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Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park

By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: My wife and I moved to central Menlo Park in 1985 where we have raised two sons. A retired high-tech executive, I now actively participate in local and national community service programs. I am the founder and director of Rebuil...  (More)

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Can Street Closures Save Downtown Restaurants AND Retailers?

Uploaded: Jul 22, 2020
This post provides an update on the temporary outdoor dining program that was proposed by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, approved by the City Council on June 19 and revised on July 16. It is the fourth post in an on-going series about how Covid-19 social distancing measures, city decisions and human behavior impact the vitality of our downtown businesses and retail district.

"That downtown retailers are so uniformly opposed to the closure makes it a failure already, (Councilman Drew) Combs said. "There's no way we can end this in its current state and say it's a success. … A key stakeholder has already said it is not working for them."

In the July 16 the Council reviewed two propose changes to the street closures on Santa Cruz Avenue that are responses to complaints from eight retailers and four residents about the significant loss of foot traffic and revenues and the deserted “look and feel” of empty lanes. The Council considered three options and selected the latest Chamber recommendation.

Read the staff report

The adopted new street closure pattern opens a couple of one-way lanes.

Staff Recommendations

City staff recommended that street closure configurations remain as originally adopted under the urgency ordinance. “Staff is concerned that this different traffic pattern may confuse people and may impact the ability to adequately assess the success of the pilot program.” It also presented an alternative that would eliminate ALL street closures and permit businesses to “request the usage of public right of way areas such as sidewalks and parking spaces.” It would also eliminate all on-street parking spaces. (Note: it is not clear why the loss off all street parking was recommended as part of this alternative.)

My Observations

1. Social distancing measures and human behavior determine the actual benefits from closing downtown streets, and both are impossible to predict, especially when they are changing. While city program projections are often optimistic and disappointment unsurprising, this program is particularly vulnerable. For example, some retailers expected that street closings would generate more foot traffic and increase sales but many now report the opposite effect.

2. The initial closure of three sections of Santa Cruz was decided hastily with little understanding of potential benefits and negative impacts. This is a common shortcoming of Menlo Park city pilot projects. If this pilot program is extended, clear success criteria and thresholds should be established, and an individual should be assigned responsibility for making it as successful as possible. Otherwise, no one in the city actually owns the program.

3. The fact that the Chamber recognized the extent of retailer opposition within a few weeks is positive. However, it is not clear that additional traffic lanes and twelve more street parking spaces can make a significant difference. Note: Santa Cruz still has 38 fewer parking spots.

4. I continue to believe more outdoor dining areas are needed and that the needs of retailers and restaurants could be satisfied without permanently closing any sections of Santa Cruz. Instead, eating establishments could use public sidewalks and parking spaces as long as they show the benefits are meaningful. (Note: I submitted a possible plan before the pilot was approved but it was ignored. The Council apparently decided that the Chamber would be its sole source of advice.)

5. Whatever form the pilot program takes, it should continue far beyond 90 days. The experiences of dining outdoors and simply visiting downtown will be much more appealing IF the dining areas are aesthetically inviting. Unfortunately, few restaurant owners can justify making an investment in a temporary platform, patio shades, heaters, and planting that together can easily cost more than $25,000. Therefore, the pilot should last at least to mid-2021, and likely a lot longer. (Note: Palo Alto has already extended its temporary outdoor dining program until the end of 2020 and restaurants are now investing in attractive dining areas.)

6. My biggest concern: the Council will declare the pilot program a failure and simply end it. This will further disadvantage downtown eating establishments, ignore the needs of retailers, and potential Menlo Park customers will simply go elsewhere, e.g., Palo Alto, Stanford Shopping Center, and Redwood City. So this would be a terrible decision.

