We need a common vision of downtown Half Moon Bay

Editorial

Posted by on Fri, September 23, 2005

The Coastside is going to change a lot in the next 20 years. If we don’t have a shared vision of our community, we’re going shift strategies and make incremental decisions until we have a random collection of houses and strip malls connected only by roads.

A recent survey of downtown merchants helped me understand the issues that they confront every day. And it made me realize how fragile downtown is. Everyone says they love downtown Half Moon Bay, but we haven’t really discussed what we want it to look like.  It’s important for all of us, and it’s a matter and life and death for the merchants who have invested in it.

The researchers were the downtown merchants themselves. And, although the survey was a little rough in spots, 96 of 108 surveys were returned.

It’s hard to run a store downtown

Nearly half (48%) of the merchants who responded to the survey said they had been struggling to some degree over the last three years. Three-quarters depend on their spouses, savings, or even loans, to keep going. A quarter said that their business was taking a toll on their health.

It’s challenging to set up shop in Half Moon Bay. About a third say that rent is one of their biggest challenges and another 20% feel it’s hard to find the right help on the Coastside.

With Highway 92 often jammed to capacity on weekends and the price of gas steadily increasing, downtown Half Moon Bay and Coastsiders need one another more than ever.

For some reason many Coastsiders prefer the shopping centers, like Linda Mar in Pacifica and Strawflower Village. And two-thirds of downtown merchants are certain that the unfinished Harbor Village in Princeton will cost them even more customers. I’m just grateful that no more retail space is planned for Wavecrest.

Despite these obstacles, about half (46%) the downtown merchants feel that the key to their success is bringing more Coastsiders downtown. Whenever you ask people what will bring Coastsiders to downtown Half Moon Bay, you hear answers like shoes, clothing, or underwear. These items showed up in the survey, as well. That seems like an improbable solution.

Let’s bring downtown even closer to the heart of the Coastside

Downtown Half Moon Bay is already the heart of the Coastside community.  We need to emphasize that link. For many of us who live outside of Half Moon Bay, our main connection is through Cunha or the high school.

Parents and kids spend time downtown before and after school. I became a regular member of the downtown scene when I started dropping my daughter off at Cunha. Cunha kids walk to the high school and vice versa.  If the middle school is replaced with an elementary school that serves families who already live near downtown, it could be devastating.

The kinds of activities that bring people downtown are entertainment, recreation, meeting friends, and sharing meals. Our new park, within walking distance of downtown, is critical to downtown’s success.

We need a movie theater, but we don’t need big concrete box surrounded by a parking lot in what used to be an empty field. That’s not going to bring anyone downtown. It could keep them away.  We need an old-fashioned movie theatre that opens on the Main Street sidewalk.

We have already made some mistakes, mainly in our support of cars downtown. The Bank of America Building intimidates pedestrians by turning the sidewalk into a busy intersection for their parking lot. The CCWD building is a block-long blank wall leading to another parking lot intersection. Half Moon Bay’s post office is designed to work like a freeway interchange. We can do better.

We should be thinking about people and not cars. A downtown designed for smooth traffic flow will keep us all off the sidewalk. More than half the merchants seemed to think parking downtown was inadequate.  But you can usually find a space within a couple of blocks of your destination and everyone who gets out of their car and walks a couple of blocks adds to activity on the sidewalk in a positive way.

Downtown, every day can be a special event

A downtown designed for entertainment and walking will keep Baysiders in town after dark, instead of sending them home at the first whiff of fog.

Special events, like the Halloween and Fourth of July parades, Wine Walk, Pumpkin Festival, and Night of Lights should be part of our strategy for reorienting the community to downtown. But many of the merchants are alienated from them, saying they don’t generate enough foot traffic or sales. These events should be planned with downtown merchants in mind. After all, the merchants are what makes downtown a desirable place to hold these events.

The only other alternative is to become like Carmel, filled with art galleries that don’t even pay sales tax because they ship out of state. The locals in Carmel have lost their downtown. They shop in the strip malls on the edge.

Please think about what you want downtown to look like. Let’s keep it friendly to pedestrians, welcoming to locals, and open to our children. Let’s meet our friends and celebrate our successes in local restaurants. Let’s fill it with special events and remember that the downtown merchants are our hosts, and not simply a backdrop for our parties.  Buy your meat, fish, bread, and vegetables for dinner in downtown shops. And focus on keeping downtown at the heart of our community.

