What’s wrong with downtown Half Moon Bay?

Posted by on Wed, March 14, 2007

High rents and a lack of tourists are taking their toll on Half Moon Bay’s Main Street, reports Julia Scott in the County Times.  Businesses catering to locals are barely hanging on or have just left downtown—and those catering to tourists are facing relentless pressure.

"We’re hitting rock bottom here. We’re going to lose a lot of businesses," said Nidia Nelson, owner of Nuestra Tierra, a Mexican Gallery on Half Moon Bay’s Main Street.

Nelson is one of several local merchants in prime locations along Main Street that normally benefit from gift shoppers out for a stroll on weekends as they search for jewelry, fine art or antiques. But merchants say the foot traffic isn’t there anymore, and many never recovered from the 20 percent slump they endured over Christmas. Then there are shop owners like Nelson, who are facing rent increases just as they near the desperation point.

Nelson opened Nuestra Tierra six years ago and has since spent $20,000 on capital improvements. Her rent, $3.25 per square foot, is the most expensive in town, and the landlord raises it every year. He told her that if she can’t pay it, others can, according to Nelson.

"And we won’t be able to pay it," she said.

Twelve retailers closed their doors last year in Half Moon Bay and more chains—Popeye’s, Jamba Juice, and Peet’s—are moving in.  Chamber of Commerce CEO Charise McHugh is quoted blaming Coastsiders for not shopping locally. Locally-oriented merchants blame a plague of galleries for raising rents. The impact of the closure of Devil’s Slide is still debated. And everyone seems to be unhappy with their landlord.


"The chamber is doing the best we can to get the word out," said McHugh. "We don’t have the power to tell people what kinds of shops they should open or tell landlords not to raise the rent.

The debate over the direction of Half Moon Bay’s downtown continues, but there seems to be no agreement on what the problem is, or whether there is even a problem.  The big retail chains understand that downtown is the next frontier. I visited Union Square this week for the first time in a couple of years, and it’s now more like Stanford Shopping Center with crosswalks than the shopping district of a world-class city.

Okay, I’m going to say it, and I’m not trying to be controversial here: the problem is that there have been many shops going in that locals are not interested shopping at, nor could they afford the fashionable clothing or craftsy home interior products for sale.

Then, the type of tourists who visit HMB are not looking to buy the type of clothing, nor the collectibles for their home, from these shops.  They wander after eating, they enjoy strolling Main Street, but are they really there to buy stuff they could easily find over the hill back home?

Restaurants do well, as, it seems do the bookstores (what are there, like, four bookshops within walking distance?).

Prices are a bit crazy in the cafés and bakeries.  I paid $4.00 for an Odwalla at Moonside last weekend.  Ouch.

Popeye’s coming into the scene doesn’t make sense in town that sought signatures for a Trader Joe’s.  Peet’s I can understand.  If it were a Starbucks coming, I’d woefully shake my head and mutter, “There goes the neighborhood.”  Did the Trader Joe’s petition get enough signatures?  I lost touch with that issue.

In summary, I’ll mention what happened to Laguna Beach where I grew up in the 70s.  Amidst a food co-op, old fashioned drugstores, surf shops, and a natural foods stand,  were many galleries, which weren’t necessarily a problem.  The galleries attracted a certain type of tourist.  It’s when a coastal town begins to have frozen yogurt and t-shirt shops that you know the town is really in trouble.  That’s the sign that the local color has definitely departed.  That’s what happened to Laguna in the 80s and it was never the same since. 

Hopefully the downtown of HMB won’t gentrify itself to accomodate a deeper pocket tourist.  More local color please.  Is it easy for creative, local, small businesses to secure an accomodating lease in a downtown space?  Maybe that’s the problem, property owners set the lease too high.  Like, as is the case with the chai shop getting booted out.  Anyone who has ever drank a sip of that chai would know that that is too special a treat to let go away.

Sorry to write so much.

