Viewpoint - April 21, 2010

Editorial: Gradual change in downtown plan

There is a tendency for some people, including many downtown Menlo Park property owners, to promote the idea that the minute the city's recently released plan for downtown and El Camino Real is approved by the City Council, bulldozers will show up to begin ripping up parking plazas and digging foundations for five-story buildings on El Camino Real.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth about the city's ambitious design to remake the downtown, which is sorely in need of a facelift. The plan is just that — a plan or vision — for what downtown could become, if property owners take advantage of new planning and zoning that permit such development and the city is able to raise the funds to do its part.

Without such a blueprint, the City Council and Planning Commission would be like a ship without a rudder, forced to approve projects on a case-by-case basis, which is not a good idea for some of the community's most visible and valuable properties. For several decades, Menlo Park has struggled to write a new downtown plan, but every effort failed before it was even brought to the council. So by advancing to the public hearing stage, the 2010 plan has surpassed all prior efforts and is by far the best opportunity the city has ever had to approve a guideline for future development.

The plan covers three areas, and so far, it appears that the vision for downtown is the most controversial, particularly the plans to build parking garages and mixed-use buildings on portions of some parking plazas. But while some property owners fear losing flat-lot parking, planners see opportunity wasted in acres of asphalt in the downtown core that could be much more than a resting place for automobiles. By building garages, parking can be stacked without losing capacity, freeing up spaces for higher and better uses.

One example of this transition is to convert some parking spaces into a small, open air marketplace and delineate walking lanes in some remaining plazas. Planners believe that these amenities would attract more shoppers to the downtown, and space for the popular farmers' market would be retained.

The vision extends to the spaces around the Caltrain station, where mixed-use buildings of up to 60 feet high would be permitted on the east side of Alma Street. On the west side of the tracks, a grassy plaza would be installed at Santa Cruz Avenue and Merrill Street and wide sidewalks and crosswalks would invite pedestrians to stroll from the train station to the Civic Center or Santa Cruz Avenue.

On the east side of El Camino, planners worked hard to reduce the mass of five-story buildings by stepping upper floors back from the street and interspersing open space to reduce the feeling that a huge wall has been erected along the street.

No one, including the city's planners, knows exactly how long it will take to implement any of these ideas, but the plan does set some short-term goals (five years) for building a garage on Parking Plaza 3, widening Santa Cruz Avenue sidewalks, and building the paseo on Chestnut Street South. When work begins in the El Camino corridor, it will be up to private developers to decide if they can work with the new guidelines and make a profit.

The plan offers details on numerous options to finance various public projects, from parking garages to streetscape improvements. Some costs would be shared by property owners, with the city and user fees contributing a share as well. Projects could be built on a pay-as-you-go basis or more quickly, using bonds paid off over a longer time frame.

The 2010 Vision Plan is a dramatic and well-designed first step to move Menlo Park's commercial areas into the 21st century. Its designs take into account hundreds of comments from a widely attended series of public meetings about the plan. Property owners should know that the plan's primary purpose is to provide a more attractive and engaging downtown core that is much more than a convenient parking plaza.

As discussion of the plan continues, we hope the downtown business community will take into account how the plan will advance the longtime viability of Menlo Park as a shopping destination. Ultimately, the City Council will decide. We encourage members to consider valid criticism of the plan, but we urge them to go forward and adopt this vision, which will enable the downtown and El Camino corridor to remain attractive to residents and shoppers for years to come.


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