One critic is a friend, so I asked what the concerns are about. After he summarized them, I tried to define a middle position:
• The planning process: 1960s zoning laws are out-of-date. Our downtown is primarily one-story, with some two-story buildings. At numerous public meetings the strong consensus was that some well-designed three-story buildings make sense, and won't harm our wonderful small-town feel. All these meetings have injected lots of compromises into the current plan.
• Parking structures: To open up sidewalks and add trees, modern towns accept the need to concentrate parking in some garages. I use Palo Alto's garages when I shop there — there's always open spots, and elevators allow seniors and moms with strollers an easier place to park. Garages create spaces for downtown workers (permitted areas up top), freeing up half the current spaces so shoppers can park more conveniently. The current plan is a balance of five surface lots and two short garages. (Parking under Kepler's was a great idea.)
• Modern sidewalks: This pedestrian-friendly idea brings more of our neighbors downtown. I don't want Menlo Park to become a big-buildings downtown like Redwood City. I do like how Palo Alto has kept most of University Avenue feeling small-towny. Their three-story buildings are classy, and upper floors are set back so new buildings fit in. Shoppers flock there, making mixed-use buildings very successful.
• Housing downtown: Downtown residents shop and eat there, increasing retail success and adding community energy. Many commute on Caltrain, and those who drive vacate parking during the day, freeing it up for shoppers.
• Critics' ideas worth examining: A) Diagonal parking should be relocated, not dropped. B) Stay focused on retail; offices use more parking. C) Behind parking garages, is the proposed 25-foot-wide alley space sufficient for deliveries and emergencies? D) Design new traffic patterns with extra space for turning and exiting. E) Any hotel should build in its own parking. In addition, I suggest that in the future the city should explore slightly higher housing density in the block just outside of downtown.
Errors in the recent "Alliance" guest opinion. Ms. Couperus blames Redwood City's retail slow-down on development of their parking garage and "public square" area. That's dead wrong. The slowdown was due to two recessions (2002, 2009). Vacancy rates are improving, and public areas are a magnet for shoppers and diners. She said Menlo Park's plan reduces parking; it increases it by 200 spaces. She compares suburban Menlo Park to rural Saratoga; their downtown is about 10 percent as big.
Fears about our future: In the past critics feared our wonderful farmers market, the building and plaza where Cafe Borrone is, the modernization of Draeger's, even increased trees on Santa Cruz Avenue — all excellent ideas. We need to have faith in our future planning. I hope that those worried about the Downtown Plan will allow compromise, for the good of the whole community.
Clem Molony is a 35-year Menalto Avenue resident.