My growing concern, based upon the events surrounding the Chai shop, is that the City Council in Half Moon Bay, or at least the majority on the Council, do not feel it is their role to shape or control the types of stores and shops that make up the downtown area.

It is almost as if they are repeating some whispered free-market ideology that they agree with but haven’t fully thought through.

This may be fun for tenured professors and for think tank fellows but it is a recipe for disaster at the local level where elected officials really have to *govern.*

I have no doubt that each of the members of the HMB City Council desires to do the right thing by the community. But I sense a Rasputin amongst us, literal or figurative.

What I want in a leader is someone able to articulate an attractive vision of the future and one who will weild the power the people have given them to achieve that future.

Governing is about making choices, not about tweaking the forces of supply and demand as all of the character is sucked from our community.


Even though I’m only able to live part time in the HMB area I have to agree with Anneliese. There is very little about downtown HMB that makes me want to shop there. I occassionally will go to a restaurant or a bookstore or Cunha’s but little else. And I’m frustrated when I have to drive to the bayside to shop for simple things like office supplies. I’ve wandered into the galleries once or twice, but I honestly can’t say whether or not any or even some of the artists were local to the area. Has the local chamber of commerce ever done a survey to see what kinds of stores the locals want/need downtown? Do they care?

Not all, but most of the businesses catering to locals and to midcoasters to the north left downtown HMB a decade ago. The 80+ percent of locals who are not above the wealth gap, anyway. The downtown businesses moaning loudest now are the ones that displaced the businesses selling the stuff and services residents need for their daily lives.

The changing of direction in downtown HMB, with all of the idiotic references to Carmel, has been a conscious and permitted process, approved and guided by the property-serving political types who still hold sway in city government and boosted by the Chamber of Commerce.

As a resident of Montara and Moss Beach (MMB) for over thirty years, I have never looked on downtown HMB or anything else in going on in that city as much more than a neighboring, small-town amusement except in those matters where HMB tries to exert hegemony (sphere of influence) over the quite different (socially and politically) unincorporated communities to its north. As it stands, ordinary people in MMB can do better timewise and pricewise shopping in their small commercial areas and Pacifica, our neighbor to the north, for trips initiated from home.

Those few small businesses left in HMB, both downtown and the outlying shopping centers that first killed downtown, that are still the best option can be saved for occasional special trips.

Carl May

It’s too bad, because downtown Half Moon Bay is the heart of the Coastside Community from HMB to Montara.  Adcock, Cunha, Seacrest, senior services, and the library are all there. The high school is nearby.  It’s the center of the community for Halloween, Independence day, rock the block, the wine walk, and other events. I don’t know about everyone else, Main Street is at the core of my connection to the rest of the community.

But shopping for locals has moved to Strawflower Village and (soon) Harbor Village, neither of which is a…um…village. And both are optimized for cars, not for human beings.

I agree that there are too many shops that are not really useful for the day to day resident’s shopping needs.

Being a new member of the community and always wanting to tread lightly until I get a better feel, but… downtown definitely does not cater to the locals.  I’ve walked up and down the street looking for stores to buy local (Cuhna’s is great!) but can’t find any.  I barely could afford to buy a tiny house and definetly could not afford to buy things at the local clothing or art stores.  What’s wrong with a few small “big box” stores to allow the locals to shop here?

Just what exactly do you want the City Council to do?  Are you suggesting that they somehow limit either the type of store or restrict it to local ownership?  How about rent control? 

I hear the complaints about not having anything in downtown HMB that people want to buy, but yet there is not a commitment to shop in a store if they carried a particular item.  What store or product is missing?  What exactly would you stop going over the hill if you could get it in HMB?  Here is the chance to find solution to the “problem” with the downtown HMB.

I think that one of the thing,s downtown HMB needs is [oh horror of all horror’s] is a movie theater. Maybe that will bring locals to our rollup the streets @ 6pm downtown alive with people in the evenings spending their hard earned bucks in HMB instead of over the hill.
My wife had a shower for my daughter & to escape all those crazed women @ the shower my brother & i went to San Mateo to lunch & a movie till it was safe to come back. We could have easily done the same on the coastside.

