City seeks inspiration from eclectic mix of downtowns 

An increase in chain stores and sidewalk cafes could help bring shoppers and energy to quaint, small-town Laurel Street, according to city and business officials studying the secrets to other downtowns’ success.

Officials are eager to attract customers and bring much-needed sales-tax revenue into the city. In a search for solutions, City Council members Brad Lewis and Bob Grassilli recently visited four Bay Area shopping districts and took careful notes on everything from storefronts to sidewalks.

They delivered their findings to the City Council on Monday night, an early step inredefining the future look and feel of the city’s retail core.

Among the test cases were Berkeley’s Fourth Street, Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Gatos — a mix of older and newer downtowns, all of which have seen some level of redevelopment, according to Assistant City Manager Brian Moura.

"Each town had some element of success we thought was good, from mature trees to more established chain stores mixed with smaller shops that give towns texture and feel," Lewis said.

San Carlos has traditionally resisted chain stores on Laurel Street, preferring to place them near U.S. Highway 101. Recently, Starbucks staked out a second location on Laurel, sparking an outcry from neighboring coffee shops that ultimately led the city’s Economic Development Advisory Committee to rule that so-called "regional retail" stores would be allowed downtown.

"I know change can be seen as painful, but we were looking at what was the atmosphere of these other towns that felt good?" Lewis said.

As cities across the Peninsula seek the secret formula for bringing shoppers downtown, it’s common for them to study one another. In a recent workshop to plot the future of San Mateo’s downtown, several participants cited San Carlos’ Laurel Street or Burlingame’s Burlingame Avenue as regions to watch.

"It makes sense to look at where we fit into the marketplace," said Kelly Mitter, director of the Downtown San Mateo Association. "But I don’t think it’s appropriate to look to other cities to define what we are."

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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