Almanac

Cover Story - April 7, 2010

Menlo Park unveils plan for downtown, El Camino

by Sean Howell

If planning for the distant future is the domain only of the very bold and the very foolish, which category does Menlo Park fall into?

For much of the city's history, it's been firmly in the latter, at least when it comes to long-term land-use planning. Bright, civic-minded city leaders with only the best intentions have repeatedly underestimated the amount of acrimony that can result from just a few innocuous architect's sketches, and longtime residents have watched as one planning effort after another for the city center foundered over the past 40 years, sunk by the very idealism that launched them.

It's with this history in mind that the city unveils its latest plan for a re-imagined city core. The plan would establish a framework for an overhaul of the downtown parking plazas, an infusion of mixed-use commercial and residential development along El Camino Real, and a careful system of walkways, plazas and parks to lead people between the train station, the Civic Center, and downtown shops.

The ideal that guided it is similar to what previous planners had in mind: a welcoming, tree-slung haven, easy to traverse a pied, that would incubate a sense of community.

This time around, however, city officials have heeded the wrecked hulls of their forebears: proceeding with an abundance of caution and humility, laying out proposals in exacting detail and practically begging community members to look over their shoulders as they do so.

Not everyone will be happy with what they see in this new round of sketches, diagrams and maps. Some will find cause for outrage. But city officials are confident they have arrived at the foundation of a proposal that can weather the lashing it will surely receive in a bevy of public meetings over the next six months, before it comes to the City Council for final approval in the fall.

Whether the changes outlined in the plan actually come to pass over the next 30 years will be in large part up to landowners, and future generations of residents and city leaders. But for city officials to even present the plan to the City Council in a public meeting would be a major achievement: no previous plan for the city center has even made it that far.

Changing the look, feel of downtown

Under the plan, downtown Menlo Park would have a new center: a plaza between Crane and Chestnut streets designed for outdoor dining and cavorting, and specially engineered to accommodate block parties and other gatherings. Sidewalks would be widened, trees planted, special paving installed. Removable bollards would replace curbs to create a flat, even surface from buildings on the south side of the street to those on the north side, without the usual slope from one edge to the other.

From there, people could make their way down a car-free paseo on a section of Chestnut Street to the south, leading to a small covered marketplace near Trader Joe's.

The most significant — and probably most controversial — overhaul would come in the eight downtown parking plazas, some of which would be replaced in part or in full by garages (one story underground, four stories above) and mixed-use buildings. The idea is to increase parking supply by several hundred spaces, and to make existing parking plazas more inviting, according to Arlinda Heineck, director of community development.

Two parking structures would bookend the downtown: one behind the building that houses Cheeky Monkey Toys, and another off University Drive, on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue. Part of that plaza would be turned into a pocket park, and the garage could be reduced in height and topped by housing.

The parking plaza bordered by Oak Grove Avenue, Crane Street and Chestnut Street on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue would be entirely given over to mixed-use development (such as retail and housing) and another pocket park. Mixed-use buildings would also be allowed to encroach upon about a third of the parking plaza in front of Draeger's, and about a third of the parking lot behind the building that houses Fleet Feet and Posh Bagel.

The parking plaza in front of Trader Joe's would be revamped with new paving, fixtures and landscaping to create a welcoming area. The idea is to make a "special home" for the farmers' market, with the space available for other uses as well, such as outdoor movie nights or school fundraisers, according to Ms. Heineck and Thomas Rogers, the lead city planner on the project.

Widened sidewalks on Santa Cruz Avenue and a bike lane on Oak Grove Avenue would eliminate some on-street parking.

Development in the entire downtown area would be allowed to reach 38 feet — 8 feet higher than the current limit — with zoning that would accommodate mixed-use retail and housing, and a boutique hotel.

Recasting El Camino

The impetus for drawing up the plan came in large part from confusion and acrimony over how the city would allow landowners to redevelop disused properties along El Camino Real, so it's fitting that the plan envisions a totally revamped thoroughfare.

Zoning guidelines would allow for tall mixed-use buildings, with an emphasis on retail and housing, on both sides of the street between downtown Menlo Park and the train station. Fanning out both north and south along El Camino, zoning would transition from residential mixed-use (retail topped by apartments, for instance) to general mixed-use (retail topped by office, for instance). Housing would cluster around the downtown and station areas to create more of a sense of "vibrancy" in the city's core, and to encourage people to use public transit.

