Opinion: Downtown in a downturn


Posted by on Thu, March 16, 2006

Cheri Parr
The Charmed Rose is only the latest downtown store to shut its doors.

As the perpetuation of the myth that "Downtown is doing just fine" continues, and as long as business owners stay focused on flower box arrangements instead a marketable product mix, businesses will continue to struggle to survive. Meanwhile, landlords and property managers remain at the ready, knowing that there will always be a plethora of dream-inspired gallery and gift shop owners lined up and ready to dive in with their retirement savings, unwittingly contributing to inflating the rents beyond the reach of normal business that would traditionally be able to serve the local community.

Madeleine Sausotte of Ocean Books and I have been looking for a solution. Last August, we released the findings of a survey of downtown merchants to local business groups, the results themselves disturbing.  Nearly half (48%) of the merchants who responded to the survey said they had been struggling to some degree over the last three years. Nearly three-quarters (72%) depended on their spouses, savings, or even loans, to keep their businesses going. A quarter said that their business was taking a toll on their health. Informally, the news was even worse. It pointed to a change in Coastside consumer purchasing patterns that, over the decades, has left many local businesses losing sales to malls, big box stores, and internet sales.

Even though the survey data clearly indicated some disturbing trends and the need for a follow-up Resident Survey, business groups remained indifferent.

In October of 2005, Madeleine announced a plan to follow up with a Coastside "Residents" Survey and to announce a future Town Meeting for early in 2006 to help develop the content of that survey. The goal was to help educate everyone about the current state of affairs and to ask in what direction people thought HMB needed to go. The meeting would be open to all, and the Chamber and the Downtown Merchants Association were to be invited, as well.

"Borrowing" the concepts for both the Resident Survey and the Town Meeting, the Chamber recently called a meeting at Ted Adcock Center on March 2nd, among  representatives of the City, a small number of merchants, the HMB Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Merchants Association. The purpose of the meeting had been planned to hear merchants’ wishes and concerns and address the relationships between the different organizations.

The issues brought up at that meeting, often mired in process, seemed more focused on new ways to continue to embrace the near-dry nipple of the tourist trade and the disturbing portrayal of the ongoing illusion of prosperity downtown than with actually addressing the needs of local residents.

Whatever discounts had been offered in the past to lure local consumers downtown hadn’t meant much, since - not surprisingly - consumers were not interested in buying art and gifts to feed and clothe their families. The locals continue to shop elsewhere and business owners continue to scratch their heads in wonderment, waiting to see which of the "other" business owners might bite the bullet and radically alter their product format enough to change the tide on Main Street.

The economic wind has changed its direction, yet again, and will continue to do so. The price of gas, the loss of time with family, and the wane of the novelty of the malls and the Big Boxes have altered purchasing desires. The captains of Downtown must reset their sails to accommodate those changes. Every time the wind changes, as fickle as the wind sometimes is, so must we consider changing the set of our canvas; sometimes even a change in course. We will go nowhere as long as the "powers that be" stubbornly insist that they have already sent the crew into the rigging to set their sails and that now it’s time to polish the brass.

Frank Long is the owner of Oasis Natural Foods on Main Street in Half Moon Bay

I think downtown needs to consider the effect the highway congestion has on business:

I rarely go to Half Moon Bay on weekends or afternoons as I do not want to get stuck in the traffic. 

Friends have cancelled trips over to meet me in HMB due to traffic on 92.  We never schedule getting together in HMB for lunch or dinner during pumpkin season due to the mess on 92.

This is not ‘new’ news.  I remembeer these same comments in 1979 when the County LCP was first being considered.  HMB voters did something about it when they passed the 1% growth rate limit.  The County, although recently patting itself on the back for reducing the growth rate, in reality did little or nothing:  it left the residential growth rate at 3+ % when all the exemptions are added into the 75 units per year.

Meanwhile the Pacifica Center Mall in Linda Mar is thriving from the new business it gets from El Granada, Montara and Moss Beach.

Kathryn Slater-Carter

Then there’s Harbor Village in Princeton,  which is likely to have two effects.  There are downtown merchants who are waiting so they can move there as soon as they can.  And it’s going to intercept even more Montara/Moss Beach/El Granada traffic before it even gets downtown.

I remember Eric Rice writing a long front page article in the early ninties quoting a Mr. Saint James, I believe from New England.

The gist of the story is that when a downtown starts selling glitzy stuff, becomes overrun with botiques and high end art studies that spells the beginning downfall of any downtown.

Eric even posted a scorecard as how to rate the future of any downtown. My score was 85% negative. It seems that it is coming true.

John Lynch

Another part of this that the powers-that-be in Half Moon Bay can’t seem to understand is that *every* traffic signal they install on SR 1 north of SR 92 causes more lost business for HMB.  The signal at Frenchman’s Creek is a disaster; even a councilmember who strongly supported it admitted publicly that it’s a disaster.  Why?  Because it was done without adding lanes.  And I’m not supporting adding lanes, I’m opposing adding signals.  We simply do not need any signals on SR 1—for all the problems which people propose signals as the solution, there are alternative solutions without signals.

I live in the western corner of El Granada, next to Clipper Ridge (“Princeton By The Sea”).  During commute time, I can go to BofA, Safeway, whatever, in HMB, in 25-30 minutes.  Or I can drive twice as far in half the time and go to the Linda Mar shopping center in Pacifica.  Same for weekends.  The only time that it doesn’t take *longer* to go the shorter distance to HMB is during really “off” traffic periods.  The only signal between me and Linda Mar is the one *at* Linda Mar.  Existing signals between me and HMB:  Capistrano, Coronado, Frenchman’s Creek, North Main, SR 92.  Proposed signals between me and HMB:  Roosevelt, Terrace.  And the proposed signal at Roosevelt is being proposed as the same disastrous configuration as at Frenchman’s Creek.  Not to mention that some people have suggested a signal at Medio.

