Striking a compromise between some Laurel Street merchants and restaurants, the San Carlos City Council unanimously supported altering its downtown street closure program, providing additional parking to customers and welcoming back the farmers’ market to the area.
“This is a great example of compromise that we’re going to be dealing with a lot in our future,” Vice Mayor Sara McDowell said during Monday’s City Council meeting.
Beginning Aug. 8, some barriers placed along the 600 block of Laurel Street will be removed, leaving restaurants that are open for lunch and dinner at least five days a week with access to outdoor dining while reopening some parking stalls.
Similar changes will not be made to the 700 block of Laurel Street which is still fully closed to oncoming traffic. Barricades will also remain on the 800 block which is open to two way traffic.
In the early summer months of the COVID-19 crisis when indoor business capacity was greatly reduced the San Carlos City Council established a street closure program along parts of Laurel Street, San Carlos Avenue and Arroyo Street. With closed roads, merchants were permitted to expand operations into vacant parking stalls which mostly benefited restaurants.
But with indoor capacity now at 100% and many activities returning to pre-pandemic conditions, non-restaurant merchants in the area have implored the city to modify the program to allow for additional parking.
Staff similarly supported the changes proposed on the 600 block which will now permit the weekly farmers’ market to return to downtown. The event has recently taken place on Bayport Avenue and Varian Street in the city’s east side Arts District but members of Chamber San Mateo County which formerly managed the event, said that it “is unlikely to survive,” at that location.
Adam Aronson, economic development and housing manager for the city, said the farmers’ market has seen a major decline in vendors since moving to its new location, from more than 40 to about 16. Community participation has also dropped, turning the $40,000 annual revenue generator into a $10,000 loss.
“The hope is that relocating it to the downtown will help to revitalize the farmers’ market and bring back attendees and booths as well,” Aronson said.
The street closure program is slated to last until Sept. 1, 2022 but councilmembers have shared interest in continuing some version of the closure for more than the year, an idea supported by many residents and restaurant owners.
The Downtown Subcommittee, chaired by councilmembers Ron Collins and Adam Rak, will continue monitoring the program as the council considers midterm and long-term plans.
Recognizing the looming changes to the city’s downtown area, councilmembers also agreed to consider developing an Unruly Gathering Ordinance which would require some businesses to hire a bouncer or security guard during select hours.
Capt. Kristina Bell said business activity has not been a nuisance recently, suggesting the council revisit the matter in six months while she collects data on incidents in the downtown area.
Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan, who initially brought the measure forward, encouraged fellow councilmembers to pursue such an ordinance in light of the anticipated changes the city will be experiencing with new development in its east side and a more lively downtown during warmer summer months.
“The nature of our businesses are changing somewhat in the downtown area,” Parmer-Lohan said. “This is more about being proactive and setting expectations that we want our community to be safe.”
The council also approved allocating $100,000 to the Sheriff’s Office for downtown policing services. The funds will allow the department to add a full-time Community Services Officer to the Downtown Service Unit while increasing funds for potential overtime needs.
Despite some council interest in deploying a full-time deputy to the area instead of a CSO, who’s unable to make traffic stops, Bell supported her proposal, noting that the CSO’s priority would be on creating deeper relationships with businesses. CSOs can also ticket parked cars, a strong need in the area where drivers often park for hours in 10-minute stalls.
“This is a great opportunity for a CSO to build a relationship with the merchants,” Bell said. “That is exactly what we need for this model.”
Note to readers: This story has been updated to reflect the correct end date of the Laurel Street closures. Councilmembers previously voted to extend the program until Sept. 1, 2022.
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