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By Paul Bendix

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About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Getting High in Menlo Park

Uploaded: Aug 17, 2014
Our future is up in the air. Altitude figures prominently in Menlo Park's November ballot measure. The 'Save Menlo' initiative revamps - some might say 'elevates' - current open space requirements for new developments. Areas more than four feet off the ground won't count.

What's the idea behind this?

Well, we're a suburb, and a spacious, leafy one at that. Our expectations soar as high as our property values. Developers are clamoring to build here, aren't they? And if we make them space things our way, they will jump at the chance. In fact, they will keep on jumping.

Menlo Park's city manager is quietly warning us not to impose this ground-level space requirement. But never mind. The real issue goes deeper than developers or development.

It's America's anti-urban bias. As a people, historically we have not been comfortable with cities. We like space, or think we do. This idea plays out spasmodically, even in midtown Manhattan. Look at Lincoln Center.

Or look at Menlo Center. There's a lot we can learn from the 25-year-old development that is home to Kepler's and Café Borrone. There's plenty of space. How we feel about that space...well, that's enormously subjective.

Outdoor cafés need space. But Borrone's, however crowded and successful, doesn't need this much. There's a reason why Paris cafés are build out to the street...people watching, urban excitement. Does Kepler's really benefit from its enormous setback from El Camino Real? What about the adjoining furniture store? As for the British Bankers Club...Menlo Center only isolates the historic structure. The B.B.C. looks abandoned and unmoored, for all its parking and terrace access.

As for the aesthetics of the space itself.... Doubtless it must please some passing drivers to find downtown Menlo Park opening into concrete expanses. Not me. As I say, it's subjective. Please, dear readers, do comment.

Suburbia, as we knew it, is waning. There's even more to this than economics or environmental issues. Younger professionals are effectively voting for something living in San Francisco, for example. Or by living – and walking to work – in downtown Mountain View.

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 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sam Tyler, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Aug 18, 2014 at 11:35 am

Thank you for this well thought out perspective. I have always felt that Cafe Borrone has succeeded in spite of its surroundings, not because of it. When you examine successful outdoor spaces, it is usually a serendipitous blend of many factors, including retail uses you WANT to visit. Mr. Bendix is correct in that how you interpret successful outdoor spaces is very much predicated on na urban vs. suburban filter.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dagwood, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Aug 20, 2014 at 1:18 pm

I quite disagree about the Borrone. ECR is so noisy and d I disruptive that the large setback makes the space bearable.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mike Keenly, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Aug 20, 2014 at 2:57 pm


I agree with you regarding the space in front of Cafe Borrone. It completely doesn't work. Visitors to Menlo Park walking along Santa Cruz will turn
around at El Camino, not realizing that there is something interesting hidden across the plaza and behind the fountain.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by cmon, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Aug 23, 2014 at 5:50 am

Mike: I disagree about Borrone. Given proximity to ECR, it ONLY works and works so well because of the setback. With kids and dogs and a desire to relax a bit, anything closer would not be useful. Borrone, and its proximity to Keplers and BBC is a nice combination and folks have no problem finding it, as the regular crowd indicates. The place is a gem.

The bigger issue is Santa Cruz and the fact that there is very little foot traffic at all so the risk of people turning around after walking down SC is very minimal. This is the place for planning to support some sidewalk cafe's, among other means to attract business people to open in our town, rather than going to PA or elsewhere, which is almost always the case. MP does not present itself as friendly, in part due to SaveMenlo's efforts, to those looking to open a new business or restaurant.

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