrian mall along the block of Castro Street closest to the tracks with the hopes of providing pedestrians and bicyclists with more direct access to the Transit Center and allowing those arriving via bus or train to get to restaurants or across Central Expressway without needing to cross any roadways.

Pedestrian malls of the past haven’t always been successful. Cities across the U.S., including Sacramento and Fresno, added them to their business districts decades ago only later to reopen them to cars when pedestrians failed to come out in expected numbers.

But Blaine Merker, an urban design consultant, told the Mountain View city council Tuesday night that Castro Street has “all the ingredients to succeed,” noting the city’s ideal year-round weather, younger residents and workers and the street’s large make-up of restaurants rather than majority retail shops.

Mountain View plans to start construction on the pedestrian tunnel at the north end of Castro Street by the end of 2024 — or as soon as Caltrain finishes electrifying its tracks. If that timeline holds up, Mountain View officials expect to complete the tunnel by 2026.

As for Castro Street, the city currently envisions creating the pedestrian mall in two phases.

The first phase, which could take up to five years to complete, would establish a car-free Castro Street from Evelyn Avenue up to California Street. Various improvements would be made to the roadway to make it more accessible and inviting, including raising the road to match the current height of the sidewalk and adding more permanent outdoor dining spaces.

During this phase, motorists would still be able to use Evelyn Street to cross Castro Street, therefore cutting off the pedestrian mall just before the train tracks and transit center.

The second phase, however, would cut off West Evelyn Avenue prior to Castro Street and realign the street to cross over the Caltrain tracks to Central Expressway further east. This would allow for a longer contiguous car-free space between the pedestrian tunnel and the shops and restaurants along Castro Street.

The city’s ultimate vision will require a substantial amount of funding and is expected to take up to 10 years to complete, according to Dawn Cameron, the city’s public works director, though she did not provide a specific cost estimate.

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