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Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park

By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: I hope readers of my blog will join me and other members of the Menlo Park community in a collective effort to transform our downtown into a much more appealing place, one where residents enjoy a lot more positive experiences and ...  (More)

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Menlo Park Now Has A Tremendous Opportunity to Transform Its Downtown

Uploaded: Feb 20, 2021
Will the Menlo Park City Council Recognize It on February 23?

Residents Need to Weigh-in Now.

UPDATE:(Feb 23, 2021) - Last night the Council unanimously agreed to extend the existing trial of Santa Cruz lane closures until at least January 22, 2022. That's great news. Restaurants now have a better opportunity to recoup investments in temporary outdoor facilities, and residents and businesses have a wonderful opportunity to create a vibrant community plaza filled with appealing activities and events. A big thank you to everyone who either sent emails or made comments to the Council. And to the Council for supporting the closures. In March, I will try to organize a team of volunteers and business owners who want to make downtown a destination for interesting and fun experiences.

On a recent Friday night I stopped by the Left Bank, and on Saturday night I visited Bistro Vida. Although the evenings were chilly, customers were not discouraged. Both restaurants were lively and full of diners enjoying meals, conversations and live music. New outdoor dining areas clearly have injected new life into downtown Menlo Park, far beyond anything I have witnessed during my 35 years living here.

The Left Bank, Bistro Vida, ROMA and others have collectively invested tens of thousands of dollars of their own money on new facilities, all without a guarantee the City of Menlo Park will allow continued use of public spaces beyond September. These are big bets given their year-long financial struggles with COVID-19 restrictions, they should be applauded for their investments in downtown, and the owners and employees deserve strong community support.

Outdoor Lunch (ROMA)

Evening Entertainment (Bistro Vida)

Last September, the Menlo Park City Council agreed to keep single eastbound lanes closed on two sections of Santa Cruz. The closure between Doyle and Curtis was already popular for outside dining, and the Council decided the closure between Chestnut and Crane would set aside downtown public space for future community events and activities.

On February 23, the Council will decide whether to re-open both lanes in early March. (Staff Report)

I recommend the following actions:

1. Re-open the eastbound lane between Chestnut and Crane.

2. Keep the eastbound lane closed between Curtis and Doyle and designate it as a community plaza.

3. Let residents and businesses organize events and activities that popularize the downtown community plaza. Use 2021 as a trial period.

4. Create a program that funds resident and business-managed events and activities in the community plaza. Designate at least $50,000 for the execution of events and activities and exclude spending for advertising. Assign city coordination responsibility to the economic development manager.

I encourage residents and businesses to support these actions by sending emails to the City Council before the council meeting and by making comments in the online meeting. Otherwise, our community will lose something special it already has and forgo a wonderful opportunity to create a special new place downtown for special events, socializing, reading, people-watching, relaxing and other suitable activities. Themed evenings could feature Menlo Park restaurants, e.g., wine tastings, dessert tastings, beer tastings, appetizer tastings, etc. Exhibits could display sculpture, paintings, collectibles, and other “interesting” things. And events could include small-scale plays, readings, music, cooking classes, etc. These attractions would appeal to residents of all ages AND help downtown businesses by generating lots more visits and foot traffic. I bet our community would be amazed by what by residents and business owners would accomplish IF our City supported a field trial for the plaza during the rest of 2021.

(Here are instructions on how you can participate in the February 22 online meeting)

Evaluation of Existing Santa Cruz Closures

Eastbound Lane Between Chestnut-Crane

1. This lane closure was not well-thought out. It was decided “on-the-fly” at the September meeting and planning for how to actually use this space appears non-existent.

2. This lane closure severely impacts traffic flow as it is located close to the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. Most eastbound motorists must detour around it to reach parking plazas and downtown destinations. Bicyclists traveling downtown are unsure about how to bypass this closure and often take the westbound lane - a dangerous action. A few vehicles have also been observed doing this.

Eastbound Lane Between Curtis – Doyle

1. This area has become the most vibrant section of Downtown at lunch and in the afternoon and evenings because of the appealing outdoor dining.