7. The evidence is unmistakable: the City of Menlo Park is NOT serious about saving its downtown business district. It addresses this HUGE challenge as a public works project rather than a complex marketing program that deals with not only promotion but defining and implementing the "product". It is not surprising that it is ill-equipped to do these things; it is surprising that it has not recognized this shortcoming and sought help. The city does not need a consultant study. It needs to create a team of creative and resourceful and Menlo Park residents who have the strong relevant knowledge, skills and experience required to create and adjust the program. The members need to display tremendous initiative and the ability to work quickly, collaboratively and flexibly. Our community has plenty of talent willing to help on a volunteer basis but our city does not know how to take advantage of this resource. So it will continue to stumble along. Sigh!

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 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Jennifer Bestor, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Jul 22, 2020 at 6:40 pm

Jennifer Bestor is a registered user.

I have not tracked this closely, so apologize if the question has been asked, but was encroaching on the rear parking lots, rather than the Santa Cruz Ave. frontage considered? We used to eat at Terun, off of California Ave. in Palo Alto, about once a month -- often in the tented area connected to the back of the restaurant proper. It abutted the rear alley that abuts the two-story parking garage on Cambridge. In this case, the tent had sides so the unsightliness of the 'backside' of that block was not an issue (so the dumpsters would need to be housed elsewhere), but it required no closure the main street. Just a question -- apologies if it's been answered.

 +   3 people like this
Posted by RanchGal, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Jul 22, 2020 at 7:29 pm

RanchGal is a registered user.

When I first noticed that the street was blocked off with ugly white barriers it was so unappealing I turned around and went to Palo Alto to shop and eat.

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Menlo Rez, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Jul 22, 2020 at 7:46 pm

Why are restaurants so critical that they need to be "saved". Most people have kitchens, perhaps they never learned to cook?

In many parts of the country, restaurants are not a "must have". But in Menlo, restaurants charging $15 for a glass of wine are essential?

Restaurants, like any other business, assume risk. They do not always survive, so be it.

What percentage of Menlo Park's 30,000 residents actually patronize these restaurants? Would residents really suffer if they could not order grilled salmon and two Chardonnays?

 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jul 22, 2020 at 8:40 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Jennifer: No this idea, like other alternatives, was not considered. The initial proposal from 2 Council member would have closed the entire length of Santa Cruz between El Camino and University. No one other than the Council owns this problem and its solution, and the Council lacks the bandwidth and expertise to make well-reasoned decisions, like these, especially when absorbed by a city financial crisis. This, however, is its typical approach to complex projects even in "good times".

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jul 22, 2020 at 8:43 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Menlo Rez. Eating establishments represent a major percentage of downtown Menlo Park businesses in a district that already has a dozen empty storefronts. They are the only ones that can compete against Amazon.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Rez, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 10:36 am

"Menlo Rez. Eating establishments represent a major percentage of downtown Menlo Park businesses in a district that already has a dozen empty storefronts. They are the only ones that can compete against Amazon."

Competing against Amazon has nothing to do with favoring restaurants. Amazon is a wonderful company, they offer good prices, and they bring products to my door thereby keeping me and my car off the road. While some Menlo businesses have trouble competing against Amazon, the same could be said for blacksmiths when automobiles became available. Consumers will buy want they want, from whomever they want, Gov intervention does not belong in that equation.

While eating establishments may represent a "major" percentage (questionable stat), are restaurants more critical than Walgreens, or the pet store, or the cupcake store, or the hardware store, or the coffee shop, or the bank, etc?

How many of Menlo Park's 30,000 residents patronize these high end restaurants?

Is it a good idea to force traffic to go around what used to be the main street of the city in order to favor a restaurant's desire to seat people outside, and a concept which will fall flat once the temperatures dip into the low 50's and we get wind and rain?

Somehow restaurants were selected for the most favored business, but only certain restaurants, not all restaurants. The city took a publicly owned asset and assigned its usage to a privately owned business. In that line of thinking, would it be ok to close the street I live on? Or maybe just a few hundred yards of my street. Drivers can simply take another route. Yep, sounds fair to me.