What’s your vision of downtown Half Moon Bay? Or downtown Montara, Moss Beach or El Granada for that matter. Please share your responses and ideas by clicking on the comment link below the headline.


Comment 1
Fri, September 23, 2005 4:46pm
Frank Long
All my comments

While I agree that adopting a pedestrian mentality could beneficially transform Downtown, I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. We need more cooperation from the City before that happens.

Coastsiders from outside HMB still need a place to park their vehicles, and what is all too readily apparent is that Downtown can reach a parking saturation point long before the majority of stores are doing a good days business.

This is particularly so on sunny days, like today, as I write this response, when people just come to HMB to get out of the valley and they don’t intend to buy anything, they just want a place to put the car while they stroll. Those days usually prove to be a disaster for business owners, particularly when the rest of the week might have been a bust.

Other times visitors express their frustration in not being able to both dine downtown AND shop without having to relocate their vehicle because of the parking time limits. The parking limits are set to encourage customer turnover because there arent enough spaces and the City doesn’t see the need to do anything about it. Why would they? All the folks there have a place to park, so it doesn’t effect them.

I have been told that the recent LCP decision has been to do nothing to address the parking issue in HMB. And, after having worked on this survey with Madeleine Saussotte (Ocean Books), we know of no one who had been contacted by any group or agency to determine whether there was any problem; so what data led to that decision? In the Survey, we noted over half the business owners complaining about parking deficiencies, yet, adjacent to City Hall lies the City’s vacant lot with two trailers sitting on it, in the heart of Downtown, no less.

Locals often avoid shopping Downtown for several reasons, parking being but one of these, but the lack of basic, useful necessities is probably the biggest. Strawflower can only pick up so much slack, and if Downtown marches off to a tune chasing the ever-elusive tourist dollar, then HMB, as the central hub of the Coastside, will limit its ability to support its own residents and it will be no wonder why residents are buying over the hill to get their basic needs met.

Is this a “What came first; the Chicken or the Egg” scenario? I don’t think so. When I first discovered HMB in the latter ‘60s, it wasn’t much more than any other no-name agricultural town, but I’ll bet that, out of necessity, it was far more self sufficient. Now, in these rockier economic times, the “fix” for the tourist addiction isn’t always available and I think the Survey went at least part way to bear that out.

All in all, while the Survey was still far short of being professional, it managed to address a lot of core issues for the Coastside. There were many pieces of constructive criticism offered in the Survey by the respondents, and Madeleine and I thank all those business owners who took the time to respond.

Frank Long
Oasis Natural Foods

Comment 2
Mon, September 26, 2005 2:58pm
Carl May
All my comments

Amusing. Downtown HMB is what the property owners and most businesses wanted it to be. It had the kinds of stores people could use for their shopping needs before it set its cap to become a row of gift shops and boutiques and upscale places to eat. City and Chamber of Commerce leaders almost laughed when anyone complained that businesses were going under because of the higher rents or being sucked away by the peripheral shopping centers. There were the current kinds of businesses to replace them. Now, with Pacifica so much more convenient to the unincorporated midcoast to the north of HMB, thanks partly to the stoplighting of Highway 1—which will only get worse as more highway intersections get lights—there is no need to go to HMB for basic shopping.

You folks, Barry and Frank, seem to want what was consciously thrown away. There were lots of comments as downtown lost basic kinds of businesses and there were, already, the studies several times over on the future of downtown and on parking there. Few cared, least of all the movers and shakers. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” situations, and you aren’t going to be able to turn back the clock or find sufficient people with an overview of transportation and access, parking, business mix, rental rates, and the rest until there is a massive shift in how the business community in the city of HMB views itself. There is a better chance of Wal-Mart coming to town than such a shift taking place.

Carl May

Comment 3
Mon, September 26, 2005 3:10pm
Barry Parr
All my comments

I agree that some bad decisions were made that have damaged downtown. I also know I’m late to the party on this. And I know that fixing this problem is hard.

But,(1) the value of downtowns is an accepted value in a way that it was not even a decade ago, (2) downtowns can be and have been revived, (3) there seems to be more agreement that something needs to be done, and (4) I’m not prepared to just throw up my hands and say downtown HMB is doomed and move on to Pacifica.

Let’s get after the people who are neglecting downtown or actively hurting it, and not those that love it and are trying to make it better.

Comment 4
Mon, September 26, 2005 5:48pm
Frank Long
All my comments

For the record, while I discovered HMB in the ‘60s, it was while I was stationed over the hill. I didn’t move here from back east until 1997, so however Downtown became dysfunctional is before my time here.

