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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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Extend Outdoor Dining Trial. Help More Restaurants. Make Downtown More Appealing.

Uploaded: Sep 7, 2020
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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.

Recommendations:

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.

Additional Info

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

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Stack's

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Amici's

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Left Bank

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Bistro Vida



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.

Refuge (Crane)


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Camper (University)


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Coffeebar (Chestnut)

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Street Barricade @University

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Street Barricade @ Doyle



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Comments

 +   5 people like this
Posted by Iris, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 7, 2020 at 3:19 pm

Iris is a registered user.

The closure is exciting to me, and I hope that ways can be found to do a complete closure so that drivers would seek parking in the backs of stores and utilize the back entrances. Formally extending the closures makes sense so that businesses can make investment decisions about a longer period of time.

An issue not addressed in this blog is the problem facing pedestrians who are on the sidewalk attempting to weave through Madame Colette's and Boulanger. Because both popular restaurants are seating diners (and those awaiting take-out) next to their building as well as farther away, pedestrians are faced with the unsafe prospect of walking too close to people not wearing masks. The extremely unsafe alternative is to walk in the street where cars are trying to navigate their zig zag turns. This is another reason to reconsider leaving open some blocks and not others.

Frequently there also is a big safety issue at Peet's where people waiting in line block the ability of pedestrians to safely cross the street or to walk onto the sidewalk, again forcing pedestrians to walk unsafely in the street where cars are. And some people sit on the bench there and the one near Wells Fargo Bank without masks (some, but not all, are eating or drinking) and chat away, oblivious to pedestrians attempting to pass who are forced into unsafe choices (walk in the street where cars are moving or expose oneself to the virus because people are not wearing masks and are closer than 6' away)


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Brian, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Sep 7, 2020 at 9:20 pm

Brian is a registered user.

Why would you want to block streets for street dining during the winter? That makes no sense to me. Open the public streets back up to the public. If the restaurants want more outdoor dining maybe they can rend some of the parking spaces behind the restaurants from the city.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Dawn1234, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Sep 7, 2020 at 9:53 pm

Dawn1234 is a registered user.

I love the expanded outdoor seating. I've often wondered how an area with such great weather has such minimal outdoor seating. Not having to sit next cars is an added bonus. I would root to make Santa Cruz a pedestrian mall past the point when when we have to.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Tina, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights,
on Sep 8, 2020 at 10:29 am

Tina is a registered user.

It's such a great concept - being creative in a pandemic in order to better support our local businesses!

However, I would like to suggest that Menlo Park move more strongly ahead in this direction & ENTIRELY CLOSE Santa Cruz Ave, from El Camino to University - and only allow foot traffic on Santa Cruz.

Right now, it feels like we've made an awkward, half-hearted, initial effort. We just need to go for it, go all-in, and do it right.

Every retail establishment on the street has a back entrance door to the parking lots on the north & south sides - which can be also easily be utilized by folks parking in those parking lots. Handicap spaces are already marked in these parking areas as well, to assist those who do need easier/closer access to an entrance.

Drivers can easily utilize Oak Grove and Menlo Ave - for east/west vehicular traffic (many of us should also acknowledge that we already do this, in order to avoid the excessive downtown congestion & abundant stop signs on Santa Cruz). And both streets have multiple, existing entrances to the parking lot areas.

If Santa Cruz Ave is entirely closed to vehicular/bike traffic - then you could create a better foot traffic pattern. No dining on the sidewalks - that's for people walking (no bicycles either, it's a sidewalk!), outdoor dining is ONLY in the closed off street, in pretty & creative dining sections.

Maybe we could even close the short side streets off Santa Cruz, just to the parking lots - that would HUGELY assist folks like La Stanza & Refuge.

Possibly even add a bike parking area or two? Lots of us are biking down to Santa Cruz Ave nowadays - so let's embrace that as a increasingly growing mode of transportation too?

I don't get why Palo Alto and Redwood City are SO far ahead of us in supporting local restaurants & retail. How many more stores & restaurants do we need to lose in our downtown district before we make more real, tangible changes?


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest,
on Sep 8, 2020 at 5:11 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I wish the City would really buy into this project with good Covid 19 precautions signs and wash stations everywhere.

The objective should be to make outdoor dining in Menlo Park the SAFEST PLACE TO DINE on the peninsula.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Eric B., a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 1:30 pm

Eric B. is a registered user.

I agree fully with Tina's suggestion of closing Santa Cruz Avenue completely from ECR to University permanently. I presented the idea to the Mayor at her weekly open office hours yesterday. When I look at the pictures from European cities taken since the pandemic began, seeing people walking slowly and casually in city squares and pedestrian streets (particularly in the evenings in the Italian evening strolls called "La passeggiata"), I am envious. There will come a time, after the smoke and fires, when we will be able to do that. Menlo Park would be more beautiful and livable.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 7:00 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Menlo Park is not a European city, and closing the street will not magically transform the downtown into a bustling European boulevard lined with cafes and street performers.

It is much more likely that closing the street will lead to a wasteland of destroyed businesses, tumbleweeds, and the occasional mummified corpse of a starved merchant.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 13, 2020 at 6:06 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Closing long sections of Santa Cruz Avenue was always going to be controversial and problematic, and from the start I doubted the trial would prove otherwise. The City Council has learned that most downtown retailers have hated the idea and reported significant drops in sales SINCE the closures. They indicate access from parking lots is insufficient and prefer giving up some space on sidewalks and in-street parking rather than lose motorist access from Santa Cruz and pass-by traffic.

Last Tuesday the Council decided to open up Santa Cruz Avenue on the North side (where Stack's and Camper are located). One can watch the meeting video at the city website.

The city should now focus its attention and resources on helping restaurants install attractive "dining patios" on sidewalks and in curbside parking spaces, especially on side streets and do this immediately as good weather will end in the next two months. It should also identify someone on staff who can help restaurants design and install creative solutions for each individual location.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 9:58 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 9:59 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.


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