Menlo Park unveils plan for downtown, El Camino, train station area


Menlo Park will present a new plan for the downtown area and El Camino Real in a meeting of the Planning Commission tonight (Monday, April 12), from 7 to 9 p.m. in the City Council chambers.

By Sean Howell

Almanac Staff Writer

If planning for the distant future is the domain only of the very bold and the very foolish, which category does Menlo Park fall into?

For much of the city's history, it's been firmly in the latter, at least when it comes to land-use issues. Bright, civic-minded city leaders with only the best intentions have repeatedly underestimated the amount of acrimony that can result from just a few innocuous architect's sketches, and longtime residents have watched as one downtown planning effort after another foundered over the past 40 years, sunk by the very idealism that launched them.

It's with this history in mind that the city unveils its latest plan for the city center. The plan re-imagines the city's core, establishing a framework for an overhaul of the downtown parking plazas, an infusion of mixed-use commercial and residential development along El Camino Real, and a careful system of walkways, plazas and parks to lead people between the train station, the Civic Center, and downtown shops.

The ideal that guided it is similar to what previous planners had in mind: a welcoming, tree-slung haven, easy to traverse a pied, that would incubate a sense of community.

This time around, however, city officials have heeded the wrecked hulls of their forebears: proceeding with an abundance of caution and humility, laying out proposals in exacting detail and practically begging community members to look over their shoulders as they do so.

Not everyone will be happy with what they see in this new round of sketches, diagrams and maps. Some will find cause for outrage. But city officials are confident they have arrived at the foundation of a proposal that can weather the lashing it will surely receive in a bevy of public meetings over the next six months, before it comes to the City Council for final approval in the fall.

Whether the changes outlined in the plan actually come to pass over the next 30 years will be in large part up to landowners, and future generations of residents and city leaders. But just presenting the plan to the council in a public meeting would be a significant achievement: no previous plan for the city center has made it that far.

Changing the look, feel of downtown

Under the plans, downtown Menlo Park would have a new center: a plaza between Crane and Chestnut streets designed for outdoor dining and cavorting, and specially engineered to accommodate block parties and other gatherings. Sidewalks would be widened, trees planted, special paving installed. Removable bollards would replace curbs to create a flat, even surface from buildings on the south side of the street to those on the north side, without the usual slope from one edge to the other.

From there, people could make their way down a car-free paseo on a section of Chestnut Street to the south, leading to a small covered marketplace near Trader Joe's.

The most significant -- and probably most controversial -- overhaul would come in the eight downtown parking plazas, some of which would be replaced in part or in full by garages (one story underground, four stories above) and mixed-use buildings. The idea is to increase parking supply by several hundred spaces, and to make existing parking plazas more inviting, according to Arlinda Heineck, director of community development.

Two parking structures would bookend the downtown: one behind the building that houses Cheeky Monkey Toys, and another off University Drive, on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue. Part of that plaza would be turned into a pocket park, and the garage could be reduced in height and topped by housing.

The parking plaza bordered by Oak Grove Avenue, Crane Street and Chestnut Street on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue would be entirely given over to mixed-use development (such as retail and housing) and another pocket park. Mixed-use buildings would also be allowed to encroach upon about a third of the parking plaza in front of Draeger's, and about a third of the parking lot behind the building that houses Fleet Feet and Posh Bagel.

The parking plaza in front of Trader Joe's would be revamped with new paving, fixtures and landscaping to create a welcoming area. The idea is to make a "special home" for the farmers' market, with the space available for other uses as well, such as outdoor movie nights or school fundraisers, according to Ms. Heineck and Thomas Rogers, the lead city planner on the project.

Widened sidewalks on Santa Cruz Avenue and a bike lane on Oak Grove Avenue would eliminate some on-street parking.

Development in the entire downtown area would be allowed to reach 38 feet -- 8 feet higher than the current limit -- with zoning that would accommodate mixed-use retail and housing, and a boutique hotel.

Recasting El Camino

The impetus for drawing up the plan came in large part from confusion and acrimony over how the city would allow landowners to redevelop disused properties along El Camino Real, so it's fitting that the plan envisions a totally revamped thoroughfare.

Zoning guidelines would encourage tall mixed-use buildings, with an emphasis on retail and housing, on both sides of the street outside downtown Menlo Park and near the train station. Moving from the downtown area out along El Camino Real in both directions, zoning would transition from allowing mixed-use buildings with a focus on residential to general mixed-use. Housing would cluster around the downtown and station areas to create more of a sense of "vibrancy" in the city's core, and to encourage people to use public transit.

Buildings could reach 60 feet high (up to five stories) between Oak Grove and Menlo avenues on both sides of El Camino Real, and on Stanford-owned land along the east side of the thoroughfare, from Ravenswood Avenue south to San Francisquito Creek. Those buildings would be broken up by frequent stretches of open space, including major gaps open to the public at Middle and Cambridge avenues. They would have to be set back from the street by at least 15 feet, and in some cases more, opening up a generous sidewalk -- a major improvement from current conditions, where the sidewalk is often occluded by poles and other impediments, and sometimes vanishes altogether.

Strict architectural guidelines would require varied building massing, with upper stories stepped back from the facade. The regulations would prevent a sort of contiguous, imposing wall from forming along El Camino in both the vertical and horizontal directions, according to city planners.

