Revitalizing Main

To perhaps no one’s surprise, on Monday Redwood City’s City Council gave its unanimous “thumbs up” to the 851 Main Street project. The council was in good company: a number of people spoke during the designated public comment period, and every single speaker was in favor of the project. No one had a bad word to say about it.

Just why is this particular project getting people so excited? For one thing, it’s a really nice looking building:

Even though the building will be four stories tall, the upper stories step well back from Main, effectively reducing the building’s mass and making for a comfortable pedestrian experience. This building also:

  • preserves a historic resource (the green single-story portion of the building shown above was constructed in 1922 to be “Clifton Motors,” a Chevrolet dealership).
  • brings a nice chunk of high-quality retail space to the central portion of Main Street. Behind the historic facade the building will provide 6,900 square feet of retail that could be divided into one, two, or three storefronts.
  • includes parking for 246 cars and 50 bikes. During weekday days that two-level underground parking garage will be reserved for the building’s tenants, but in the evenings and on weekends that parking will be open to the public. This new garage will be ideally positioned to serve those who want to shop or dine on Main.
  • includes a public “art gallery” space in the building’s lobby (the lobby’s arched entryway is located to the right of the green historic storefronts in the rendering).
  • adds lighting to the area. Particularly on Walnut, this additional lighting should greatly improve pedestrian safety.

When complete, this building will sit between the historic IOOF Building and Angelicas restaurant. On Main it will replace two currently empty buildings that, until recently, had a number of tenants. For instance, the historic building was home to three side-by-side eating and dining establishments: La Victoria Taqueria, Palermo Italian Restaurant, and Tequila Lounge.

The small non-historic building next door that will also be replaced by this project is currently divided into two retail spaces. Over the years it has had various tenants including Farm Hill (a meal delivery service), New Chin’s Restaurant (a Chinese and Vietnamese eatery), and a nail salon. Like its historic neighbor, however, this building is currently empty.

There was much talk at the meeting about how this building will almost single-handedly revitalize Main Street. That got me to thinking about just what is there today, and why people seemingly don’t spend much time on Main. Accordingly I walked up and down Main Street this week, taking copious notes and photographs.

Although Main Street is somewhat “out of sight, out of mind” for many people, it intersects Broadway close to a number of popular restaurants, and intersects Middlefield Road by the main library and on the corner where the very popular Milagro’s Mexican restaurant is located. Thus, Main Street is very close and easy to get to for those of us who are already downtown. It does have some really great restaurants and a couple of popular businesses, but those are pretty widely scattered, reducing the appeal of the street as a whole.

Because I was interested in the parts that are easily accessible to the average downtown patron, I limited my survey to Main between Marshall Street and Maple Street. The most interesting parts are between Broadway and Middlefield, of course, but I added the extra blocks on each end because they are easy to reach and have some real potential.

Suppose you were enjoying a delicious pizza at Vesta, for instance. If you then got up, walked a couple of doors down Broadway, and made a left turn, you’d find yourself on the part of Main between Marshall and Broadway. Why might you do that? Well, if you need an ATM, Wells Fargo Bank is located on the east side of this block. You’ll also find Redwood City’s Path of History kiosk here, along with signboards for four of our historic buildings (three of which still stand nearby). Unfortunately, that’s about it for this particular block. The Fitzpatrick Building (on the corner, right where you turned) is full of small offices occupied by attorneys, family therapists, and the like. And the Diller-Chamberlain Store building (San Mateo County’s oldest commercial building; it was built in 1859) today contains the offices of Mixbook Photo Co., a company that offers customizable photo products, such as books, cards, and calendars. Neither contain anything of interest to the casual pedestrian.

So, if walking to Main and turning left doesn’t have much to offer, what about if we instead turn right? Here things get better, if only somewhat. Between Broadway and Stambaugh—the first real street you come to—there are a couple of places of interest. First of all, although the Sequoia Hotel is not a place you’d want to go into—it caters to a “transient” crowd—the building’s Main Street facade does have a handful of small storefronts. The first that you’ll come to is a small local market (“Main St. Market”) that seems to be a hangout for some of the Sequoia Hotel residents—and thus may be a turn-off to some. Next door, though, is a place I heartily recommend: Gambrel & Co., Redwood City’s local “craft butchery.” And next door to that is, well, nothing: the storefront at 814 Main is currently empty, while the storefront at 816 Main proclaims “Deja Vu Antiques Dolls & Bears” (there are indeed dolls displayed in the window)…but that business has been closed for five-and-a-half years now.