The bottom line is that everyone wants a signal at their street so they can turn left to go southbound onto SR 1, and nobody cares about the impact to those north of their own street.  It turns out that these left turns can be facilitated without signals.  I think I’ll write an Opinion piece on how to do that, rather than try to squeeze it in here.


Not to state the obvious, but stop lights do save lives.  We have many more families and individuals living here than we did when the existing road system was planned; we will have more moving in and visiting for the forseeable future.  Our roads must be safe; folks must be able to get in and out of their neighborhoods safely; residents and visitors must be able to safely access the beach. 

The cause of the slowdown between Montara and HMB is from a highway designed and built for a much smaller population and far fewer visitors.  I think well designed intersections with lights will not only save lives but move traffic more efficiently.

One major barrier to weekend traffic is the lack of parking for surfers beach.  Folks do not park in the harbor parking (north of the the RV lot) and walk to the beach.  Perhaps they do not know about it and signs directing them to the upper harbor district lot would help.  I suspect, however, they do not want to carry beach going stuff and surf equipment the distance from that parking lot to Surfers Beach.  Perhaps using the unpaved Caltrans highway along SR 1 for parking would improve road service.  As CalTrans is not in the business of creating parking lots the County or Coastal Conservancy could acquire the land for a strip parking lot.

Traffic flows along Sunset Ave and 19th Ave in SF pretty well.  I hope we get enough lights that we can have a constant speed coordination from Montara to HMB such as exist in SF.  Residents tried to get that for the lights in El Granada and were told they are too far apart.

The Board of Supervisors finally have agreed to coordinate traffic planning with Half Moon Bay - something the Midcoast Community Council has been requesting for almost a decade.  It is a good first step. 

Traffic really isn’t the point.  I live locally and would easily travel to downtown for shopping or for places to eat.  Why don’t I?  The current stores do not have anything I want and the food is overpriced!  The store that takes my needs into consideration and does not kill me on price will get my business - even if it takes an extra five minutes to get there because of a light (heck, beats the 20 minutes it will take me to go over the hill).

The 3-lane light at Rousseau Francais is not the optimum Caltrans design; a 5-lane light would be.  We all knew that when we got fed up with fatalities a few years ago and demanded action from Caltrans.  For financial and permitting reasons, however, it became clear that the only way to get quick action from Caltrans was to accept a 3-lane light. 

Fatalities are a bigger issue than convenience so we took the 3-lane light.  Half Moon Bay has a 5-lane light in their funding submission to the County Transit Authority.

Midcoasters might want to help us get that money in order to clear up the peak hour “problems” at Rousseau Francais.  Understanding, of course, that peak hour traffic “problems” are of little significance when weighed against fatality “disasters”.

What will there be at the Harbor Village’s view-blocking, multi-story wall of development that would attract those of us from Moss Beach and Montara to shop there? And with the guaranteed greater traffic congestion in the vicinity of Capistrano and Highway 1?

Before the lights at Frenchman’s Creek and Coronado it was already better for people in MMB to drive to Linda Mar for real-world shopping that they cannot do in their towns. With the more recent lights, the only change is that more folks realize this.

Gee, where is all that long-running “Carmel” talk for HMB? Here’s a not-so-funny variation on an old joke: How do you live on foo-foo alone? Eat the arts and crafts.

Carl May

Comment 9
Tue, March 21, 2006 11:37am
Cid Young
All my comments

I agree that all the extra lights have caused me to shop North of Half Moon Bay, just to avoid the traffic jams at Surfers Beach, (unless I duck into El Granada and around via the frontage road)thereby avoiding the problem of dodging jaywalking surfers and families that used to park on the west side of the road before Half Moon Bay had the beachside curb painted red several years ago… If you ask me, that action alone created a huge life-threatening nuisance to beach-going pedestrians and should be re-evaluated.

For some reason, drivers at the Frenchman’s Creek light don’t seem to get going when it turns green, and I have seen many drivers traveling along from the Nurseryman’s Exchange direction have to stomp their brakes inspite of a green light up ahead, to accommodate the “Asleep-at-the wheel” drivers poking along ahead of them.

Of course, when going north after the occasional shopping trip, the afternoon bottleneck at Terrace Avenue is predictable but worrisome. If the merchants want people to come to town to shop they should start lobbying for CalTrans to time the lights ASAP! Or, better yet, build a frontage road that parallels HWY One for all the neighborhood traffic to come and go on the short trips so the commuters can sail on through…..WITHOUT ALL THE LIGHTS.

Cid Young
Moss Beach Resident

Timed lights? Obviously. But they, too, eventually get overloaded. School busing? Obviously. But the CUSD board has acted with cavalier disregard for years on matters of traffic in the communities it covers. Some saw the elimination of most school busing as punishment for not passing poorly conceived parcel tax measures.

A bikepath/trail paralleling Highway 1 would provide a safe alternate means of transportation for some locals some of the time.

And, hey, the Coastal “Trail” is, in fact, built and being extended as a one-lane paved road. Maybe there could be one-way local auto traffic (it couldn’t handle heavy trucks)on it—south in the morning and north in the evening? The CA DPR, which has much of the HMB stretch of the “trail” has rolled over for worse than that around here in the past. Smiley face or no smiley face inserted here—you choose.

Carl May