What if, instead of spending well over a million dollars on consultants to come up with a "vision" for Menlo Park, the city had instead simply invited the merchants and property owners in the downtown to meet with the planning staff to come up with feasible plans based on their years of local business experience and invited shoppers to share their views as well?
These "what ifs" apparently were never seriously considered because the consultants and city staff considered downtown business interests to be "special interests." Although downtown merchants and property owners requested to meet as a group with the consultants and staff to provide their input and suggestions, their request was denied.
Merchants and property owners believe that the success of our downtown is due to the foresight of Charles Burgess whose vision was to provide easy, convenient parking in front and in back of stores. It was due to Burgess that downtown has eight surface parking plazas paid for by adjacent property owners through four assessment districts over a period of some 40 years. Despite an enviable downtown vacancy rate of just 7 percent, while neighboring cities have vacancy rates in the high teens, the city wants to convince its residents that a drastic zoning change is required, which among other things would build structures on most of the existing surface plazas. We believe that this easy, convenient surface parking is critically important to preserve. However, the city's Draft Specific Plan proposes removing over half of the surface parking spaces now found on the eight plazas.
Once a year on the weekend of Connoisseurs' Marketplace, downtown becomes "vibrant and walkable." These are the buzzwords we continually hear from the consultants and staff. On these days, sales tax revenues for businesses in the downtown plummet. Many businesses simply close their doors. Why does this happen when thousands of festival goers come to downtown on two days that are both "vibrant and walkable?" It happens because everyday shoppers, who actually sustain our businesses, know how difficult it will be to park in the congested downtown and go elsewhere on this weekend.
Keep this picture in mind as you review the draft specific plan — a downtown crammed with buildings on seven of its eight surface parking plazas, two major parking structures with resulting traffic congestion on one side of town instead of parking being spread more evenly over eight plazas.
Contrast this with the open space feeling and small-town atmosphere you now enjoy. Which is the vision that you prefer? Couldn't we do better?
Nancy Couperus is a property owner in downtown Menlo Park.