In the early nineties reporter Eric Rice of the Review wrote a defining lead article about the potential demise of Half Moon Bay’s downtown core. He extensively quoted an article by a Mr. St. Clair who, I believe, lived in Massachusetts.

The article related how you can predict the demise of any city’s downtown. The biggest criteria was when you lose businesses that serve local residents and are replaced by high end stores that cater to visitor serving tourists such as art galleries, glitzy clothing, gift shoppers, fine art or antiques. In other words the “Carmelization” of a downtown.

St. Clair provided a survey as to how you can judge the status of your downtown core. My take on the survey was that Half Moon Bay was about 80% there.

Look at what has occurred in our downtown:
• A Mexican grocery store and an auto parts store in the
  DeBenedetti building on Main St.—-Gone
• Coastside Printers—-Gone
•  Lumber yard at Miramontes and Main—-Gone
•  Gas station at Kelly and Main—-It’s history
•  Fire Station—-Gone
•  Local tavern replaced by a bicycle shop—-both are gone
•  Tin Palace. Manufactured canvas bags and goods—-Gone
•  Montgomery Wards Catalog store, south of McDutra park—-
•  Post Office—-Removed from downtown thus losing locals

Nearly all of these establishments have been replaced, as well as most new buildings, not to serve the local residents, but to serve hoards of touristas.

Move over Carmel-by-the-Sea. We’re going to “out carmelize” you.

John Lynch

Interesting lists about the “Carmelization” of HMB downtown.

Much of the debate about HMB downtown seems to say that the current situation is focused on serving the tourists, not locals.

I disagree.

A few weeks ago, about 8 pm on a weeknight, I drive through Carmel. Block after block of open stores. Throngs of people all along the streets, most carrying something—packages, drinks, etc.

Last night I drove through HMB at 8 pm. Block after block of closed stores. Not a single pedestrian.

As far as I can tell, downtown HMB doesn’t do a good job of serving the locals. But downtown HMB also doesn’t do a good job of serving the tourists, either. What *do* the tourists around here do after a day at the beach? Nothing is open…

My guess is that many of the businesses there are “lifestyle” businesses that survive only only so long as the owner’s savings account holds out. The very kind of business that will pay rates on the higher end of the scale and which tend to be less responsive to customer needs.

If we had a local-serving downtown I’d be happy. If we had a mini-Carmel I’d be happy—at least someplace to go and walk around at night! Someplace to take visitors…

We seem to have neither…


A significant part of this thread is basically a rerun of articles and letters in the Review some years back.  At that time I wrote that there are businesses in HMB which have signs up which say “If you live here and work over the hill, we don’t want your business.”  What’s that, none of you have seen such a sign?  Sure you have, only the text on it is actually “Open 9-5 Monday-Friday.”  John Lynch mentioned the lumberyard is gone.  No offense meant to John, but who cares?  They were the most blatant example of the above.  Nobody working 40 hours a week over the hill could ever be here when they were open.

I too have noticed that in the evening, nothing other than restaurants and bars seems to be open on Main street.

How can a shop close at 5 pm or 6 pm on weekdays and then whine that they get no “local” business?  I’ve heard that something like 85% of employed Coastsiders work away from the Coastside.  Those shopowners need to go over to San Mateo or Redwood City or Sunnyvale, then leave there at 5 pm and see how much shopping they can do when they get back to Main Street.

Comments were made in that thread years ago that many of these are small family-run businesses and they need time off and can’t stay open long hours.  Well, then open and close later, or close for a few hours in the middle of the day, or something.  Maybe have a posted schedule of different hours on different days, so that there are some late evenings.  But no business which closes every weekday at 5 pm or 6 pm and has minimal or no weekend hours has any right whatsoever to whine that locals don’t shop there.

