Viewpoint - August 4, 2010

Guest opinion: The upside of the downtown plan

by Clem Molony

After years of public meetings to learn what community members want our downtown to be like as we modernize over the coming decades, a few well-intentioned folks are stirring up their neighbors with fears about the draft Downtown Visioning plan.

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• The planning process: 1960s zoning laws are out-of-date.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.


Posted by Roxie Rorapaugh, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Aug 4, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Dear Mr. Molony

I think you should talk to your friend again, you seem like a person who is willing to listen but maybe you've been operating under a few misconceptions.

Planning process: Our zoning laws are not stuck in the 1960s as you imply. Looking at the city's municipal code will give you an idea of the updates that that taken place over time. In fact, Menlo Park's current General Plan elements have been adopted at various times. The Land Use and Circulation Elements were adopted in 1994; the Housing Element in 1992.

Parking structures: section F, page 27 of the plan (ecr-d_draft-specific-plan_F_circulation.pdf) has a 5 level (4 levels above ground, one below) garage on parking plaza 1 (the plaza closer to El Camino Real). There is also a planned garage on plaza 3 (closer to University drive) that is shown with two options: one being a 3.5 level garage with housing above (2.5 levels above ground, one below) the other being a 5 level garage (4 levels above ground, one below). Later in the implementation portion of the plan, the consultants state their preference for the 5 level garage option in plaza 3. The current plan is asking that the lots for these garages be zoned for 48' instead of the current 30' height restriction downtown, see section E(ecr-d_draft-specific-plan_E_land-use-building-character.pdf), page 25 for the height changes the plan would require.

Ms. Couperous's opinion piece seemed to be more about illustrating problems other cities are having with developing downtowns quickly and so did not see it in error, but that is just my opinion (on the opinion ;). I didn't think she was actually blaming Redwood City's downtown development for all the problems of the retailers, but just pointing out that the retailers have not survived. I agree with you that the recessions probably had a bigger impact, but her point is something to consider. Saratoga is closer to Menlo Park in population than Redwood city, but I have never been to its downtown. The Menlo Park Alliance and Ms. Couperous are not fear mongerers and they have been unfairly accused of being unwilling to compromise or accept any changes to the downtown. They have studied the draft plan closely and are telling the public the facts.

Roxie Rorapaugh

Posted by R.GORDON, a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

With all due respect, I think both of the above Guest Opinion and comment by Ms. Rorapaugh are incredibly naive.

Posted by small towner, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Both Saratoga and Los Gatos are towns with populations very similar to Menlo Park's ~ 30,000. They have charming downtowns without the density Clem advocates.
One problem of all this emphasis on density close to transit is that Menlo Park does not have good transit. It is very clear that Caltrain favors Palo Alto and Redwood City. HSR, if it ever happens, won't even stop here. Bus transit it a joke.
Modernizing is one thing, urbanizing is totally another. We don't need to do it.

Posted by Perspective, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 7, 2010 at 10:14 am

"small towner"- can you really not see a difference between Menlo Park and Saratoga/Los Gatos? Do you really think the plan is about urbanizing because it might permit a few 3-story buildings along Santa Cruz? Have you never noticed that one of the most loved community spaces (Boronne/Kepler's/BBC complex) is one of the tallest and most modern?

Something tells me this is just the same OLD tactic of waiting until the last minute and whining your way to 'victory'.

Posted by small towner, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 7, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Uh, I do see a difference in a plan that shoves hotels, garages and housing behind existing stores, puts 5 story buildings on El Camino.

Yes, the Kepler/Borrone space is popular and it is far more set back and has more open space than the new plan would require.

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