The stream of customers barely slowed at Bean Scene Cafe on Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale, as owner Kenny Lam poured espresso shots and steamed milk for lattes.
The cafe, along with all of downtown Sunnyvale, has returned to pre-pandemic levels of foot traffic and engagement. City leaders and business owners attribute the success to a variety of factors, from the area’s mixture of business and residential to ongoing construction of hundreds more homes nearby—with some already occupied.
For Lam, the revitalization is because of the area’s residents, as more than half his customers are regulars.
“Within a year, things went back to normal,” Lam told San José Spotlight.
Sunnyvale’s downtown housing explosion is thanks to CityLine, a group of developers and investors who have been building retail space, offices and housing in the area. The group plans to build 1,066 apartments in three phases over the next few years, mostly along McKinley Avenue. Phase 1 is completed, with 273 apartments available. Phase 2 is underway with 479 apartments planned in a 12-floor complex. The remaining 752 apartments are expected in Phase 3.
Kristina Kawczynski, director of operations for the Sunnyvale Downtown Association, said the downtown has a collection of small businesses and corporate retailers including an AMC theater, which sits atop a Whole Foods, across the street from Target. Having a variety of businesses makes it more convenient for consumers, Kawczynski said.
“We literally have a supermarket under a movie theater, how much more convenient can it get?” Kawczynski told San José Spotlight.
Downtown Association Executive Director Mike Johnson said CityLine’s prolific residential and office development could be a boon.
“All day, (business people) are coming out for lunch, they’re coming out for meetings, but when it flips, then you have all the residents coming in and the night activity fills the other half of the void,” Johnson told San José Spotlight.
Downtown visitor Za Tangbau, who stopped by Murphy Avenue with colleagues after work to grab dinner, appreciates the convenience.
“I like it… After movies, you want to come here and get dinner,” Tangbau told San José Spotlight.
Downtown Sunnyvale runs from the Caltrain station on Evelyn to Iowa avenues, bounded by Mathilda Avenue to the west and Carol Street to the east. It centers around historic Murphy Avenue, which houses dozens of small, locally owned businesses. The Sunnyvale City Council voted earlier this year to close off Murphy Avenue to traffic permanently.
The right blend
Other smaller cities in Santa Clara County are benefiting from the combination of residential neighborhoods near a downtown with mixed services.
West Valley neighbor Campbell has developed its downtown in a similar manner.
Residential neighborhoods surround historic downtown Campbell and nearby bustling Pruneyard Shopping Center with its wide range of services from Trader Joe’s to retail, restaurants and the Pruneyard Cinemas.
“Downtowns that have those … ingredients—a large population of full-time residents, residents with money to spend and places to spend that money—are going to do well,” Dan Orloff, president-elect of the Campbell Chamber of Commerce, told San José Spotlight.
Mountain View Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Peter Katz said in addition to residential foot traffic, local festivals are significant revenue drivers to the city’s economy.
“People want to engage, they really do,” Katz told San José Spotlight.
For Sunnyvale resident Leigh Odum, owner and founder of Leigh’s Favorite Books and Booksaurus on Murphy Avenue, downtown events are another way to involve the community.
Odum said she appreciates that the downtown association lets business owners know when new developments are approved. The association helps connect developers with established businesses about potential upcoming changes in the area.
“I’m glad we have this,” Odum told San José Spotlight. “It’s how we’re going to keep up with the new developments coming in.”
While larger neighboring cities such as San Jose have struggled to fill vacant downtown storefronts, Johnson said Sunnyvale doesn’t have that problem. New businesses regularly fill empty spaces in and around the avenue. Similarly, Campbell has seen a “historic low” in commercial vacancy rates, Orloff said, and added that any vacancies that do come up are quickly filled.
Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein said Murphy Avenue and the greater downtown area is an “attractive” place for new businesses, between the neighboring Caltrain station and plentiful foot traffic.
“Ultimately, the downtown is the heart of your community and if you can keep bringing people to it, whether that be residential or office, that makes it more lively,” Klein told San José Spotlight.
Anton Slade, owner of Coffee & More Cafe, agreed that his business and the downtown area have seen a return to busyness. Slade said he was concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect business, but the cafe had “hardcore customers” who kept returning.
“We’re really lucky to be part of the community,” Slade told San José Spotlight.