And I agree with comments by other people about the issue of what the shops are selling.  Has anyone ever addressed the years-old question of “where can you buy socks on the Coastside?”

[Putting on my asbestos suit now.]

Couldn’t agree more about needing a little more ‘Carmelization”. So many local businesses close early, many by 6pm. Don’t they realize that many local people work over the hill and they aren’t even home until after 6pm! This goes for many business all over the coast. I never did understand why businesses here don’t have hours that went from say, noon to 8 or 9pm as opposed to 10am to 6pm.

I realize the high rents have caused many of the above mentioned businesses to relocate (many are still in business, just not on Main St.) I guess it’s hard to compete against the “lifestye” shop owners that seem to come and go on Main St. since they seem to have the deep pockets needed to pay the high rents. I know what we don’t need anymore of downtown, and that’s another gallery of some sort.

To those coastsiders who consider downtown HMB important, stop worrying about Harbor Village. Like downtown HMB, but moreso, that mess aims to make money off of tourons and the Ocean Colony/Miramar crowd. Local dollars spent on necessities won’t be going there.

And stop worrying about Carmel. Downtown HMB has no chance to become anything similar. It does not have, nor has it ever had, the physical setting, architectural setting, and human history necessary to replicate that unique town.

Finally, stop worrying about trying to remake a genuine downtown for locals out of Main Street. If a unified political will to attempt that existed, it would take three or four decades for the effort to play out—and then success would be unlikely. Property values on Main Street won’t permit the kinds of stores needed, and the outlying shopping centers that sucked the ordinary business out of downtown have an interest in remaining viable. The train has already left the station as far as locals shopping for necessities go.

All that remains is trying to improve “downtown” as something else, something that will attract more people no matter what the economy, something that offers midscale locals more to purchase at their level of affordability and more options for recreation. Whatever that is, it will have to develop its own identity rather than trying to emulate some place it cannot hope to be.

At that, I probably would not spend a dime more in HMB than I do now. It’s not where I live, not my community. Last bit of advice: improve and regulate Main Street with majority attention to people who actually live in or care about the city. Those of us with affinities for other places have problems in those places to concern us.

Carl May

Wow, this is an interesting thread.  I think this is almost identical to the one posted a year ago about survey results. 

A few comments:

- Completely agree about the quality of the stores.  There are a few stores I shop at, that are local, but I will not shop at the “gallery” or the “gift shop” because I have no need.  This begs the question, what do we locals need that we don’t have now?

- Is there any way to post a survey within the coastsider?  Just have a bulleted list of some possible stores and a free form answer?  I think the results would be interesting to those of us interested in starting a business.

- Is it the products people are selling or the way they are merchandising them?  I walked into the new kitchen supply store and, as someone who loves cooking, I was dying to get in there to see what they have.  Well, I wasn’t overwhelmed by anything and I left.  (not to mention the person behind the counter didn’t even acknowledge my presence…) This isn’t to say they weren’t meeting my needs or that they didn’t have what I want… it was just the way the products where displayed weren’t compelling.  In other stores, their product mix is so varied, I get confused as soon as I walk out the door and I leave. 

- This is a question my husband posted a few months ago and got no response to: What are the businesses and locals trying to support?  Is it tourism or preserving the local community?  They don’t necessarily work hand in hand.  As a community we need to decide either yes, we want to be town that lives or dies on tourism or no, we are focused on locals and need businesses (entertainment, supplies, etc) and infrastructure to support this.  Of course, there is an in between but where are we as a community?  It seems like we always hear from people saying we don’t want to become x and to stop the growth of the community.  I understand where they are coming from but we need to focus and understand where we are headed.  Will it really kill us all to have a local movie theater?  No.  Will a Bed Bath and Beyond kill the community?  No.  Granted, those may not be realistic outcomes but we as a community need to focus and decide what is best for us. 