I watched my quaint New England hometown lose itself between the glitz of tourism and the blitz of developers, to the point where it lost its character altogether. It was no different than any other tourist trap in New England selling cute little carved wooden fishing boats that were made in Taiwan.

HMB will become exactly what its people, including landlords (absentee or not) and public officials, let it become, whatever point on the compass that happens to take.

Frank Long

Comment 5
Mon, September 26, 2005 11:04pm
Joe Falcone
All my comments

I’ve been concerned about the viability of downtown since I became a member of the Planning Commission over 2 years ago.  The number of “for lease” signs, the musical chairs of businesses moving in search of cheaper leases, and the development disaster called Shoreline Station (what was it supposed to be? office? retail?) all add up to a truly precarious situation.  When I attended the National Trust Historic Preservation conference in Denver 2 years ago, the message was clear - by the time you notice that you have a problem with your downtown, it is too late.  You have to be proactive.

Cities like Paso Robles have been able to preserve their downtown areas by truly organizing around a plan to preserve and develop a mix of local and tourist services (http://www.nationaltrust.org/magazine/archives/arc_mag/ma05cover.htm).  The Federal and State governments support such development together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation thru the Main Street Program (see http://www.mainstreet.org/) 

The problem is that the Main Street Program requires a substantial commitment from the city - such as the assignment of a Main Street Program coordinator.  However, if you take into account the fact that Main Street businesses contribute to the sales and hotel tax kitty that feeds the city, perhaps this is an investment that can see a genuine return.  And the city would then be eligible to apply for Main Street grants and assistance programs.

I believe that the people of Half Moon Bay can move mountains when we want to.  The reconstruction of Cunhas Country Store, the landscaping of Hatch, and the Creek Bridge are all positive signs of what we can accomplish.  Do we want a vital and useful downtown?  I think so!

Comment 6
Tue, September 27, 2005 8:03am
Mike Ferreira
All my comments

Frank Long commented:
“Other times visitors express their frustration in not being able to both dine downtown AND shop without having to relocate their vehicle because of the parking time limits. The parking limits are set to encourage customer turnover because there arent enough spaces and the City doesn’t see the need to do anything about it. Why would they? All the folks there have a place to park, so it doesn’t effect them.”

    Setting the record a little bit straighter I’d like to point out that the City did, indeed, extend the parking hours downtown from two to three hours a couple of years ago.  It didn’t last very long.  The City did it in the belief that we were responding to the downtown merchants’ desires because we were responding to a downtown merchants committee.  Boy, was that wrong.  Once we did it we were greeted with an overwhelming negative petition and a large turnout at a Council meeting to reverse the decision.  We reversed, of course, when it became obvious that the committee didn’t have the consensus it was thought to have had. 

    My point is that there isn’t any “City doesn’t see the need to do anything about it” at play here.  The City, as with most cities, will try to cooperate with the consensus of the stakeholders.  Getting an accurate read of that consensus is what has sometimes proven to be problematic, particularly on this parking time limit issue.

Comment 7
Tue, September 27, 2005 2:26pm
Darin Boville
All my comments

I’ve been here, in Montara, for almost a year. I’ve tried to spend money in downtown Half Moon Bay but have found it to be a difficult task. There is very little there that I would buy. I do buy fish food at the Feed Store. I bank at Bank of America. My kids take swim lessons at the pool. That’s about it. My other needs are served well elsewhere.

There is also nothing to *do* in downtown Half Moon Bay. A Movie theatre would be great, especially one with “character.” I grew up in Akron, Ohio and the redevelopment there was led by the rehabilitation of the wonderful Civic Theatre (http://destinationdowntownakron.com/civic/). We don’t have an old theatre as a starting point but just putting in a large screen with a high quality sound system would make it both an attraction for locals and outsiders—perhaps appealling to both sides of the tourist/local question.

And it would give people a reason—oh my God!—to go downtown after 6 pm.

—Darin

Darin Boville

Comment 8
Tue, September 27, 2005 3:44pm
Frank Long
All my comments

Mike Ferreira commented:
“Setting the record a little bit straighter I’d like to point out that the City did, indeed, extend the parking hours downtown from two to three hours a couple of years ago ......... Boy, was that wrong.”

We’re talking apples and oranges here. You’re focusing on time limits, I’m talking about PARKING SPACES. Extending parking times when we are short of spaces is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Its no wonder everyone was in an uproar.

