A lot has changed since the City of Menlo Park (“City”) initially closed off sections of downtown Santa Cruz in June in order to allow restaurants and retailers to use public parking spaces and sidewalks for outdoor dining areas and “kiosks”. While the path has been a bit rocky, the progress made the past month has been positive and encouraging. More needs to be done - and soon - but I am now a bit more optimistic about the future of this program.
The October 6 staff report is available on the city website.
First the very good news.
1. The temporary downtown outdoor permit program has again been extended, this time from the end of February 2021 to Labor Day 2021. (Note: initially this trial was scheduled to end last month.) This action provides greater planning certainty for businesses, especially restaurants who either want or need to make investments in dining areas.
2. The westbound lane of Santa Cruz Avenue will be re-opened its entire length from El Camino to University. This will greatly simplify traffic patterns downtown and please retailers who generally believe street closures harm them.
3. The street dining areas created by Bistro Vida and the Left Bank between Doyle and Curtis will be preserved. Both are very popular, and financial conditions of the two restaurants have significantly improved. “Walk Your Bike” signage will guide bicyclists around the closed lanes.
4. An individual in the City Manager’s office (Judi Herren – City Clerk) is now responsible for helping businesses navigate the city permit process. Recently the business liaison position was unfilled, a situation that was a source of frustration for downtown businesses.
5. The Council expressed a willingness to share the cost of building temporary platforms for dining areas but is extremely cautious about the amount of cost-sharing it will support. It has taken a reasonable “wait-and-see” approach and requested credible cost estimates for individual permit applications before setting any new city policy.
6. The target for re-opening westbound Santa Cruz remains October 15- only a week away. This requires the relocation of the dining areas for Ann’s Coffee Shop and ROMA - from street lanes to parking spaces, and this might delay the actual schedule.
7. The Council authorized city staff to help Carpaccio create a permit for a new dining area on an adjacent short section of Ryans Lane. While the Council expressed general support for the idea it wants to understand details for this project, including potential negative impacts and city costs before evaluating it. Neighboring businesses - Ann’s Coffee Shop, The Discovery Shop and Bagle Street Café - all support Carpaccio’s request.
1. The value of keeping eastbound Santa Cruz between Evelyn and Crane closed remains unclear. Opening the street would greatly improve traffic circulation downtown and make more parking available. The argument made to support closure is the desire to maintain more open downtown space for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, the city has no specific plans for making this space a functional or appealing place to go. So, it appears "the cart is before the horse". Also, the empty space that now exists between Doyle and Curtis - in front of Starbuck’s - could serve the same purpose without impacting motorists.
2. I have been helping individual restaurants design outdoor dining patios and prepare applications for city permits. And I have tried to keep them informed of city plans and decisions. During dozens of interactions it has become very clear that many downtown businesses are extremely frustrated by what they perceive is the lack of city empathy, understanding and support.
• No proactive city liaison
• Owners do not understand what the city is planning or deciding, nor what decisions have been made.
• Owners feel the city does not understand their difficulties nor regularly asks for their input and advice.
• Owners are financially stressed by the costs of building even the most basic COMPLIANT outdoor dining area and have not been offered even a small amount of financial assistance
This situation can easily be traced to the city not proactively communicating its plans and decisions to affected business owners and residents. One has to examine individual meeting agendas posted on the website to learn when the Program will be reviewed by the Council, and meeting minutes are often not posted for weeks after a meeting. The city website does not have an area dedicated to this Program so it’s hard to find useful information about the Program.
a. The city should regularly communicate with the business community via email and in person.
b. The city should send agendas to the entire business community and invite them to participate. The agenda should also be published as a regular feature in The Almanac, as this is an inexpensive way to inform our entire community. This feature would also
contribute valuable content that benefits a local newspaper.
c. The city website should provide a central location to present information and post questions and answers. All relevant information should be linked to a home page for this program
There is much more that the City can do to improve this program. But implementing the above recommendations would make a big positive impact on business-government-community relations.!
A FINAL NOTE: The streets and sidewalks in downtown Menlo Park are ALWAYS disgustingly dirty and strewn with litter. Why doesn't our city keep both spotlessly clean? I had dinner with friends last week outside on Santa Cruz and the neglected condition of downtown was (is) embarrassing!