This is longer than I expected…

When the slide closed, living in Montara felt like living in the largest cul-de-sac in the Bay Area.  Of necessity, I tried shopping in Half Moon Bay.  It was awful.  I can’t think of a single reason why I would go to shop in HMB.  I’ve heard that New Leaf is opening up in the old Albertson’s space.  Now that will definitely bring me down that way, otherwise I do all of my shopping in Pacifica.  The Linda Mar Safeway’s is so much nicer than HMB Safeway’s, much better selection of organics and I don’t seem to run across outdated products as I did when browsing the HMB shelves.

I’m guessing like most people reading this thread, I sat here trying to think what we are missing on the coast. What could go into downtown that would bring folks back in a more active way? Keep people hanging out and just enjoying the place?

It really led me to think about some other places I’ve lived (been on the coast a total of 4 years). I grew up in the San Jose area and spent a lot of time in Los Gatos, Saratoga, and Willow Glen…all places with “downtown-ish” areas. Also use to head over to Los Altos quite a bit (near work) and experienced what they have for a downtown. The biggest “downtown” memory I have though is Santa Clara….or rather…their lack of downtown. Anyone know the area? Remember what it USE to be before Franklin Mall? I digress…

This all brought me to ask a simple question. What is it about walking through a vibrant small downtown that really matters? The people right? So then…what’s the big hubbub about having some of the chain stores come into downtown? The stores don’t matter as much as the people who go to them. The people who work at them, or own them…hang out near them.

Los Gatos has chain stores, Los Altos has chain stores and a mix of others as well…Saratoga, well, no one really goes there ;) but they do have a good mix of restaurants and coffee places, and not too many galleries!

Maybe I’m way off base here…but if coastsiders are working at these businesses (and maybe even owning them?) seems like a good thing to me.

Mr Lynch remember the Past Time Club, Gilcrest Pharmacy, Half Moon Bay Auto parts also south end of Main there was another joint Pete,s? where i used to run into locals back in 69.
When my brother & I went to a movie & lunch in San Mateo was impressed what they did on 2nd Ave the movie theater & shops resturants. Wish we had somnething similar [flog me, flog me] in downtown HMB. Then my brother & i wouldnt have to drive our old fart bodies over the hill. I know, i know “if ya dont like it move” after 37+ years am welded to this place for better or worse.

Ms Tammy Lee you sure are right about HMB,s Safeway. One day wife & i went there & all their shelves were lacking products lots of empty spaces. Was going to buy blue berries & all the packages were moldy. Hint people turn those plastic bins over & check them out before buying look for mold. The Pacific safeway is lots better & wife & i started using it for major food shopping.  Been in HMB for over 37+ years & it,s gone downhill a lot lately.

It’s encouraging to see such a strong response to this issue. As a co-author of the 2005 survey, I’d like to restate some of the data from that survey. It brought out that 72% of the responding store owners had to take out loans, dip into savings, take a second job, or rely on their spouse having an income, in order to keep their doors open.

Also consider the following:
While 82% claimed that HMB was a great place to do business.
48% declared that they’d been struggling for the last three years.
38% wondered if HMB provided the right climate for business, & 20% were considering selling their business.
(hardly a model of success)

When Madeleine Sausotte and I tried to encourage the Downtown Merchants Association (composed primarily of art galleries and gift shop owners), plus the Chamber to get on board with the survey, our suggestions were largely ignored. Except for two individuals who put in a few hours, we received NO support. We drafted, funded, distributed, collected, and tabulated the survey, almost entirely on our own.

When it looked like the results were then too problematic to ignore, the meeting we planned to hold with the City, concerned business owners, and representatives of the DMA and the Chamber was co-opted and castrated, ultimately becoming mired in procedural formality. We should not have been surprised. The composition of the DMA was only partly what its name suggested. At least a third of its meetings were regularly attended by real estate, banking, and business management interests. Maybe we should be asking ourselves who is really benefitting from this scenario?

