Downtown Menlo Park, like other central retail districts across the country, continues to suffer from the year-long COVID-19 pandemic. Empty storefronts, large job losses and plummeting sales testify to the severity of the economic damage, and most remaining businesses are still struggling to survive. Fortunately, there are now encouraging signs that both the healthcare and economic crises have bottomed out, and business owners in downtown Menlo Park can expect a rebound of sorts in the next few months. That’s good news for our entire community.
However, what an actual economic recovery will mean for Downtown Menlo Park worries me. The current downturn will have lasting effects and reinvigorating downtown will not simply happen on its own. Many residents were unhappy with the state of downtown before COVID-19 and even a full recovery would disappoint them. Main street does lack an appealing mix of small retail businesses, more than a dozen vacant storefronts mar Santa Cruz Avenue and streets are poorly maintained and often dirty. However, Downtown Menlo Park also has many strong points including convenient access to dozens of service-related businesses, e.g., restaurants, salons, and home furnishing retailers; above average income households in Menlo Park and Atherton, and 500 new apartments now under construction nearby on El Camino.
So how likely is it that downtown will become a more appealing place to shop, eat or simply visit IF there is no concerted effort by residents and the city government, something that has been lacking for decades. The City’s Specific Plan (2012) is full of good ideas for civic investments, ones collectively identified by residents. But no significant ones have been undertaken during the past eight years. Is this because no one feels they own its implementation?
Here are the goals for downtown included in the Menlo Park Vision Plan. It is safe to say that very little progress has actually been made.
• Maintain a village character unique to Menlo Park.
• Protect and enhance pedestrian amenities on Santa Cruz Avenue.
• Expand shopping, dining and neighborhood services to ensure a vibrant downtown.
• Provide plaza and park space
Reinvigorating downtown will require a much more refined and pragmatic vision, civic and private investments, a well led economic development program, and extensive community engagement. I personally would like an attractive place to run errands, dine, stroll, and attend regular special events with family and friends. I already visit downtown 3-4 times a week, mostly to run quick errands. The following are the kinds of “attractions” that would expand and increase my usage.
1. Open the entire length of Santa Cruz Avenue to traffic between University and El Camino EXCEPT the south side lane in the block between Doyle and Curtis. This current experiment in outdoor street dining's very popular, draws people to downtown and is a primary source of vitality on main street during lunchtime and in the evenings. Although a few retailers might oppose this closure, the City Council should acknowledge the significant value of this unique community attraction and accept a trade-off that benefits the entire downtown.
2. Create an attractive, professionally designed plaza in front of Walgreen's and Starbucks - a place for special events, socializing, listening to "gentle" live music, reading, people-watching, relaxing and other suitable activities.
3. Extend the business permits for outdoor dining areas at least to five years in order to encourage restaurant owners to invest in attractive and comfortable facilities.
4. Create at least 50 additional, short term parking spaces in the plazas by eliminating a similar number of daily parking permits. Offer displaced permit holders FREE permit parking in a nearby lot leased from a private property owner, e.g., church.
5. The existing safety barriers that protect outdoor dining are unnecessarily unattractive, visual reminders of temporary construction sites. These should be painted a dark more attractive color, and markings and reflectors should be added to make them visible, especially after dark.
6. The current conditions of downtown streets and sidewalks are disgraceful. Repairs, on-going maintenance and regular cleaning are required.
7. Add a second - perhaps smaller - farmers market midweek to help local framers, create an additional opportunity to purchase fresh produce and specialty food products, another reason to visit downtown. (In a new plaza?)
8. Minimize the number of vacant storefronts downtown, especially on Santa Cruz. Create a program to display art and other visually appealing exhibits in shop windows. Regularly rotate displays to create fresh new experiences.
9. Offer a series of special, mid-week evenings that feature Menlo Park restaurants . For example, wine tastings, dessert tastings, beer tastings, appetizer tastings, etc. Hold at least two a moth, spring through fall. (In a new plaza?)
10. Offer a series of weekend summer plays in Fremont Park in either the afternoon or evening. Encourage restaurants to sell "box" lunches or dinners.
11. Attract specialty food shops like the ones in the San Francisco Ferry Building.
12. Attract a microbrewery that serves craft beer and wines from our area.
13. The number of bicyclists riding on Santa Cruz will continue to grow. Add signs at every intersection that remind both motorists and bicyclists they must share lanes.
14. Create a safe place(s) to store bikes, electric bikes, and motorbikes – facilities that offer greater security than bike locks.
So what are YOUR top three priorities for improving downtown in 2021?
(Important note: Please remember our city currently has a very tight budget.)
Also note that there is currently an on-going discussion about Downtown Menlo Park on Nextdoor. Join in with your ideas.
Also, outdoor dining is now available!