2. The open space in front of Walgreen’s and Starbuck’s is a wonderful spot for a community public plaza where events and activities can take place.

3. A central plaza on Santa Cruz and a paseo on Chestnut are two major improvements residents voted for during the development of the $1M+ Specific Plan approved in 2012, and neither has been implemented.

4. The combination of street dining and a vibrant public plaza would be a powerful attraction for residents.

5. This lane closure has minimal negative flow on Santa Cruz traffic. Most traffic enters from the west and can easily reach all other blocks and plaza parking without dealing with this closure.

Time to order food?

Family Lunch (Left Bank)

Also...Checkout the new Online Menlo Park Restaurant Directory

And try a new place for an outdoor lunch and dinner.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Tom Fr, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 2:53 pm

Tom Fr is a registered user.

I certainly agree with making every effort to revitalize Menlo Park downtown.
It's depressing to look at downtown. The vacancies began before Covid. Do we have lessons to learn from Redwood City and perhaps Burlingame? I am concerned about the huge developments on El Camino and their impact on present downtown.
I know that some longstanding businesses have closed because they simply ran out of money, but also because some landlord seem to have little sympathy for tenants who have paid them rent for sometimes decades.

Posted by Brian, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 10:38 pm

Brian is a registered user.

I am on the other side of the fence on this. I believe the public roads should be returned back to the public (who paid to construct them and pay to maintain them). The closures have caused inconveniences going cross town, and while it might have been beneficial to restaurants it does not seem to have benefited other businesses with all of the empty storefronts now on Santa Cruz. As Covid declines with more vaccinations and we hopefully approach herd immunity Santa Cruz Avenue should be reopened as a thoroughfare.

Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 9:57 am

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Hi Brian, I understand your position and believe it is also shared by other residents. An additional thoughts: most of the retail vacancies on Santa Cruz existed before the pandemic and street closures, despite a booming local economy. So I do not expect the number to decrease significantly unless downtown becomes a much more appealing place to operate a new business. The former city business development manager claimed on several occasions that owners of potential new businesses, other than restaurants, generally felt downtown simply had too little customer traffic.

Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 9:59 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

Posted by Alex Beltramo, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 5:18 pm

Alex Beltramo is a registered user.

Absolutely agree that Chestnut-Crane should be re-opened ASAP. Kids on bikes regularly ride on the wrong side of the road around the barriers, against oncoming traffic. Frustrated drivers are diverted through the back parking lots, endangering pedestrians. The businesses downstream of the roadblocks lose valuable exposure. And the barriers and temporary tents are an eyesore.

And for what? There is only one restaurant on that portion of the closed road, and it already has sufficient outdoor seating from their parklet. If the hope is that people will gather in the closed road, they can instead do that at Fremont Park, just half a block away.

Posted by Lou, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Lou is a registered user.

Many towns across the US have used street closures and new pedestrian plazas to revitalize their downtown. Menlo Park is uniquely suited to this style of transformation since it already has multiple parking lots behind Santa Cruz and many businesses also have rear entrances. A pedestrian mall could create a truly unique and vibrant place for both adults and kids to safely enjoy our beautiful town. We should not be a slave to the few people who want automobile convenience at the expense of all the other forms of transportation and enjoyment that a car free Santa Cruz Ave could provide. I strongly support more research and street closing experiments to see if this is a good option for Menlo Park's future.

Posted by Kenneth Duda, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 9:53 pm

Kenneth Duda is a registered user.

I love closing Santa Cruz Ave to motor vehicles. It should be turned into bicycle, pedestrian, and community space. It's so much nicer to walk around and visit without the endless motor vehicle traffic.

Posted by District 2 Constituent , a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 11:48 pm

District 2 Constituent is a registered user.

I haven't minded the street closures in Menlo Park, or any of the other Peninsula cities who have done the same. However, ours is the most depressing. Limited quality dining options, lack of diverse retail fare, and many empty storefronts (pre covid) aren't compelling to residents and non-residents to venture down Santa Cruz Ave the way I see others down Laurel Street, Burlingame Ave, University Ave, California Ave or Broadway. Let's continue with the closed streets, but let's also re-engineer the offerings too. What is the city council (?) doing to attract new businesses to downtown? Let's be more deliberate about what we want to see more of in our downtown.

Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 10:53 am

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

I realize that many residents want to see a different mix of businesses downtown but attracting viable new ones is extremely difficult. Most of the existing vacant storefronts existed prior to the pandemic and during a booming local economy.

In general, businesses come to any specific location when they perceive an excellent opportunity to earn a profit, and unfortunately, our downtown is viewed as much less promising than nearby locations. There are several reasons for this disadvantage and none are easily solved. It's not about marketing and selling the opportunity; it's about making downtown more appealing to prospective businesses => more customers who want what they are selling and find it convenient to shop here. The amount of foot traffic is a good proxy for shops. Note: salons, restaurants and grocery stores are types of service providers that have done well here WITHOUT foot traffic. Going to them is like running an errand.

The city has hired a business development consultant and is currently recruiting a business development manager. The last manager left MP to take a similar position in another city. So, I am not optimistic.

I do not believe non-food shopping can ever be a primary reason to go downtown. Specialty food shop? Yes. And downtown could also be a great place for live attractions. These are the heartbeats of Redwood City.

Just my opinion.

Posted by Michelle , a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Michelle is a registered user.

I agree with the changes you suggest to enviciarte downtown. We moved from NYC a year and 1/2 ago and have seen the difference generated from closing the steeets. There's more people downtown and honing these changes will only improve foot tracking and experience for business and visitors. Food is always a strong incentive but non food business can also thrive. I would suggest the MP downtown association to encourage pop up stores, street markets, spread in Santa Cruz for example, many new companies are seeing opportunities and offering interesting products and services, free stalls for social causes, this is a wealthy community and should be an attractive market for up and coming brands etc. I have lots if experience organizing these type of events, happy to freely assist and consult with the board.

Posted by District 2 Constituent , a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 3:41 pm

District 2 Constituent is a registered user.

Michelle - sign me up! Love the ideas you propose. Downtown is ripe for revitalization with more nimble thinking like yours. I'd love to be a part of a team working those angles and I think we'd make more progress not being a sanctioned city commission. Every time I read the commission openings they feel wrought with bureaucracy and little to no output. Engaged resident ready to rally!

Posted by David Roise, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 4:18 pm

David Roise is a registered user.

Good to hear some "outside-the-box" (also known as "outside-the-car") thinking. I agree with the above comments that opening the streets as gathering places for people, and not for car storage, has been a good way to make downtown MP more appealing and vital for all of us.

Everyone thinking about these issues would benefit from reading about what is being done by the folks at the Strong Towns organization these days (see They have a huge amount of practical information and advice about what other towns have done to revitalize their downtowns.

One example with similarities to Michelle's suggestion was from Muskegon, MI (population 38,000), where they built a bunch of cheap, small, and portable pop-up shops on a vacant lot near their downtown. Those "chalets" provided artisans and small entrepreneurs low-risk spaces to test out their businesses. See Web Link The most successful ones would often move on to renting space in an actual storefront. The parking plaza that hosts the Farmers' Market on Sundays would be a perfect place to encourage more pop-up businesses interested in testing the waters.

By the way, charging people for parking downtown would be another great way to encourage more bike and foot traffic and less driving. Put the money earned from parking back into downtown improvements. Win-win!

Posted by Reza, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 4:32 pm

Reza is a registered user.

I am all for revitalizing and energizing downtown Menlo Park. I think closing (most of) Santa Cruz Ave to cars is a good idea and way overdue. It should be done intelligently and I like the proposal from Dana. Would like to see more attention paid to parking as that's key for driving people to visit and spend $. I think we can learn a lot from Palo alto and Redwood City downtowns here. Menlo downtown has always felt dated (as in the 70's) and the recent changes have helped - restaurants spreading into the street has a European/fun feel to it.

However, the non-food businesses are still (mostly) stuck in the past. The overall design and architecture of many of the building facades is very dated and sometimes even look delapidated. I would love to see two things here:

1) A plan to revitalized the architecture/design of downtown building facades.

