September 7, 2020
To: Menlo Park City Council Members
From: Dana Hendrickson
Subject: Extend Outdoor Dining Trial. Help More Restaurants. Make Downtown More Appealing
Although I was initially skeptical about closing sections of Santa Cruz Avenue to help restaurant owners deal with restrictive, San Mateo County social distancing requirements, I now believe both the value of doing so and community acceptance have been sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, I recommend the Council both significantly extend AND improve this temporary trial, as these steps would benefit not only restaurants but also residents, retailers, and property owners. While it is impossible to predict the future course of the pandemic and County regulations, I encourage the Council to assume some social distancing measures will likely remain in-place until at least mid-2021 and make plans now to ensure the Menlo Park trial is as successful as possible. It can to this by (a) extending the trial for 9 to 12 months, (b) helping the few restaurants that are not benefiting from the trial and (3) spending funds already allocated to the trial on items that would make downtown more attractive and welcoming.
1. PROGRAM EXTENSION - The trial should be extended at least until mid-summer 2021.
a) The City, businesses and residents assume vastly different mindsets when they view a project as a civic investment rather than a very short-term trial. The deeper city commitment leads to higher expectations, greater engagement, more business investment, overall higher quality decisions and much better results.
b) Most of the new outdoor dining areas on Santa Cruz have improved the vitality of downtown during lunchtime, and on weekends, in the evenings. Bistro Vida has demonstrated the huge positive impact of making a significant investment in dining areas and the Left Bank has created a welcoming and attractive dining area in the street.
Outdoor dining is also popular at Camper, Roma and Stack’s.
c) Restaurants need less uncertainty so they can make better decisions. It makes little sense for most restaurants to make significant new investments in items like platforms, umbrellas, planters, serving stations, screens, lighting and signage when it is unclear how long these will have value. And winterizing dining areas requires more spending. Several Menlo Park restaurants on side streets are now reluctant to do so. This means the trial should be extended for at least 9 months rather than reconsidered every few months.
d) Dozens of Palo Alto restaurant built temporary “outdoor patios” AFTER the city extended its similar program AND assured restaurant owners that their investments would remain valuable through at least next summer and likely through December 2021. Before the extension, only a few made such investments.
2. HELP MORE RESTAURANTS - La Stanza, Café Del Sol, Carpaccio, Kyosho, and Shiok do not now directly benefit from street closures, continue to struggle financially and need special city attention and assistance.
These restaurants generally have no adjacent public parking spaces available for outdoor dining areas and sidewalks offer space that is either limited in capacity or simply unattractive and unappealing for customers because of their location. This puts them at a big disadvantage relative to restaurants on Santa Cruz. Even their take-out sales have slumped. This is unfair and should be corrected.
The City should financially assist these restaurants so they can install attractive “outdoor patios” on sidewalks. For example, suitable street planters – placed either on sidewalks or along curbs – are substantial investments for restaurants and could be purchased by the City and re-used after the program ends. Screens that block wind and vehicle headlights and plantings are also costly.
[Note: The city approved $300,000 to support the temporary outdoor dining program and only has been spent only 10% so far.
3. CHANGE LANE CLOSURE - The City should consider opening the westbound lane on Santa Cruz between Chestnut (North) and Crane (North).
a) This change would simplify traffic patterns for motorists and bicyclists, as the existing offsets and opposing one-way sections are confusing.
b) Ann’s dining area – currently now open from 7:00 AM to 2 PM - could easily be relocated to adjacent angle parking spaces.
c) Why would the City close a lane for effectively one restaurant when it has not closed lanes on Maloney for La Stanza and Doyle for Café Del Sol? This situation appears unfair.
4. SAFETY & CONVENIENCE - The City should help motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians navigate lane closures and minimize dangerous behavior.
a) Add traffic signs that direct motorists and bicyclists at all reconfigured Santa Cruz intersections.
b) Reduce the maximum posted speed to 15 mph on Santa Cruz because pedestrians often cross mid-block and they are difficult to spot, especially after dark.
