The MP City Council Changes Downtown Street Closures Again and Extends the Trial Into 2021. Is this Enough? | Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park | Dana Hendrickson | Almanac Online |

Local Blogs

By Dana Hendrickson

The MP City Council Changes Downtown Street Closures Again and Extends the Trial Into 2021. Is this Enough?

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2020

On September 8, 2020, the Menlo Park City Council approved significant changes to BOTH the city’s temporary closures of lanes on Santa Cruz Avenue and the temporary regulations that permit restaurants in all parts of the city to create new outdoor dining areas in public parking spaces and on sidewalks. The goal is to make the changes by October 1, 2020. (Note: retailers can also take advantage of these permits and public spaces.)

I encourage residents and business owners to watch the video of the September 8 council meeting in order to better understand not only how the specific Council decisions were made but also to observe how the Council reaches its decisions.

This is the link to the meeting video; this agenda item starts at 3:08 (hours: minutes).

The following is my summary of what I witnessed and some of my impressions. Council members are welcome to clarify their positions or correct any misunderstandings that I may have. Simply comment on this post.

Key Changes

1. The lanes on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue will be reopened on ALL the blocks between El Camino and University. This will enable one-way traffic for the entire length of downtown. The lane closures will be removed on the two blocks between Chestnut and Evelyn, and Amici’s, Roma and Ann’s Coffee Shop have agreed to relocate their street dining areas from the lanes to street parking spaces.

2. The lane on the south side of Santa Cruz between Doyle and Curtis is currently closed and used by Bistro Vida and The Left Bank for outdoor dining areas. This lane will now be opened to bicyclists and pedestrians on weekdays to improve the safety of bicyclists, especially Hillview students. This lane will be closed on weekends between 4PM Friday and midnight Sunday to allow outdoor dining and other activities.

3. Both the reconfigured lane closures and the temporary outdoor dining permits will be extended to at least the end of February 2021. There is no fixed end date for either element of this temporary program. Instead, the Council will continue to review it and make changes as needed.

Some Key Positions Expressed by Council Members

Catherine Carlton

1. Authored the motion to re-open the entire length of the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue.

2. Does not see the value of continuing to maintain the lane closure on the south side of Santa Cruz between Crane and Evelyn as she claimed most business do NOT want it, and the closure would continue to impede the “eastbound” traffic flow between University and Curtis.

Betsy Nash

1. Believes Bistro Vida and Left Bank need street dining only in the evenings and proposed that bicyclists and pedestrians be given full access to the eastbound lane between Curtis and Doyle during the day. The restaurants would only use the lane in the evenings and would need to move many tables, chairs, heaters and umbrellas twice-a-day.

2. Opposes opening the lane on the south side of Santa Cruz between Eveyln and Crane even though affected restaurants and retail businesses support this action. Nash wants the lane to be available in order to maintain a “public space”. Nash made no suggestions as to how this space might be used. (Drew Combs agreed). Nash said she would not support Carlton’s motion to open the North side if this lane was also re-opened. (Carlton accepted this condition)

3. Doesn’t want the city to share any of the costs that individual restaurants might incur to either improve or winterize their outdoor dining areas. (Note: Staff said city funding would be limited to barriers and street planters.)

4. Concerned about how to ensure owners their investments would be worthwhile but did not identify how to do this. Asked staff to research ideas.

5. Claims that strong community support exists for closing all of Santa Cruz between El Camino and University but provided no proof. (Ray Mueller asserted this was not the time to be addressing that issue and all agreed.)

Ray Mueller

1. Believes the loss of in-the-street dining would a significant setback for both Bistro Vida and the Left Bank. Did not understand that permits actually banned this use but the city had not enforced this provision because it had not been identified as a big issue.

2. Claims the Menlo Park street closure and new outdoor dining permit regulations have had a significant positive impact and that Menlo Park has done a better job than some other Peninsula cities. He did not provide any examples to support this view.

3. Reminded other council members that they did not need to address all known issues now as there would be other opportunities in the future when more was known about actual trade-offs.

4. Opposes the City spending money on marketing programs. Prefers fixing downtown city infrastructure, e.g., crosswalks, sidewalks.

Drew Combs

1. Indicated he believed the interests of residents - not just the business community - deserved strong consideration re: street closing decisions and opposed reopening the south side lane between Evelyn and Crane in order to maintain this “public space”. He made no specific suggestions as to how this space might be used.

My Impressions

1. I generally do NOT believe either the lane closures on Santa Cruz or the temporary permit programs have been very successful. Retailers generally hate the closures and claim these have hurt their businesses. Navigating the closures has been difficult for motorists and bicyclists. The closed lanes are generally empty except where Bistro Vida and the Left Bank have installed outdoor patios. The restaurants on side streets appear neglected by the city. (Note: simply supplying ugly K-rail barriers is inadequate.) And many owners have been reluctant to invest in new dining areas because they did not know how long the temporary program would last beyond September.

