Viewpoint - June 11, 2008

Guest Opinions: Two views of direction for Menlo's downtown

Green ribbon panel wants walkable, bikeable theme to cut emissions

By Adina Levin

Several members of the Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee attended the May 19 Planning Commission review of the draft plan for the El Camino Real Vision Process. Our framework includes the contention contained in our November 2007 Climate Action Report, that the community must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent over the next 40 years in order to conform with scientific and governmental recommendations.

Transportation sources are responsible for nearly 40 percent, or approximately 200,000 tons per year, of our community's emissions. It is critical that plans for our downtown corridors help reduce these emissions.

The committee has a vision of a walkable, bikeable, livable, transit-friendly city. It is a city where many residents live near where they work, or can get to work on transit. Where people can walk or bike for errands, to a restaurant, or to a class at the gym. Where kids can walk or bike safely to school. Where people who work can easily get here without having to drive. It is a place where many residents and visitors can easily choose not to drive single-occupancy vehicles for many of the necessities and pleasures of life.

This vision dovetails with other goals for the city. Many people at the visioning meetings spoke of wanting more vibrant central areas, with restaurants, cultural activities, and lively, distinctive shops. People spoke of wanting to maintain and increase the community feel of our city. Lively, human-scaled pedestrian and bike-friendly business and recreation creates more community feel than high-speed boulevards. Energy costs are high, and there is a very strong case to be made that energy costs are going to continue to increase. Making it easier not to drive will help city and household budgets, and contribute to our city's economic vitality in the future.

Here are some elements from Green Ribbon Committee's vision:

• Make it easier and safer to walk and bike in the downtown, El Camino corridor, and across the center of town, with better sidewalks, bike access, and rail crossings.

• Integrate pedestrian and bike routes with businesses.

• Provide access so people can walk and bike for practical purposes or just for recreation.

• Increase the number of useful and attractive places for shopping and recreation within walking and biking distance, so residents need to drive less.

• Pursue a "park once" strategy, so people who drive to central locations can do more without needing to get back into their car.

• Add shuttles to help get to and from commercial areas without driving.

•Add transit-oriented development, to increase the percent of residents and employees who can get to work without driving and live with less driving.

Clearly, some of the response to climate change needs to be made at the national and global level. Decisions about overall energy supply, prices and limits to carbon emissions are made on a larger scale. However, many of the critical decisions that affect our society's response to climate change are made at the local level. Local land use and transportation policies shape many of the choices we have as individuals, and can have a significant impact on the single largest source of carbon emissions.

We believe these strategies are the wisest approach to respond to climate change. They also will help improve the quality of life and economic vitality of our city.

Adina Levin is co-chair of the Transit and Transportation Work Group of the Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee. She lives on Fremont Street.

Vision should support local, independent businesses

By Clark Kepler

This spring the City of Menlo Park embarked on a process to develop a long-term vision and plan for the El Camino Real and the downtown areas. I had the pleasure of serving on the oversight and outreach committee charged with providing input to the consultant and staff and to help engage more community members.

With the committee's official work complete, I attended the May 19 Planning Commission workshop where the commission and other community members reviewed a draft of the vision plan goals. The workshop revealed the visioning process may only be getting started, not nearing the finish. Many concerned residents who had not previously participated asked that the scope of the discussion be broadened rather than hastily narrowed to the goals identified by the consultants.

As a member of the committee, I've learned a lot about the challenges that lay before us as we have a unique opportunity to choose the future character of our town. And, as every Menlo Park resident knows, there is dichotomy of opinion about whether and how to develop our town.

The discussion revived memories from nearly three years ago when I closed Kepler's, the bookstore my father had founded a half century earlier, due to steeply declining sales. The community united and almost literally willed us back. I heard an outpouring of reasons from hundreds of people as to why Kepler's mattered to them. By far the most common reason centered on Kepler's being a locally-owned, independent bookstore. I heard again and again, "I didn't realize that my shopping at Amazon would put you out of business. I'll never do that again!" I knew that it wasn't really going to happen.

Thankfully, however, that's not necessary. I knew if the people who value our presence simply shifted 10 percent to 20 percent more of their purchasing to Kepler's that we could thrive. Many of Kepler's customers had become aware that they were voting with their pocketbooks.

As a result of that experience, two years later I founded the "Hometown Peninsula Independent Business Alliance" to help the rest of the community tap into that passion and help not only Kepler's, but all our independent entrepreneurs. I participated in the visioning process in part to speak for those local businesses.

We should recognize that the community's support for locally-owned businesses is not only because they add "charm and character" to Menlo Park — which they do — but also that independents make better economic sense. A number of economic impact studies around the country show that locally-owned businesses generate much greater benefits for the local economy than do chains and Internet businesses.

This derives from employing locals for many higher-skilled and paying positions that chains centralize at corporate headquarters, donating a larger portion of sales to local groups and events and re-spending profits in the community.

I left the last meeting with a positive sense that the commission had heard the many concerns of the public and hopeful that the visioning process might be successful in co-creating the Menlo Park our community deserves.

And that we, the residents, of Menlo Park are very much a part of that co-creation. Residents place a high value on individuality and consider our homegrown enterprises as a source of pride. If we want to preserve and enhance our unique character, we need to get involved, support our locally owned, independent entrepreneurs in word and in deed: let the City Council and the Planning Commission hear your support and shop local. Our one-of-a-kind, independent businesses are an integral part of what makes Menlo Park a great place to live.

Clark Kepler operates Kepler's Books and Magazines in downtown Menlo Park.


Posted by Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 10, 2008 at 11:13 pm

I don't see the viewpoints represented here as mutually exclusive. I embrace both the visions of Adina and Clark and believe strongly that both visions can be achieved simultaneously. Although I cannot claim to speak for them, I would imagine that both writers would agree. We can reconcile economic and environmental priorities; in fact, I believe we must if we desire to attain a vibrant and sustainable community.

Posted by ever hopeful, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 11, 2008 at 9:38 am

I agree with Kristin. The "two views" title suggests that the viewpoints are opposing when they are actually congruent.

My observation is that most residents have a similar vision for downtown(even if they focus on different aspects of it). The question is whether we can get the consultants and the council to support the residents or whether they will pull their "we know best" act and ignore the residents.

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