By Tara Golshan
Special to the Almanac
Menlo Park residents and city officials came together last week in a communal effort to address and prioritize key issues affecting the city's Belle Haven neighborhood.
For two hours, approximately 70 people participated in a Belle Haven community action workshop, held at the senior center on Terminal Avenue on June 20, to help envision an improved and safer neighborhood.
The Menlo Park City Council voted 4-1 last September to spend an estimated $90,000 to hire consultants to develop a community-engagement process and vision for Belle Haven. Thursday night's discussion, facilitated in both English and Spanish, continued the process. However, according to Menlo Park Community School Director and Belle Haven resident Alejandro Vilchez, the workshop marked the beginning of the next phase in this community-planning endeavor.
"What you can expect tonight is the prioritization of issues and concerns that have been voiced and expressed by neighborhood stakeholders," Mr. Vilchez said in his introduction to the event. "Something we want to accomplish tonight is to take those 'whats' and turn them into 'hows' and then 'whens.'"
The meeting highlighted work by consultant group MIG Inc. on the visioning process. Emphasizing the importance of community input, MIG Public Outreach Consultant Vanessa Silva presented the key action ideas offered by Belle Haven residents over the past months.
Public safety, crime prevention and education consistently received the most interest from community members, Ms. Silva said, who then separated the group to discuss specific improvement strategies in each category.
Belle Haven, a historically less affluent and more ethnically diverse neighborhood in Menlo Park, has the reputation of having a high crime rate, Menlo Park Police Chief Robert Jonsen said.
"I know a lot of people think there is a lot of crime," Chief Jonsen said. "The crime here, statistically, is no different than any other part of the city. It is almost number for number."
However, many residents were quick to disagree, noting that the severity of the crime is the distinguishing factor in Belle Haven.
Amanda Pecoraro, who moved to Belle Haven in October, described a drive-by shooting that happened on her street and hit her front window in April.
"I have seen people walk by our house and rip a wallet off somebody, and then the shooting," Ms. Pecoraro said. "We were very scared."
However, with the action of the community, Ms. Pecoraro said she is confident the neighborhood can make bigger strides toward crime prevention.
Chief Jonsen agreed, noting that public safety "is a very collaborative effort," and takes a close-knit community.
In an effort to combat the fear factor, community members began work on forming a neighborhood watch group by signing up block captains and committing to increasing friendly interactions with their neighbors.
With such widespread ethnic diversity in the Belle Haven community, Mr. Vilchez emphasized the need for authentic conversation between neighbors in order to create a successful watch group.
Participants also noted the importance of involving youth in planning, highlighting the need for summer employment and educational support to get kids off of the streets.
MIG representatives said they hope to see increased involvement and commitment from community members to ensure follow-through with the discussed action items, and may present the updated vision of the Belle Haven community to the council in July.