Viewpoint - May 18, 2011

Guest opinion: Why the downtown plan makes sense

by Henry Riggs

I don't love everything in the current Menlo Park specific plan but, unlike Martin Engel (Town Square, May 10), I don't expect to. After three years of a highly inclusive process, the recommendations that are the assumptions of the environmental impact report now in review are not my wish list — I had to share input with hundreds of others. The consensus was for change within certain guidelines, and I accept that. But there are those who will resist change at any level.

Ironically, some residents fear for their property values if we have a more vibrant downtown. And long-time commercial owners have their own interests, many simply "land banking" properties — that is, waiting for real estate values to go up again at a scale where having tenants is irrelevant — then cash in for retirement.

This is not a sincere interest in our town. I respect Mr. Engel's intentions but distrust in the face of change has made him and some others loudly resist every meaningful effort to free our town of the intentionally preventive codes of the 1990s. Frankly, the idea that we should "inhibit traffic" to discourage living and shopping in Menlo is not helpful.

As an architect I see repeatedly how our codes discourage any but the heartiest would-be businesses — it's four weeks to four months to obtain a use permit in this town. Then there's building plans review, multiple permits and the construction itself, all while someone pays $10,000 per month on a mortgage for an empty 3,000 square feet. Try to do a business plan on that calendar. And that's for an existing building. Forget replacing it with a building to current codes. Think of the few new buildings on Santa Cruz Avenue and how long they took to open for business.

We need to protect key aspects of what is Menlo Park, but we also need to allow growth so we can control growth. Stamping our feet in denial is a temporary and unrealistic effort; we've proven we can halt progress, and the result is not pretty. The specific plan is about reasonable development rules organized around infrastructure like parking; it does not cause construction, it sets clearer rules that are easier to follow and financially viable. No San Francisco-style six-story buildings. We are still a small town, so maybe nothing changes for years, but at least stagnation won't be our fault.

There are many positives in the specific plan besides allowing renewal of some sorry 1950s buildings: the nicer sidewalks, added public spaces, long-term parking, the code-required sustainability of new buildings, customers walking among businesses, and more — not just a renewed tax base.

My largest concern remains traffic generation. (Note that the impact report evaluates traffic resulting from full, foreseeable build-out, if that ever happens). But here's the irony: new residents shop locally, it's just convenient, and we want that. But you can't have more customers without more cars to bring them, at least until local transit makes the jump to being useful and attractive. For that reason, I will be pressing relentlessly for that better transit until I see it happen. And it will happen. If there is anything that we can all agree on, it's that need.

So if you're worried about how many cars will be sitting at El Camino traffic lights in 10, 20 or 30 years, start thinking about the day we don't need the car to buy groceries, go to work in Redwood City, or get Isabel to Laurel and Jacob to Encinal schools, and demand that change too. This is, after all, all about our future.

The Planning Commission holds its hearing on the environmental impact report June 6 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.

Henry L Riggs is a Menlo Park architect and member of the Planning Commission.


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