If you've gotten past the overwhelming fact of their sheer presence and put some thought to the topic, you may have come to the conclusion that they're relics, an accident of history: space that city planners paved over because they didn't know what else to do with it. In meetings during the laborious project to come up with a plan for the city's downtown over the last several years, the plazas were often the first thing residents participated brought up. What are we going to do with all that space?
Those residents might be surprised to learn that an earlier generation of city leaders viewed those plazas as the backbone of the city's downtown, the space that allowed the shops and restaurants to spring up in the first place. The small-town feel that many cherish was a deliberate effort from the beginning, with city planners in the mid-1940s opting to nurture a quaint, friendly downtown, rather than turn it into the suburban shopping centers popular at the time. (That's according to "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate," released in 2000 by the city's historical association.)
The city widened Santa Cruz Avenue, and made way for businesses to replace old houses between El Camino Real and University Drive. Between 1945 and 1964, the city acquired the land that the parking plazas currently occupy. It did so with the cooperation of some property owners, who paid assessments for the land and the construction of the plazas — and over the bitter resistance of several others, who filed lawsuits to prevent the city from condemning and claiming their land, according to news articles from the time.
The historical association credits the effort to remake Menlo Park's downtown to no less a luminary than Charles Burgess, the mayor from 1945 to 1955 (with a brief break in the early 1950s), who also arranged to purchase the land that the Civic Center now sits on. Menlo Park's parking plazas were cited in a 1953 U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication as an example of how cities could provide off-street parking, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The strenuous objections to the 2010 plan by several downtown property owners — some whose parents helped pay for the parking plazas, which according to Nancy Couperus cost nearly $1 million — might make more sense in this context. The property owners, including Mark Flegel, Richard Draeger and Ms. Couperus, have vociferously opposed the idea that the city would remove any surface parking, saying that doing so would break with the longstanding tradition of providing convenient parking to local businesses, and to the Sunday farmers' market.
The plan would eliminate just over half of the surface parking spaces in the plazas, though the total spaces in the downtown area would increase. One-third of the plazas would go to parking garages, and one-fifth to private development, parks, a public marketplace, and pedestrian amenities. While some property owners don't like the plans for garages, the proposal to lease parts of the city's hard-won parking plazas to private developers is what really sets property owners on edge — especially the ones who have been around for a while.
"A parking structure at least falls under the same overall intent" as the plazas, Richard Draeger, co-owner of Draeger's market, said in an interview. "For a reversion of that surface parking to mixed-use (buildings), I don't know where that comes from. It's really a change in direction, to be honest."
The explanation for the changes by city planners is relatively simple. Residents said they wanted a "vibrant," happening downtown area with more people; that means providing for housing and pedestrian amenities; more people means parking garages; and all of that means less surface parking.
The increased supply provided by the garages could also allow the city to extend the current two-hour limit in some areas, allowing people to shop for longer — something favored by many of the people who participated in the community workshops, Associate Planner Thomas Rogers said.
"What we have today in parking supply is somewhat limited," said Arlinda Heineck, head of the city's planning department (the plan would provide for between 250 and 550 additional spaces in the downtown area, depending on whether one of the garages were topped with housing). "We're trying to look ahead and understand the future needs of our city, the constraints we're operating under, and our options for addressing" the parking issue.
The city insists that the plan still provides for plenty of convenient parking, and that wider sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities will make Menlo Park more attractive to shoppers. The garages would be designated primarily for employees, who currently take up much of the space meant for customers, and would be designed to mesh with the rest of the downtown, according to city officials.
"This was all vetted through community workshops," Mr. Rogers said. "This is not just change for change's sake."
While the city did not set out to come up with a plan that necessarily meshed with existing policies, Mr. Rogers said that he found a lot of overlap when he sat down to detail the plan's compliance with the 1994 general plan. That plan encourages open space, housing in the downtown area, and measures that would strengthen the connection between the downtown area and El Camino Real — all key aspects of the new plan, according to Mr. Rogers.
Ms. Couperus, on the other hand, sees a break with tradition, and a threat to downtown businesses.
"To me, it doesn't align (with the general plan)," she said. "I look at the main goal, to maintain the small-town atmosphere and character of the downtown. To me, you can't do all of these things they're proposing, and retain that. It's just going to be really, really different."
The natural question at this point might be: What would Charles Burgess say? Would he chide the city for covering over some of the surface parking, and turning its back on its small-town ethos? Or would he congratulate it on planning for the future and putting the land he helped acquire to a new use?
Would he urge the city to push the plan through as he did his own plan, even if it means rancor and lawsuits? Or would he scoff at city leaders for their lack of political acumen, in going to the residents before the landowners?
It's impossible to say. Mr. Burgess died young, in 1957. But those debates will likely play out over the next several months, as the plan nears a vote of the City Council in December.