Viewpoint - July 21, 2010

Guest opinion: Alliance sees trouble in downtown plan

by Nancy Couperus

Up and down the state, city councils are looking at increasing density in downtowns by allowing mixed-use developments (shops or offices on the ground floor with apartments, condominiums, townhouses above).

In some cases, where no such housing is found in the downtown area and an aging population requires close access to services, this might make sense. In Menlo Park where there is an abundance of such housing surrounding the downtown, it does not.

This new wave of planning has had some dire consequences for retail businesses in some cities. Redwood City's $50 million downtown redevelopment project around the court house has produced palm-lined streets with beautiful buildings, but retail has been so damaged in the process that the City Council recently gave the go-ahead to fill the empty storefronts with offices. While night life may be "vibrant," the retail downtown has been devastated.

The Menlo Park Planning Department is asking the City Council to change the downtown zoning to allow for a change from the current 30-foot height limit to 38 feet (from two to three stories) along Santa Cruz Avenue and conversion of portions of the surface parking plazas to garages and private uses.

The latter could significantly reduce the number of convenient surface parking spaces that shoppers and Sunday farmers' market customers now enjoy, and replace them with spaces in parking structures up to four-stories high in portions of the parking plazas.

Downtown property and business owners continue to be told that infill development and height changes will not take place overnight and will be an ongoing process over many years. While this may be true, once the proposed zoning changes have been approved by the City Council, the necessary mechanism will be in place for such development to occur. A slow-growing cancer can be just as lethal as a fast growing one — both eventually stifling the surrounding environment. Slow or fast, these changes will most assuredly alter the small-town character of the downtown and the surrounding community.

The community of Saratoga, perhaps closer in character to that of Menlo Park, is facing a similar challenge. In April the City Council there passed changes that removed the two-story limit for mixed-use and most commercial projects, a change from two- to three-story buildings downtown. Residents reacted by creating an organization called "Restore Saratoga" and launching a petition drive. Fortunately for the residents of Saratoga, the City Council agreed to sit down with the petitioners and work out a compromise. They also agreed to a ballot measure on a two-story limit, which puts the decision in the hands of the residents rather than the five-member City Council.

The Menlo Park Downtown Alliance is a group of downtown business and property owners and interested residents who have put forward a compromise proposal regarding downtown development. The Alliance's proposal would allow for a modest two-story parking structure and wider sidewalks, if certain criteria, such as a smaller footprint or increased street set-back could be achieved. To date, the City Council has declined to respond to the proposal.

The City Council should follow Saratoga's example and directly engage with the Alliance to identify a reasonable compromise. The draft specific plan for downtown Menlo Park lays the groundwork for a fundamental change to the character of our downtown. It's time for the City Council to recognize the magnitude of these changes and to reflect upon whether they would truly benefit our small town.

Nancy Couperus is co-chairman of the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance.


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