5. DOWNTOWN APPEAL - Lane closures and temporary outdoor dining permits are essential elements but insufficient.
To maximize the success of this trial, the City should set a higher bar and be prepared to wisely spend allocated funds to improve the desirability of visiting downtown.
a) The City should stress its desire for outdoor dining areas to be designed as attractive “outdoor patios” rather than simply tables and chairs placed either in the street or in parking spaces. There are dozens of examples of the former in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The latter kind, exemplified by Ann’s and Amici’s, should be strongly discouraged.
b) The City should provide attractive street planters rather than ugly K-rails whenever individual restaurants need barriers for either safety or visual screening. Stack’s and Amici’s do have attractive planters. But Camper on University, The Refuge on Crane and The Coffeebar on Chestnut all have K-Rails. [Note: Palo Alto does not use any type of street barriers to protect dining areas installed in street parking spaces. Does Menlo Park really need to require them?
c) The City should provide civic amenities that enhance the experience of visiting downtown. Examples include an adequate number of well-placed bathrooms and hand sanitary stations in parking lots and at Fremont Park, additional planters and benches on Santa Cruz, special outdoor dining events on generally “off nights” for restaurants (e.g., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) and additional bike racks.
6. ADVISORY GROUP - Currently no individual in the city government is operationally responsible for ensuring the success of the temporary downtown street closure and outdoor dining program.
This remains a BIG problem. Ownership means responsibility for planning, execution and marketing. It currently takes too long time for the city to make strategic and tactical decisions in response to changes in County measures and human behavior. The Council is overwhelmed by other city business and provides infrequent direction to staff. The already stretched city staff makes mostly “public works”- type recommendations and otherwise simply follows Council direction. And the Chamber of Commerce represents retailers and restaurants. However, our entire community lacks good opportunities to understand and influence this important trial. For example, community surveys are rare; too limited in scope, reach and duration, and poorly promoted. And both survey results and the City's interpretations of them are not well' documented and communicated. Also, public workshops with the Council are never held. Why?
a) This program needs to be guided by a small action-oriented, advisory group consisting of residents and businesses who, along with the Chamber, fairly and enthusiastically represent the interests of the entire Menlo Park community. It would provide strategic advice to the Council Downtown Subcommission and work directly with the City Manager both to solve tactical problems and to take advantage of new opportunities.
b) The advisory group world regularly collect business community AND resident feedback about their concerns, needs and preferences through regular well-publicized surveys and one-on-one interactions and interpret this feedback for the Council – not simply supply data. It would also work with the city manager.
c) The group would also help the Council identify, prioritize and evaluate opportunities to improve the downtown environment for businesses and residents. For example, more than a dozen vacant storefronts are huge eyesores but these might be transformed into valuable community assets, e.g., use them for artwork and other interesting types of window displays.
d) The advisory group could educate and inform the public, answer community questions, e.g., posting questions and answers on a website, and help restaurants AND retailers develop marketing programs.
1. Downtown restaurants (9) and coffee houses (1) that have significantly benefited from public spaces and street barriers. (Stack’s, Left Bank, Bistro Vida, Ann’s, Galata Bistro, Coffeebar, Roma, Amici’s, Camper)
2. Downtown restaurants (4) with only unattractive sidewalk dining areas rather than “outdoor patios” are much less competitive than Santa Cruz restaurants. (Carpaccio’s, La Stanza, Café Del Sol, Shiok)
3. Downtown dining restaurants (3) that have either chosen not to participate or are closed.
(Juban, Kyosho, La Boulangerie)
Attractive Street Planters Separate "Outdoor Patios' From Passing Vehicles
Ugly K-Rail Street Barricades
[These were okay as a quick solution but should be replaced at restaurants. IF they must remain at intersections, the installations should be made more attractive, e.g, foreground landscaping, dark rather than white k-rail surfaces.
Street Barricade @University
Street Barricade @ Doyle
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