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April 21, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

EDITORIAL:Downtown needs to stick to retail EDITORIAL:Downtown needs to stick to retail (April 21, 2004)

The members of the Menlo Park City Council will face a tough question May 11 when they are tentatively scheduled to decide whether to permit a local church to take over some 5,000 square feet of prime retail space in the heart of the Santa Cruz Avenue shopping district.

And while the project is hardly a Walmart coming to town, the Chamber of Commerce is rightfully opposed to converting what most residents remember as the former Menlo Park Hardware store to meeting rooms for youth and young-adult groups sponsored by the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The church's first idea was to open a Christian bookstore in the 8,255-square-foot space that most recently was occupied by an IMG home store, but church leaders abandoned the idea when residents said they wanted a hardware store back.

Now the church is offering to sublease just over a third of the space to an Ace Hardware store, while reserving about two-thirds for meetings, which would be held two or three times a week. Opponents are concerned about traffic, parking and loitering that might result from a large influx of teens and young adults into the downtown.

The arrangement won slim approval last month from the Planning Commission on a 3-2-1 vote, with one member absent. But City Council member Paul Collacchi quickly filed an appeal of the decision, so the issue is tentatively set to come before the City Council on May 11.

The question is particularly difficult due to the involvement of the church, which is one of the largest and most respected institutions in the community. Established about 130 years ago, it serves more than 5,000 members at its huge Santa Cruz Avenue campus on the edge of the downtown shopping district. The council also will be torn by the church's hardware store "sweetener," which will appeal to the many city residents who are tired of driving to nearby communities for the small items they need to complete home projects.

There is no easy answer, but the City Council needs to take a stand in favor of protecting the retail character of Menlo Park's downtown. One of the charms of Menlo Park and similar communities is their vibrant downtowns, which feature a wide variety of small- and medium-sized shops and restaurants.

It is this delicate mix of locally owned retail, service businesses, restaurants and parking that makes the downtown an interesting destination for residents and shoppers from other communities. And it is the revenue from these shops that generates much of the sales tax collected by local government.

An 8,000-square-foot site easily has the capacity to house a magnet business that will attract shoppers to downtown Menlo Park. Under the church's plan, nearly two-thirds of the site will be dormant on most shopping days. And with only 3,000 square feet, and no customer access to the back parking lot, a modest hardware store will hardly make up for the loss of the full-sized Menlo Park Hardware, which left the location about 21/2 years ago due to a rent increase. This proposal might make more sense if the space allocation was reversed, with 5,000 square feet allotted to the hardware store, and 3,000 to the church's meeting rooms.

Given the recent meltdown in the city's sales tax collections, the council needs to take every opportunity to bolster these revenues, now and in the future. Even the church's offer of $16,510 a year, the estimated amount the site would have generated in sales tax revenue if used solely for retail (such revenue from the hardware store would be subtracted from the payment), cannot make up for the business that likely will be lost by the surrounding merchants, who would stand to gain from a vibrant retail tenant.

Surely the church can accommodate its youth and young-adult groups on its own campus or at other nearby locations. Public and private school classrooms are often available evenings and would be much more suitable for this use than prime retail space.

By opening up downtown to non-retail use the city risks setting a precedent that could lead to further deterioration of the tax base that pays the bills for a large part of the city's services. The council should stand firmly behind retail use downtown.

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