2. With respect to street closures the City Council has ended up pretty much where I have expected. Before the trial started, I submitted a proposal that would not have closed any streets and instead focused on helping restaurants create outdoor dining “patios” in public parking spaces and on sidewalks. (Note: sidewalks would remain open to pedestrians as is currently required by existing city regulations.) I also mapped all the opportunities and provided photos. Unfortunately, the Council never responded to my requests for an opportunity to discuss this proposal. (Note: This is totally consistent with behavior I have experienced previously)

3. I do not support re-opening the eastbound lane on Santa Cruz Avenue between Doyle and Curtis for bicyclists and pedestrians at any time, as there is a far better alternative that would both improve bicyclist safety and preserve the vibrant existing Bistro Vida and Left Bank street dining areas.

Hillview students do need to traverse this block in the afternoon. Instead, they can be directed to walk their bikes on the sidewalk for about 120 feet along the Bistro Vida and Left Bank dining areas. Many already stop at Starbuck’s in the afternoon and hang out there. Expecting them to walk their bikes a short distance on an uncrowded sidewalk is a reasonable requirement.

Bistro Vida and Left Bank have created beautiful street dining patios that are popular at lunchtime and in the afternoons. These are tremendous examples of what can be done when business owners are willing to invest in Menlo Park, and they should be applauded not discouraged. Deciding to harming owner and employee livelihoods rather than accept a minor bicyclist inconvenience would be an extremely poor trade-off and dedication.

Finally, preserving public space in the lane west of the Bistro Vida street dining area is a good idea. It can be made more attractive and used for purposes that appeal to residents. So why is there a need to keep the section of lane between Evelyn and Crane closed when there is one on a popular block near Starbuck’s, Walgreen’s and Trader Joe’s. Opening the former improves traffic flow which benefits residents entering downtown from the west.

I believe the decision to reopen this lane to bikes and pedestrians was NOT well thought out and no final decision should have been made without first carefully considering practical alternatives. Also, it was not clear that the affected restaurant owners had been consulted by the City.

4. The Council remains too narrowly focused on Santa Cruz Avenue. The problems experienced by restaurants and other types of businesses located on side streets have neither been discussed nor addressed publicly. They only need street planters at curbs and permission to set-up winterized patios. Carpaccio, La Stanza, Café Del Sol and Shiok could all benefit as they lack adjacent street parking spaces.

5. The Council needs to appreciate that each restaurant has important opportunities and limitations that stem from its particular location. This means the city must be flexible in the manner in which it applies regulations, i.e., a one size fits all approach is too restrictive and will unnecessarily harm individual restaurants. Reasonable exceptions should NOT require Council approval; the city manager should have this authority.

6. The city SHOULD spend money on both helping individual restaurants create attractive outdoor dining patios AND marketing programs that benefit all downtown businesses. Both can draw more residents downtown, especially in the evenings. The City allocated $300, 000 to this program and had spent less than 10% as of September 8. In the past, it has spent about $35,000 on each semi-permanent outdoor dining patio individual restaurants built on Santa Cruz. Fairness would dictate that restaurants on side streets also receive financial assistance. Examples of marketing programs are listed in observation 8c. Both are worthwhile investments that would increase the chances that individual businesses will survive through this winter and next year.

6. The city has not determined what measures most residents would prefer for improving downtown. Instead, the Council shoulders the burden of making decisions based on only anecdotal information. Credible city-wide surveys could be created and performed easily and inexpensively, both now and in the future, but unfortunately these are not currently viewed as valuable.

7. The city continues to collect and rely on anecdotal information about the preferences and concerns of downtown businesses. The Chamber of Commerce should formally survey all of them regularly, e.g., at least every 6o days, either by phone or email, and report to the Council what it has learned, e.g., trends, items that deserve Council attention and its own recommendations. The Council should want this information.

8. Street closures and temporary regulations are “stop-gap” measures that PERHAPS will slow the decline of our downtown but too little attention is being given to reversing this trend. And in reality no one in the city displays any ownership for this responsibility. Instead, overall planning remains fragmented and sporadic. This is a systemic problem that will continually haunt and harm Menlo Park because no one with essential power (or influence) has the will and courage to take it on.

a. The dozen empty storefronts on Santa Cruz are a blight and not transforming their use while they are vacant is a BIG missed opportunity to improve our downtown. Unfortunately, no one seems to be addressing this problem.

b. Too little attention is given to improving the general appearance of downtown (Santa Avenue and side streets). Clean the streets, add plantings and small trees, benches and sculptures to public spaces and install beautiful holiday displays.

c. The closed eastbound lane of Santa Cruz between Evelyn and Crane will remain an eyesore. Why not make it a more appealing and welcoming space? Add amenities. Make it beautiful. And stage regular evening events, e.g., music, featured restaurant dining, wine & beer tasting; dessert tastings, BBQ’s on nights restaurants are closed.

Many cities in the US quickly embraced "street closures" in order to help struggling eating establishments. Their intentions were good. Now I expect a wave of reconsiderations as the negative impacts "sink-in". I believe there are better ways to help downtown businesses, their customers and other residents. Bad weather will arrive in Menlo Park no later than December. There should be an urgency about helping restaurants not only get ready but also to benefit from favorable weather before then. And the help should not be limited to eating establishments.

I hope the City Council acts smartly now!

=> NOTE: Read additional comments on this post at Nextdoor.

Walk Bikes Around the Bistro Vida and Left Bank Dining Areas

These restaurants on side streets need assistance.

La Stanza


Cafe Del Sol