Suggestions for filling the unsightly gaps left by vacant auto dealerships on either side of the historical boulevard ranged from affordable housing and parks to public art and a promenade along the railroad tracks. The opinions came from a varied group of residents, including Reg Rice, a perennial fixture in city politics, and City Council member Kelly Fergusson.
Mr. Rice struck a nerve when he suggested that the city approach Palo Alto about building a bridge to connect Alma Street in Menlo Park to Alma Street in Palo Alto, which he said would ease traffic congestion on El Camino Real; Ms. Fergusson also endorsed the idea of breaking down the barriers for all modes of transportation between the two cities.
Others picked up the "green" theme by urging more amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, like wider sidewalks and a bike bridge, and it was suggested that underground utilities would take away the visible clutter on the busy road. Another good, but costly, idea to solve the challenge of grade separations at the Caltrain tracks is to put the trains underground.
Building affordable housing, senior housing and more park space also were mentioned, and the consultants discussed possible mixed retail and office or housing combinations already proposed for the former Cadillac dealership near Glenwood Avenue.
A consultant has organized two walking tours of El Camino and sent out thousands of surveys to every home and business in Menlo Park to facilitate the community soul-searching for this project. So far, more than 1,800 surveys have been returned, a response that has pleased city staff and council members.
It is hoped that after extensive public hearings, the council will approve a development blueprint for El Camino that will entice property owners to move forward with projects that fit the guidelines. Ideas that differ from the city plan could still be advanced, although we presume the council would be very reluctant to step outside their guidelines, at least at the beginning of the process.
All of this means that now is the time for residents who have a vision, whether "outside" or "inside" the box, of El Camino Real to come forward and speak up at these sessions. We see a firm commitment from the city to complete this process and get on to the next step, unlike prior efforts that fizzled out before the work was done.
In many ways, the city is fortunate that four dealerships, which represent a considerable swath of El Camino frontage, have chosen to leave at roughly the same time, leaving prime areas ready for a new beginning. It is a golden opportunity that apparently is not lost on the 100 or so people who attended last week's workshop.
It is time for anyone who hopes to see improvement in the city's downtown to step up and make their views known. The next public workshop, the second in a series of five, will be held April 3.