Across Main from the Sequoia Hotel is a building that once housed an arm of UC Berkeley Extension…but they moved to Belmont in late 2010. Today the three-story sandstone building—which faces Broadway—is all private offices. There is nothing there of interest to the retail or restaurant patron, and the Broadway-facing windows are usually covered by blinds.

Continuing on the east side of Main, you come to the historic Alhambra Theater building, which at the time of its construction in 1895 boasted the “finest theater on the Peninsula” along with a restaurant and bar. Today it is home to a tech company called Banjo (upstairs) and, on the ground floor, the ever popular Martin’s West, who bills themselves as Redwood City’s original gastropub. Adjacent to the Alhambra Theater building is the also-historic IOOF Building, the ground floor of which is home to one of Redwood City’s really great businesses (seriously): Ralph’s Vacuum & Sewing Center. If you need to buy or have repaired a vacuum cleaner or sewing machine, Ralph’s is where you want to go. And if you do so, note that he has convenient parking in the rear, on Walnut Street.

The next handful of storefronts on this side of Main are currently empty, as this is where the new 851 Main Street building is going to be constructed. Beyond it are two other popular businesses: Angelicas and Savers. Angelicas is a restaurant and bar that regularly hosts live music. It is located in a dark, classically styled building that adjoins the lighter colored, modern building where you’ll find Savers, a large thrift store. Savers can be a great place to shop, although their Walnut Street drop-off is getting something of a bad reputation: people apparently drop items at all hours (when they shouldn’t) and are dumping items that Savers doesn’t accept, such as mattresses. But Savers can be a great place to get a bargain, and thus it has its fans.

Savers’ address is on Main Street but their entrance is actually on Stambaugh. Having reached that street, allow me to now skip back to the other side of Main, back by the shuttered doll shop. Next to that shop, separated by a small alley, is the Redwood Plaza Village building. Redwood Plaza Village is a senior (55+) apartment building with parking and commercial spaces on the ground floor, and apartments on the two floors above. Unfortunately this building’s handful of commercial spaces have only one tenant of real interest to the casual passerby: Venga Empanadas. The other spaces in this building are occupied by a chiropractic clinic and two tech company offices.

Continuing beyond the Redwood Plaza Village building, you find the Main Street entrance to the block’s central parking lot. Then, you come to the Euro Hotel, a small affordable hotel that offers “European style” accommodations. It sits next to another mixed-use building, this one with apartments on the upper three floors for families earning up to 60% of the area median income. This building—City Center Plaza—also has commercial spaces on the ground floor. Only one appears to be being used as an office; the rest contain a rather eclectic mix of businesses:

  • Véloro, a shop that seems to specialize in mid- to high-end road bicycles.
  • Heartcore, an exercise facility that offers a workout that is billed as “Pilates on steroids.”
  • The Pedestal, a waxing studio.
  • Tutu School, which offers ballet classes for young children.
  • Rouge, The Salon on Main, a hair salon
  • Milagro’s, the large Mexican restaurant at the corner of Main and Middlefield.

Opposite these businesses, on the east side of Main, are an equally interesting set—although some are in transition. Starting at Stambaugh and working south towards Middlefield:

  • Lovejoy’s Tea Room, a quirky English-style tea house.
  • TecnoUNO, a technology servicer who repairs computers and screens.
  • The Patty Shack, serving burgers and fries.
  • an in-transition space that until recently was Aly’s on Main. According to the liquor license, it will soon be a restaurant called “Mezes”.
  • The Striped Pig, a bar and restaurant.
  • (soon to be) Ranzan, “authentic Japanese dining.”

Beyond Ranzan’s space sits the former home of Young’s Auto Parts, which currently sits empty but is slated to be remodeled for a to-be-determined retail or restaurant tenant. And next to that are a couple of businesses that are of no interest to those of us out for a nice evening: QuanticMind (a tech company), AvidBank (a business bank), and two software companies, BetterWorks and Cyara.

That brings us to Middlefield Road. On Main, beyond Middlefield, there are really only two businesses of note, both of which are housed in old Victorian houses just past the library parking lot: The Main Gallery, an artist’s cooperative that regularly puts on new shows, and Alana’s Cafe, a delightful spot for breakfast or lunch. Across Main are two small buildings that appear to house (what else) tech companies.

From Marshall to Maple, Main Street is about four blocks long. In those four blocks I count eight restaurants (with a ninth, Ranzan, presumably opening soon, and Mezes opening who knows when). There are six retail establishments, but one is a small market and one sells meat. And there are seven service businesses: a dance studio, an exercise studio, a chiropractor, two salons, a tech repair business, and Wells Fargo Bank. If you do the math, that averages out to two restaurants, one-and-a-half retail establishments, and about one-and-a-half service businesses per block: not nearly enough to draw customers to the area. Right now Main has a number of empty storefronts and a number that are being used as offices, which are real turn-offs, particularly at night.