What about the vacant lot on Johnson St. near City Hall? I can see at least 10, possibly 15 additional parking spaces there alone without any impact on the adjacent lot at City Hall.

My other point was .......What data source for the LCP determined that we didn’t need to address additional parking for Downtown? (So I was told.)

Comment 9
Tue, September 27, 2005 7:46pm
Mike Ferreira
All my comments

Frank Long commented:

“My other point was .......What data source for the LCP determined that we didn’t need to address additional parking for Downtown? (So I was told.)”


The LCP doesn’t address Downtown parking and no one in their right mind would want it to.  Could you imagine having to go through the LCP Ammendment process for parking changes?

Comment 10
Wed, September 28, 2005 4:07pm
foggyfish
All my comments

If I had a dime for everytime someone has said to me “I didn’t know HMB HAD a downtown” I could retire. These are people from Palo Alto, Mt View, Redwood City….People think SAFEWAY is downtown HMB. There has been no outreach to people. There are a couple of poorly placed signs people either can’t see or see too late. There is no outreach to the large and rather wealthy Asian community living just over the hill. There has been a real lack of creativity in drawing people downtown. Someone wants to open a restaurant…well they must have the right number of parking spots. I can only imagine what someone trying to open a theater would have to go through. (I recall the time someone wanted to open a gym in the now empty Mercantile building…..a local store owner complained that the customers would take up too many parking spaces.)So many people have input into the process, in typical “inclusive” government style, nothing gets accomplished. Who wants to jump through all those hoops so they can open a business that will breakeven.

The parking issue is not a real issue. I’ve had more trouble parking at Safeway than downtown. As to the enforcement of traffic laws, believe me, seeing our ticket patrol on a Saturday morning, walking down Main Street is like telling your potential customers, “get out now”.

Go GET your customers.

Comment 11
Wed, September 28, 2005 8:54pm
Frank Long
All my comments

Foggyfish wrote:

“There has been a real lack of creativity in drawing people downtown.”

I agree. One survey respondent offered that HMB has to work TWICE as hard to make itself appear “charming” since the weather can easily disuade people from making the trip over here. That and the fact that, as you say, “...People think SAFEWAY is downtown HMB”, coupled with whatever ridiculous constraint CalTrans has on HMB wanting to put up signs in its own town, and you can see why this place is still struggling with a recognition problem.

The sidewalks are often dirty, the street sweeper comes around every once in a blue moon, and BFI leaves trash mashed under the sides of the often dirty containers on a more than regular basis.

Mike Ferreira and I sat down today to go over some of these issues and its no easy process; too many competing factions and no one’s on the same page. While everyone is busy bitching and moaning, development and outside interests weasel in and take over.

I want to reiterate one of the key points in the survey. This was a real surprise to us because we had no idea that so many businesses were “propped up”, so to speak, and needed outside support to help keep the doors open. Since our survey was only a cursory one, it would be interesting to have a professional survey done in more detail to see exactly how much this artificial image of Downtown is really costing the community as a whole.

Tourist dollars are only as reliable as the tourists that spend them. When the wind blows in a different direction, we have only ourselves to rely on, so it would behoove us to have, as Joe Falcone suggests, “a mix of local and tourist services”, that can accommodate various swings of the economic compass. Judging from the survey results, we’re not there.

I liked what Joe Falcone had to say about Paso Robles.

Frank Long

>>I want to reiterate one of the key points in the survey. This was a real surprise to us because we had no idea that so many businesses were “propped up”, so to speak, and needed outside support to help keep the doors open.<<

No offense, Frank, but I find it hard to believe that it took the survey to figure out that. When I first moved here I was toyig with the idea of opening a center for photography—exhibits, lectures, classes, events—something that stayed open in the evening and was an active place.

So I took an afternoon stroll around downtown HMB and talked to the owners about the idea of opening a business downtown. Almost all that I spoke with advised against it (I say “advised against it” to be polite—the real answers were along the lines of “There’s no way in hell I’d open a business here”).

I think what you are seeing in downtown HMB is the migration of “for-profit” businesses to locations that make more economic sense (especially higher visibility), if they ever considered HMB at all, and the retention/attraction of “lifestyle businesses” which live off of the financial support of the owner. You can’t then expect “lifestyle businesses” to aggressively court customers, put together effective marketing plans, and you certainly can’t expect them to stay open in the evening, etc. That’s not what they care about, not what they do.

