My purpose in writing this post is to ask Menlo Park residents to email their district city council members and tell them they (a) are upset with the dozen empty storefronts on Santa Cruz Avenue, (b) are no longer willing to simply wait for this problem to fix itself, and (c) want city leaders to eliminate this blight now by supporting and encouraging temporary art installations. The unattractive storefronts visually mar downtown, hurt existing retailers and discourage the arrival of new ones. This is not a new problem; about as many existed before the pandemic, when the local economy was booming. However, now Individual vacancies typically persist (e.g., the former location of Village Stationers has remained empty since August 2019). Property sales prices and leases downtown are expensive. Also, due to the pandemic, some existing downtown retailers are now financially hanging by their nails and could fail this year.
Temporary art installations would greatly improve the appearances of vacant storefronts, and these could be easily, quickly and inexpensively implemented IF building owners supported them. Unfortunately, property owners and managers lack any economic incentives to fix the problem, and both appear unmotivated by goodwill. The Chamber of Commerce reports that it has repeatedly attempted to discuss possible solutions and have largely been ignored. This means our city council needs to strongly encourage property owners to support a temporary art installation program.
While the city cannot require owner participation, it can recommend three options for onsite installations and consider a fourth one that does not require access to private property.
Option 1 – High quality art, exhibitions or collectibles are displayed inside storefronts. Individual installations could change every 4 to 6 weeks to keep them fresh and would be viewable both in the daytime and evening. This option offers the best opportunities for displaying different kinds of art and existing works could be used. Installations could be installed quickly – likely within 30 days of building owner approval.
Option 2 – Banners are suspended inside storefront windows. These could be created with digital images, e.g., storefront illustrations. These would not be exposed to weather and other potential damage.
Option 3 – Vinyl images are affixed to the outside of storefront windows. These would be exposed to weather and other potential damage.
Contingent Option – An Image is mounted on a panel supported by temporary, free-standing posts installed on a sidewalk close to the front of the building. The image could represent the actual storefront but show an open business. (Note: think of the screens used on the popular TV series Fixer Upper to reveal a renovated home to its owners.) The installation would screen an entire storefront but not impede pedestrians.
1. I strongly prefer Option 1 over the other three.
2. I dislike the Contingent option, but it might be the only solution if an individual building owner rejected the others.
A small team of community volunteers including art professionals could be responsible for all installations. I have already identified a well-respected art and exhibition curator, an artist and gallery representative and other residents who want to help. I would assist them. Private funding could pay most of the costs.
In general, building owners would be required to select an option and permit an onsite installation within 90 days after a property has become vacant.
The installations would remain in-place until a new tenant moves in.
The city would install and remove the screen posts associated with the Contingent option.. It’s possible that murals could be installed on removable panels and be reused at other vacant storefronts in the future.
Let's Lift Downtown With Art
Downtown Menlo Park is slowly and steadily recovering from COVID-19. New European-style outdoor dining is popular at Bistro Vida, Left Bank, ROMA, Galata Bistro, Camper and Carpaccio, and several have introduced live music at night. Two new specialty businesses have opened on Santa Cruz Avenue. Pedago sells electric bikes and 360 Fitness offers an excellent selection of personal fitness equipment. Shaded tables donated by the owner of Bistro Vida now provide lots of new seating in the temporary community plaza in front of Walgreen’s and Starbuck’s, and public social activities like wine tasting are already in the works. Also, our city recently installed new lighting which brightens the entire length of main street at night.
These positive changes signal that downtown can become much more vibrant and appealing than before the pandemic. Let’s not let ugly empty storefonts spoil it.
Please ask our city council to eliminate this blight now.
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