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm

I feel sad for the restaurants and other businesses. It is truly a tough situation. But closing Santa Cruz Ave. in a hasty manner just adds to the ghost town feel of the place. Most of the space was hardly used. It doesn't seem like Menlo Park's downtown has enough restaurants to justify this large imposition.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 12:29 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Menlo Rez:

"Somehow restaurants were selected for the most favored business, but only certain restaurants, not all restaurants"

This is NOT an accurate statement. ANY downtown eating establishment and retailer can apply for the use of public sidewalks and parking spaces. You can read the permit application process at Web Link


FYI. There are more than 30 eating establishments in the Downtown and El Camino commercial districts. Most are on either Santa Cruz or side streets. and all of these can apply for a temporary outdoor permit.

Imagine what downtown would be like if a significant number closed. Not a pretty picture.

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Rez, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 1:00 pm

I assume the city has a database of resident's email addresses, and they could make a public statement or a display seeking more email addresses - the point being is with a few strokes on the keyboard the city council could ASK its residents if they'd like to close off Santa Cruz Avenue.

Not a vote, simply a poll to check how such a decision would be viewed.

I'm still at a loss as to how Left Bank improves the quality of life in Menlo Park. And nobody has any idea what percentage of Menlo Park residents patronize the restaurant.

But I'm not a foodie. I prefer retailers such as Ace Hardware, or Walgreens. I'm not into dropping $200 or more on a prepared meal, or drinking $10 cocktails at the bar hoping to be seen.

Changing the traffic pattern on Santa Cruz Avenue to favor a certain business is ridiculous. Ask any of the elderly folks who patronize Walgreens how they feel about navigating the street barriers.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 1:02 pm

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

 +   3 people like this
Posted by JR, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jul 23, 2020 at 4:54 pm

It was and is still a valuable test. The blockade feel can be modified to look less threatening. We should play this out and continue to learn and adjust. This adjustment also holds for patrons to other, non-restaurant businesses. Many/most feel that there is ample parking behind the building so shoppers will need to get used to that. I do think that an option of some parking options for elderly and those with handicap stickers should be considered " we must respect that need.

That said, a more vibrant downtown will benefit from more foot traffic and I see more, generally, now than before. The empty storefronts are a huge challenge but we need to continue to test options for the most vibrancy as that can assist in filling high costs space and set the stage for the future,

its too soon to walk away from the test, in my view,

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Jul 24, 2020 at 9:38 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

If downtown is a “ghost town" then reopening the street to cut-through traffic will just chase away strollers, shoppers and diners ... cut-through traffic does nothing to fill sidewalks or the “cash registers“ of shops and restaurants!

Think about it: cut-through motorists are going somewhere else ... they are not just wandering around like pedestrians looking for someplace they might browse, buy, eat or drink ... they almost never decide on the spur of the moment to buy a meal, a trinket ... let alone furniture!

And for non-cut-through (“destination") traffic, there's more than adequate parking in the rear lots, and along perpendicular and parallel side streets.

Confusing auto traffic with liveliness or good retail environments is a classic mistake ... who wants to shop, dine or eat along traffic sewers like El Camino ... or Hwy 101, for that matter!?

The few grouchy complainers are wrong to overlook the effects of the coronavirus and scapegoat the elimination of cut-through traffic for their reduced sales. Too bad they're only (unwittingly?) angling to make things worse for everyone. And once they cow the city into restoring cut-through traffic, there will be no going back when they see that that doesn't solve their problem. Nor will they ever admit it and everyone else will be worse off for it. :-(

