Viewpoint - December 15, 2010

Guest opinion: Housing not best use of Menlo plazas

by Andy Cohen

Menlo Park has a history of downtown studies conducted at great expense only to be shelved. The current undertaking has already cost more than $1 million, including staff and consultants. It remains to be seen whether it too will end up on the shelf.

Earlier this year, when merchants and property owners complained that their input had not been received, I called upon staff and council to slow down the process and ensure that these essential stakeholders' input be fully considered; I was outvoted.

Since then, the council's consideration of the specific plan has been postponed twice, and staff and the other council members have attempted to reassure the business community that the farmers' market will be preserved and all input will be considered before council decides finally on new zoning.

Charles Burgess understood the need for convenient parking downtown 50 years ago and conceived the plan for eight plazas on either side of Santa Cruz Avenue. As a city we are now considering parking structures as well as a proposal (recently submitted or resubmitted) to build new housing in one parking plaza (Crane and Oak Grove). These ideas follow two years of citizen workshops and consultants' and staff effort.

In order to understand merchants' and property owners' concerns, the discussion must move beyond its present political context. Two parking studies have been conducted in the past five years, and 2011 will be a testing period for certain changes recently proposed by those consultants.

Parking structures and new residences are alternatives presently under consideration, but both have met with resistance from downtown stakeholders. In order to avoid having wasted over a million dollars and two years studying the matter, we should carefully consider the ideas being proposed, how they will be financed, and whether, ultimately, they will serve the needs of residents and other shoppers from surrounding communities whose needs coincide with ours.

The steering committee of the Downtown Alliance has proposed decoupling the downtown from the El Camino Real portion of the specific plan. El Camino properties should be addressed first. A somewhat higher density along El Camino may make sense in order to encourage the development of the empty car dealerships and the other vacant properties there. The Alliance does not support five-level parking garages in the central downtown area — that is, in any of the existing parking plazas. It would support a modest two- to three-story parking structure on Plaza 2, similar to the one on Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto.

They (the Alliance) do not feel that housing in the central business district is necessary or will be good for businesses, and would much prefer to see up-zoning of the apartment belt around the downtown. This area is already zoned for higher density and allowing owners to upgrade these older apartment buildings with taller structures would make more sense. The same goal is accomplished but in a more appropriate location.

Most of these recommendations are not part of the specific plan. For example, Plaza 2 is proposed to be a mixed use residential development, not a parking structure. The area surrounding the downtown is not included in the plan, but, these are recommendations that would benefit the downtown — for both shoppers and business owners.

Ultimately, convenient parking is something all can agree on, and just as Charles Burgess conceived and executed a plan to create our parking plazas, we must now make sure that changes to that arrangement, which has worked well for half a century, are carefully designed to assure success.

Andy Cohen is a member of the Menlo Park City Council.


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