Almanac

Viewpoint - August 11, 2010

Guest opinion: What is happening to political conversations?

by Susan Gillman

Just as we're considering a downtown specific plan intended to enhance business, housing, transportation (counting biking and walking), along El Camino Real and in downtown Menlo Park, we're also the recipients of anonymous appeals raising vague fears of the future.

Like many Menlo Park residents, I recently received a letter from a group calling itself "Save Menlo's Uniqueness" (the return address printed in symbolic green), with not a single identified name attached, asking me to register opposition to a big "internationally held equity firm" intending to penetrate Menlo Park. The letter implies it might be anti-American to allow BevMo to open a Menlo Park branch, apparently because the "multinational" chain is owned by a London-based firm, even though the stores are only in California and Arizona.

The letter appeals to the kind of fear-mongering many of us deplore on the national scene. It would be more honest and respectful of civic dialogue to list directly the reasons for opposing BevMo by this "group of Menlo Park locally owned purveyors of wines and spirits." If the underlying issue is the threat of competition, then it would help to clarify the challenges of running a successful downtown business by listing key factors, including the problem of high rents.

Absent such context, it is easy to point fingers and lay blame, as the mailing from "Save Menlo's Uniqueness" does. We have other chains (Starbucks, Amici's and even Peet's) already in residence right on Santa Cruz Avenue, yet they do not seem to have significantly eroded the "village character" and "local community" that are repeatedly invoked in this mailing as values-under-threat.

The anti-BevMo letter appears to be part of an unannounced but targeted campaign against change in downtown Menlo Park. The campaign unfortunately is also against unemotional and open discussion of the pluses and minuses of different ideas.

I've been a dedicated shopper at the Sunday Menlo Park farmers' market for years, and a table recently set up there provides materials that sound like the anti-BevMo letter. Here a sign warns, "Existing Farmer's Market Threatened," and leaflets sponsored by yet another organization, the "Menlo Park Downtown Alliance," argue against what will happen if the City Council approves parking changes proposed in the draft specific plan.

There is the same kind of exaggerated "us versus them" language, but instead of BevMo the opponents are the Planning Department and City Council.

This is not the kind of public debate I want or expect in Menlo Park. The sometimes angry and bitter tone is not a role model for anybody to emulate. There seems to be little respect for clarity and facts. Transparency is a lost cause.

There's nothing wrong with criticizing a new business or planning proposal. But let's all take responsibility to promote better civic discourse than we're now tolerating in Menlo Park. That's more important than this store or another, or numbers of parking spaces, because it's about being a respectful, engaged, and accountable member of the Menlo Park community.

Susan Gillman lives on College Avenue and has been a Menlo Park resident for 20 years. She is professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz.

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