I still think that the key here to a better future is an “anchor” downtown—a major destination such as a movie theatre. There would be a lot of people who would come down to the beach during the day and see a movie later on—and a lot of people who would come down on weekdays to see films. Once the people are there it would seem that new kinds of buisnesses would become possible.

—Darin

Darin Boville
www.darinboville.com

Comment 13
Thu, September 29, 2005 2:50pm
Barry Parr
All my comments

I’m sure the downtown merchants already knew that most stores downtown are being subsidized, but this survey allowed them to quantify it so that the rest of us (me, for example) would understand what they’re up against.

I agree that lifestyle businesses can be a problem for downtown’s economic vitality.

You also raise an excellent point about hours of operation. I have also heard (from a merchant) than many store owners are reluctant to stay open late and don’t want to schedule events like Nights of Light on Fridays because they’d rather not work on a Friday night.

Thank God for Moon News, which is usually the only Main Street store open after dark.

Comment 14
Thu, September 29, 2005 4:06pm
Frank Long
All my comments

Darin Boville brought up many points that the survey addressed. Personally, I feel that a number of people were hiding behind propped up smiles of “everything is doing just fine”, all the while hoping like hell that some miraculous buyer would pop out of the woodwork so they could bail out of here.

When I did my requisite run through HMB in the spring of 1997, while still living back east, either things were much better here then or everyone was just being tight lipped.

Darin said, “I think what you are seeing in downtown HMB is the migration of “for-profit” businesses to locations that make more economic sense .........” I won’t argue with that!!

Now that this issue seems to be more in the public spotlight, it might motivate things to happen, ..... or things might just stay exactly the same as they are. I know some folks were totally against the survey from the start, most likely because, God forbid, it might upset the house of cards. The questions we need to ask are, “Are the residents content with the availability of merchandise, are the store owners content with their returns on investment, and are both groups interested enough to do something about it?”

As for me, heck, all I did was help out with a survey that was already in the works.

I am hoping to move to HMB one day, and my longer term intention is to open a business in the main street area. What I love about HMB is the tranquility and the touristy-weekend vibe. I spend quite a bit of time there both on weekdays and weekends as I have a good friend who moved there 3 years ago.

Has anyone studied how some of the great revival areas have done it? Some suggestions are San Antonio Riverwalk, downtown Mountain View, College Ave area of Berkeley…these come to mind. What are the features that sustain these successful downtown areas as shopping for the locals and a draw to both locals and tourists?

Its probably more than one thing - more than a movie theater, or adjusted parking. Both of these, and more features. Is there any funding that would allow for a study by a planner with experience in revitalization?

Comment 16
Wed, October 5, 2005 11:45pm
Ray Olson
All my comments

watching shops come and go so often in downtown leads me to believe that leases are just way too expensive to make most small retail stores earn a decent living, in such an expensive. Like little neighborhood areas in SF, HMB should somehow control the rent so that businesses can make a profit. I have to believe that the majority of the property owners of downtown building live on the other side of the hill so the health of a downtown is not their priority. There is only so many books, and art one can buy, so shops need to be diverse, and allow to make a living to keep the diversity. I really wished the cooking store had made it, for example. I also agree that parking is a problem, as I myself have driven thru downtown, did a few loops to try and find parking, only to go back home in dismay.

My theory is this:  In my store (Oasis), people often put their items on the counter rather than use a basket, sometimes as many as three different customers. I think what happens is that people “want” to have that small town feel; they don’t feel comfortable being just another number waiting in line.

My store is small enough so that they can get away with having that luxury, but no one would dare try that in Safeway or Albertson’s. Of course, if I ever get a larger facility, I mighht have have to rethink my strategy.

Anyway, I think the Downtown parking situation is very much like that above. People know how small Downtown really is so they aren’t going to be fooled into thinking it’s necessary to walk a block to park their vehicles. I mean, heck, this ain’t Burlingame or San Mateo. People are acting like small town drivers because they still want to believe they live in a small town.

That said, we still don’t have enough parking places. The buffer between high and low traffic volumes is too low and will only get worse with further development. What that means is that when there is a slow day downtown, you could hold a soccer game on Main St. (at least on the 500 block). As business picks up, shoppers tend to fill up the spaces more quickly.  By that time, either a few business are doing well or everyone is doing a low to moderate business, but their aren’t enough parking spaces, particularly in light of the small town parking habits, for everyone to have a good day.

Complicating this scenario are some owners and staff who frequently park in front of their own stores, forcing their customers to park in front of other stores.