And that is why the 851 Main Street project has so many people excited: it is an attractive building that will be plopped down right in the middle of a long stretch of dead storefronts, a building with a flexible retail space that is already attracting attention (for one, Brick Monkey appears to be very interested in reopening here). Put some high-quality retail there, open the two restaurants that are currently underway (Ranzan and Mezes) and then complete the transformation of the Young’s Auto Parts building (which is slated to bring another 8,000 square feet of retail to Main Street), and suddenly Main Street will be a very different place. Plus, over time, the retail spaces that are currently being used as offices should transform back into retail. Suddenly, people who today are walking up and down Broadway will start turning the corner onto Main Street. Hopefully that will start an upward spiral: more people on Main means that there will be more interest from retailers and restauranteurs, which will in turn bring more people onto Main.

That is how you revitalize a street like Redwood City’s Main Street: one project at a time. And the 851 Main Street project is leading the charge. No wonder the building is so popular. I can’t wait to see what happens next…

3 thoughts on “Revitalizing Main

  1. The Council did pass a change to require ground-floor retail on Main Street — but unfortunately it is too weak to have much effect. Even if one of the ground-floor office leases expires, the owner can lease it to another office tenant. Only if the space remains un-leased for 6 months does it revert to requiring retail. That’s not likely to happen until the next recession (at which point there might not be much demand for retail space, in any case).

    We need a stronger ground-floor retail requirement that can’t be postponed indefinitely.

  2. I don’t understand why the owners of these buildings are allowing their storefronts to remain empty. How does a shop on a Main Street in Silicon Valley stay empty for 5 1/2 years?? To what degree can the city council provide some “encouragement” for these building owners to take a more active role in boosting the vitality of the downtown area? Certainly, the zoning which allows offices to occupy street-level storefronts is counterproductive and should be modified. RWC needs some destination retailers. Another fast food shop or nail salon will not be helpful.

    • Two of the three historic spaces that are empty where this project will be built, are so only because the new buyer kicked out the old tenants. The other one that had for many years housed a Chinese restaurant, had a sign in the window after they left indicating it had to be vacated for some vague reason related to its historic status, but oddly enough a realtor temporarily moved it, followed by Farm Hill. I never understand what historic significance forced out a long-time tenant for the sake of two temporary ones. Many of the Main St. businesses that moved out in the past two years, were forced out when their rents literally doubled. I know because my hairdresser owned one of them and the tenants on Main talk to each other. And that same issue is happens all over Redwood City, not just on Main. Landlords are a big part of the downtown vacancy problem.

      I live on Main and I can tell you that’s there’s not only plenty of foot traffic already, but a lot of traffic, period, so I’m not sure why it needs more. If the this project is bringing in a “nice chunk of high-quality retail space,” but the parking can only be utilized in the evening and weekends, where will those visiting the retail spaces be parking the rest of the time? In the already over-crowded parking behind the 830 Main that people want to turn into a park? And do we really need more cars packing this narrow street? Just try making a left turn on Main anywhere other than at Middlefield and Veterans. Or trying making a left from Broadway onto Main. Depending on the time of day, you can’t, at least not legally, because in spite of the heavy traffic, the city still hasn’t installed turn signals. Where is the entrance to this parking going to be? On Walnut, which already gets backed up every time a Savers truck is loading or unloading? If that street is widened, that will remove essential parking for Walnut apartment dwellers. Redwood City has a history of not updating the infrastructure to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic and I sure hope they finally wake up, or this project will be hell for downtown residents. Actually, it will inevitable have a negative impact regardless for Main St residents because parking we currently use and need will inevitably be taken by tenants of the new project and by these new shoppers that are being expected to come in. Even on weekends and evenings, many people (particularly women) do not like dark underground parking structures and will always choose an open-air parking lot over one.

      There is so much turnover on downtown’s other streets, so what makes the city think this will be any different? I know this sounds extremely negative, but I live here so I see close-up what actually happens. Retail, with the exception of Cost Plus, doesn’t draw shoppers. Unless we want to host mall-type businesses, I don’t expect that to change and if it did, our narrow downtown streets couldn’t support the traffic.
      Sorry for the rant but it’s so disheartening to see the city continue to build and build and build when history has shown us that downtown is already an insecure place for a commercial tenant to be.

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