2) Some intelligent plan around how and what businesses are allowed to be in downtown. For example: we had two pet stores for a few years until one of them shut down. How many (similar) furniture stores do we need. Same for rug stores. RWC and PA are very deliberate about planning the right mix of businesses and we should be do.

Posted by Judy A, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 7:06 pm

Judy A is a registered user.

I welcome the exchange of ideas. I've sent a note to the city council re dining options (COVID safe with air circulation, and using empty storefronts for art displays. I'm a movie lover, so one of my suggestions is to take up a parking lot and create a "drive in" theater so people can watch movies from their cars safely...with take out food available. I was a supporter of the old Guild theater, and love going to the movies as we used to, but for the foreseeable future, a drive-in could bring folks to the movies again and certainly we have the tech resources do do this, maybe simultaneously in a couple of parking lots adjacent to where we do the farmer's market. Stream to laptops?? or like in Cinema Paradiso (the last movie I arranged when the Guild closed) projected against a blank wall. I haven't scouted locations or technology, but it's an idea as long as cars didn't block the projection. Maybe the folks rehabilitating the location of the Guild (Peninsula Arts Guild) can get some first run movies, or UNAFF films, with "breaks" by local bands. Drew Dunlevie, what do you think?

Posted by Judy A, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 7:12 pm

Judy A is a registered user.

I forgot one of the most important "rescues" of Santa Cruz Ave and environs, and that is getting rents down!! which may be why so many businesses closed. An open-air downtown shuttle including from the train for seniors and families of the apartments going up on El Camino?? (properly ventilated with distanced seating and of course mask requirements!

Posted by District 2 Constituent , a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Feb 22, 2021 at 8:23 pm

District 2 Constituent is a registered user.

Judy - like your idea of a regular pop-up drive in. We purchased a projector and screen during the pandemic and have enjoyed hosting movie nights socially distanced in our backyard with neighbors. There are larger affordable products out there to replicate this on a downtown scale. I also wouldn't mind a flower shop or flower stand, a microbrewery, and a constructive place for kids to tinker after school and possibly have after school jobs (ie bike shop, skate shop, tech shop). Definitely going to check out the Strong Towns org David mentioned too!

Posted by Richard Vaughan, a resident of another community,
on Feb 23, 2021 at 12:40 pm

Richard Vaughan is a registered user.

As someone who works in Menlo Park in education and the Arts, I just sent this to the MP City Council relating to tonite's agenda. BTW, just love the discussion and ideas being presented.
I fully support the continued lane closure and traffic modifications on Santa Cruz Ave. I find the ambiance of Santa Cruz Ave now to be much more inviting than when it was just cars traveling both ways. I look to the European concept of dedicated Pedestrian Zones as a model. The current
configuration seems to work just fine.
Not only does it provide an enhanced pedestrian zone but one must also consider the investments the restaurants have made to make their businesses work in these COVID times. With all of the outside closures that have been built, businesses need more time to recoup their investments. Given
the enforced Purple Tier closures during December and January and the fact that many patrons are not ready, willing or vaccinated to return comfortably to indoor dining - forcing the restaurants to remove these will only hurt them.
I am especially enjoying the current traffic modifications because it allows for greater community activities. For example, on Sunday mornings there is always live jazz provided by local high school musicians to the patrons of Bistro Vida and the Left Bank. I would like to applaud the City Council and
the Chamber of Commerce for allowing these events to happen and flourish. The more music and live Performing Arts we can have in Menlo Park the better!
As we emerge from our Covid-induced hibernations, rebuilding our Community Spirit can only be enhanced by having the ability to meet and mingle in public spaces such as those created by the traffic barriers. I really enjoy having Santa Cruz Ave be more dedicated to pedestrian traffic than just
cars. Please consider making this a permanent fixture. Thank you.

Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 24, 2021 at 12:21 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

NEWS: The City Council decided last night to extend the existing two lane closures on Santa Cruz until January 22, 2022. This modestly reduces the uncertainty restaurants are facing by extending the current trial by FIVE month. It also provides the wonderful opportunity for residents and businesses to demonstrate the value of a downtown community plaza. Please contact me IF you want to help.

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