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by KB, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Jul 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Can we take a step back for a moment and just try to visualize what an ideal downtown shopping and dining street would look like? To me (who is admittedly from Europe, albeit from the North where the weather for at least half the year prevents outdoor dining and has everybody rush between the stores to minimize time in the hauling winds and horizontal rains/hail/snow - but where people still think of bikes as a means of transportation year-round and parking a few blocks away from the store you want to go to is considered close-by parking) I think of this: 1) tavernas/cafes/restaurants with people eating, drinking, playing chess, chatting, socializing, enjoying life and each other's company, 2) residents and tourists leisurely (or determinedly) strolling between small shops and local businesses, 3) farmers market every day of the week, 4) bike parking and biking lanes everywhere, except on the main downtown street - pedestrians should feel safe to roam freely without needing to worry about cars, bikes, or other modes of wheel-assisted transportation (obviously exempting wheelchairs and other disability supporting transports), 5) street musicians and live music nights at the bars

This is just my vision and I may be the only resident in downtown Menlo Park that dream of these things, but it seems to me that everybody should sit down for a moment and think about what they would like downtown Menlo Park to be and what they value most, prior to making comments. And for the city - maybe reaching out to the community to get feedback on the visions rather than pre-designed implementations would be a better way to get buy-in? What do the residents of Menlo Park want their city to look like? What are the values that are most important to the residents?

As for the current situation - I think the barriers are ugly, it's confusing to navigate when driving, and I keep having to remind myself whether or not I am inside the blocked-off parts of the street while walking. BUT there is so much more life to the portions of the street that are blocked off now than I have ever witnessed during my 5 years living downtown. I love seeing the older kids hanging out, laughing, buying coffee, sodas, icecream - I love watching the outdoor seating areas filling up with people eating, drinking, enjoying the chance to catch up with friends that they may not have seen in person for months due to the shelter-in-place. I love watching people stroll in and out of the stores again. I love the way that not having to worry about the cars makes social distancing so much more manageable and also just makes the strolling so much more relaxed and the mood lifts.

So my wish is that all of Santa Cruz from El Camino to University is closed for all but pedestrian traffic - after all, almost every store has a back-way entrance that can be accessed directly from the parking lot behind for those who do not want to stroll down the street or are in a hurry. My main cave-out would be making sure that people with physical disabilities are considered and adaptations are made to ensure they are not excluded from enjoying a downtown teeming with life

 +   3 people like this
Posted by No Easy Solutions, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jul 24, 2020 at 3:43 pm

I'm glad the city is willing to experiment and see what works/doesn't versus not trying at all. Here are my observations from multiple trips to downtown via bike and walking.
1) The initial barriers were laid that it discouraged both bike and ped traffic on the closed streets. With the recent change, the street closure is now worse for peds, and a bit better for cyclist.
2) The barriers and plants provide better safety and beautification than what was done for University Ave or California Ave in PA.
3) There are ample parking spots, especially in the back lots.
4) Saw numerous drivers cutting through back parking lot and sometimes in wrong directions to get past the barriers.
5) Thought the closure in front of Left Bank, Vida, and Starbucks worked fairly well, especially the weekend night activities (DJ and music) put on by the restaurants (plus space for social distance dancing) and the chalk arts on the road.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest,
on Jul 24, 2020 at 8:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

We had a lovely and VERY safe dinner at Bistro Elan. As always Ari was a gracious host, the staff were superb, perfect social distancing and wonderful food.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by William L Grimm, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights,
on Jul 27, 2020 at 3:25 pm

I've lived here all my life. I remember when they put in the parking lot between hardware and the now post office.
I think the landowners of downtown and Santa Cruz Ave are too greedy. They have been driving out businesses for years. Like Ryan's hardware store, Prien's radio store, etc.
When you've lived here for 82 years and have to pay EXTRA every time you need to use any of the Menlo Park facilities, I'd say Menlo Park is greedy.
Thank you for not letting me talk at your city hall meetings.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 9:56 pm

I walked through Menlo Park's downtown today in the mid afternoon. I detected no productive use of the blocked streets whatsoever. One block was entirely empty. I felt like looking for tumbleweeds.

The block near the Left Bank was best utilized, but the number of diners could have been accommodated along the sidewalk or in the parking spaces next to the restaurant.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by janejones4237, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Aug 7, 2020 at 6:48 am

janejones4237 is a registered user.

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