Buildings could reach 60 feet high (up to five stories) on both sides of the street between Oak Grove and Menlo avenues, and on Stanford-owned land along the east side of El Camino Real, from Ravenswood Avenue south to San Francisquito Creek. Those buildings would be broken up by frequent stretches of open space, including major gaps accessible to the public at Middle and Cambridge avenues. They would have to be set back from the street by at least 15 feet, and in some cases more, opening up a generous sidewalk — a major improvement from current conditions, where the sidewalk is often occluded by poles and other impediments, and sometimes vanishes altogether.

Strict architectural guidelines would require varied building massing, with upper stories stepped back from the facade. The regulations would prevent a sort of contiguous, imposing wall from forming along El Camino in either the vertical or horizontal direction, according to city planners.

Excluding the two blocks between Menlo and Oak Grove avenues, building height on the west side of the street and the northeast side of the street would be capped at 38 feet (two to three stories) — three feet higher than the current loose limit of 35 feet. Those buildings would have to be set back significantly from residential neighborhoods, so as not to tower over them.

The new rules would for the first time establish clear guidelines for development, including uniform energy efficiency standards. Developers who want to construct larger buildings would be required to fund public benefits, which could in part pay for some of the capital improvements outlined in the plan.

New focus for station area

The area around the train station could be viewed as the centerpiece of the new plan: a conduit to both the downtown area, and the Civic Center.

The plan envisions the train station as the locus for a new community of apartment and condominium dwellers. Mixed-use buildings as high as 60 feet could spring up along the east side of Alma Street, with swaths of open space between them. The plan also identifies the parking lot by the station as a possible location for development, with a parking garage underneath.

A system of widened, repaved sidewalks and crosswalks would invite people to walk from the train station to Santa Cruz Avenue or the Civic Center, with space cleared for a small plaza at the corner of Ravenswood Avenue and Alma Street, by the library.

A grassy plaza in the intersection of Merrill Street and Santa Cruz Avenue would anchor the area.

The plan is flexible enough that the California high-speed rail project would not disrupt its "overall intent," according to city planner Thomas Rogers.

Getting around town

The plan includes a new vision of the way people would get around the city center, with walkways and signage guiding them from place to place.

Wide, specially paved pathways would direct people from the train station down Alma Street to the Civic Center, and to the downtown area.

Three El Camino Real intersections, at Menlo, Santa Cruz, and Oak Grove avenues, would see sidewalk bulb-outs that would bring opposite sides of the street closer together, with timed walking signs, crosswalks with different paving, and possibly median islands for people who find themselves caught in the middle of the street as the lights change.

A wide sidewalk would emerge over time on El Camino Real, and sidewalks along Santa Cruz Avenue would also expand into the street, narrowing traffic lanes (though the medians would remain).

Pathways behind parking plazas would be improved, directing people to main streets. Parking structures would open out onto main streets, rather than alleys, with widened sidewalks funneling people to Santa Cruz Avenue.

The plan also borrows from the city's bicycle plan in laying out a number of bike routes and one bike lane, on Oak Grove Avenue.

While there had been some discussion in community workshops of changing the lane configuration on El Camino Real, there wasn't a consensus to do so, according to city planner Thomas Rogers. The only possible change would be the removal of several right-hand-turn lanes to accommodate wider sidewalks at intersections

PUBLIC MEETINGS

The city of Menlo Park will hold three public meetings in the next week to unveil a draft plan for the city center:

Wednesday, April 7, from 7 p.m. to 9 pm., in the Menlo Presbyterian Church meeting space behind ACE Hardware at 700 Santa Cruz Ave.

Sunday, April 11, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., in the City Council chambers in the Civic Center complex.

Monday, April 12, from 7 p.m. to 9 pm., in the City Council chambers.

The April 12 meeting is a Planning Commission study session, while the other two events will be "open houses." All three meetings will feature the same information. Copies of the plan, prepared by the San Francisco-based consulting firm Perkins+Will, will be available.

Check AlmanacNews.com for more information.

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