I liken Downtown to an expensive chocolate mousse, and when the check finally comes, we realize we never got the entree. All we were left with was the illusion that we had a good meal.

Yet every time these issues comes up, residents seem to be uniformly livid about having to trudge over the hill every time they need to buy something as trivial as underwear. The business owners on Main Street seem locked into this myopic mindset that precludes them from having to take the desires of their strongest market into consideration. It’s like, “I always had this dream, that’s why I’m here in business”, regardless of whether there was ever a strong enough market to support it. So, stubbornly, rather than evolve to meet changing market demands, they stagnate and complain about why the locals don’t support them everytime their beloved tourist wind stalls or the slide happens to go out. Ultimately, this myopia, while helping to support the illusion of prosperity here, only serves to downgrade the quality of life for the rest of us who live here.

As a business owner on Main Street, and having openly expressed the need to support locals first, I did not see any drop in business when the Slide went down. NONE! Personally, I hate wasting gas and time, therefore, anything I can do to help anyone else do the same will continue to be part of my business philosophy.

I believe that many of the commentators think I want to see the downtown “carmelized”. My feeling is just the opposite. I’d like to see it “de-carmelized” and returned to serving the local residents and not the high end glitzy shops. I heartedly agree with Frank Long.

I also would like to see the downtown sidewalks rolled up at 7:00 PM every night.

But in any case that is not likely to occur in my lifetime.

Remember Levy’s department store in the Alpha Beta (now Albertson’s) shopping center. You could buy your socks, underwear and clothing there. The locals did not support it, so many years ago they had to close.

John Lynch

Comment 22
Tue, March 20, 2007 8:35am
All my comments

Let’s make Main Street into a pedestrian zone and have the farmer’s market right at Kelly and Main every weekend.
Downtown would become a lot more pedestrian friendly. Right now walkers have to dodge planters and benches and store displays.
And, add awnings to the buildings so shoppers can walk in the rain.

Barbara Kossy


That’s a great idea.  Sunnyvale, where I grew up, has a Farmer’s Market that takes up all of Murphy Street, I believe ever Saturday.  Great produce and other varieties of food, great music, and a lot of people.  The local shops always seem to be doing a great business on that day.  Heck, this is the coast.  We should have the best Farmer’s Market around!

Mike Mccall

Unfortunately, once that fragile confidence of the residents is broken, and those residents develop alternate purchasing patterns, it takes a lot of time, effort, and heart-ache for some, as that locale struggles to dig itself out of the dysfunctional hole it is in.

Rather than continue to “blame” the current state of Downtown’s economy on the the fact that the locals don’t shop there as they had in the past, our local business moguls, who seem to still be admiring their handywork, should take a long hard look at the model they’ve embraced. These ‘powers that be’ should, to some degree, be held accountable for failing to recognize the changing patterns of the buying public that would have supported the very businesses thay have been claiming to represent.

There are a couple of businesses on either side of the spectrum, which have stepped up to the plate. Ocean Shore (its “Housewares” section, which appears to be doing well), and then there’s  Jeans Plus. I don’t know how many of you have checked Jeans Plus out, but the owner has been very willing to bring in items that locals want and he’s looking for feedback. His prices are pretty good, but he’s stuck in this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ over there in the corner of Strawflower, where the sidewalks seem to have been designed more as a pedestrian obstacle. He’s there because he had been advised NOT to locate on Main Street, and where else can a business owner locate around here?

When I brought up the issue of businesses that have had a rough time getting their ball rolling to one of our better known business network organizations, and mentioned doing a series of instructional write-ups so that other business owners could learn from the mistakes, my suggestion was summarily dismissed because it was not the policy to profile businesses that weren’t members. So much for the community.

I’m sorry, but in case these people have been living in a cave, there is a community that lives here, one that has a tremendous amount of discretionary income that it is willing to selectively part with. Where they choose to spent it rests in large part on whether anyone at the helm Downtown is paying attention to the weather.