North of Oak Grove Avenue on both sides of the street, and below Menlo Avenue on the west side of the street, building height would be capped at 38 feet (two to three stories) -- 3 feet higher than currently allowed. Those buildings would have to be set back significantly from residential neighborhoods, so as not to tower over them.

The new rules would for the first time establish clear guidelines for development, including uniform energy efficiency standards. Developers who want to build larger buildings would be required to fund public benefits, which could in part pay for some of the capital improvements outlined in the plan.

New focus on station area

The area around the train station could be viewed as the centerpiece of the new plan: a conduit to both the downtown area, and the Civic Center.

The plan envisions the train station as the locus for a new community of apartment and condominium dwellers. Mixed-use buildings as high as 60 feet could spring up along the east side of Alma Street, swaths of open space between them. The plans also identify the parking lot by the station as a possible location for development, with a parking garage underneath.

A system of widened, repaved sidewalks and crosswalks would invite people to walk from the train station to Santa Cruz Avenue or the Civic Center, with space cleared for a small plaza at the corner of Ravenswood Avenue and Alma Street, by the library.

A grassy plaza in the intersection of Merrill Street and Santa Cruz Avenue would anchor the area.

The plan is flexible enough that the California high-speed rail project would not disrupt its "overall intent," according to city planner Thomas Rogers.

Getting around the city center

The plan includes a new vision of the way people would get around the city center, with walkways and signage guiding them from place to place.

Wide, specially paved pathways would direct people from the train station down Alma Street to the Civic Center, and to the downtown area.

Three El Camino Real intersections, at Menlo, Santa Cruz, and Oak Grove avenues, would see sidewalk bulb-outs that would bring opposite sides of the street closer together, with timed walking signs, crosswalks with different paving, and possibly median islands for people who find themselves caught in the middle of the street as the lights change.

A wide sidewalk would emerge over time on El Camino Real, and sidewalks along Santa Cruz Avenue would also expand into the street (though the medians would remain).

Pathways behind parking plazas would be improved, directing people to main streets. Parking structures would open out onto main streets, rather than alleys, with widened sidewalks funneling people to Santa Cruz Avenue.

The plan also borrows from the city's bicycle plan in laying out a number of bike routes and one bike lane, on Oak Grove Avenue.

While there had been some discussion in community workshops of changing the lane configuration on El Camino Real, there wasn't a consensus to do so, according to city planner Thomas Rogers, though some right-hand-turn lanes might be removed to accommodate wider sidewalks at intersections.

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Like this comment
Posted by Ol' HomeBoy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 7, 2010 at 8:40 am

Are you friggin' kiddin' me? The unveiling of the new plan for downtown Menlo Park is a joke.
First, the concept suggests choking-off Santa Cruz Ave. with a Central Plaza, to provide "outdoor dining and cavorting". So, let me get this straight. We cut-off the main artery through Menlo Park for several months of outdoor enjoyment? How is the traffic suppose to flow? What streets now become the main N/S arteries? I mean, this makes the insanity of the infamous Santa Cruz Ave. traffic islands that were installed at great expense (and then removed at greater expense) several years ago, seem harmless.
Second, while we're on the subject of further screwing-up traffic flow in M.P., to not address Menlo's El Camino Real bottleneck in this plan is ludicrous. The vague description of Retail, Mixed-use/Residential along El Camino's corridor will only increase traffic along the corridor, further congesting and slowing traffic in all directions.
The conceptual sketches are nothing more than pretty smoke screens of a plan that is not well thought out at all. This plan and renderings show boxes, trees and streets, with no regard for light planes or shade created by suggested new 4 - 5 story buildings. And I've got news for Perkins + Will and the planning commission, the popularity and vibrancy enjoyed by Cafe Barrone isn't its food or lattes, it's the unobstructed, Southern exposure, sunny location. If you want people to gather outside, you need warmth. Heck, the Native Americans knew that.
I could continue my rant, but there's really no substance in this plan to waste any more of my time to comment. Oh wait, maybe there is. Did they run out of ink before they could draw in the train tracks?

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 7, 2010 at 9:26 am

And let the obstruction begin! You stopped it three times in the past, you gotta believe you can do it one more time, right?


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Posted by Sean Howell
Almanac staff writer
on Apr 7, 2010 at 11:37 am

Sean Howell is a registered user.

The central plaza would *not* be closed to traffic, except for special events. Most days of the year, the dining and cavorting would take place on the widened sidewalks, rather than in the middle of the street.

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Posted by Gunther Steinberg
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Apr 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm

In the 46 years I have lived i the area, Menlo Park has destroyed and replanted the trees along Santa Cruz at least three times. Then there was this really stupid idea of islands sticking into Santa Cruz,installed and removed at significant cost.

This idea sounds like another boondongle, converting Menlo Park into a version of a "big city"., which would totally destroy the commercial activities for some period, choking traffic E to W, adding to the choke points along El Camino. - If the City has money to spend on blue sky dreaming, it should use it to alleviate the shortfalls in the budget and infrastructure. Spending other people's money is always great fun. A Realty Check is never ppopular.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm

You mean all that commercial activity on el camino? Gunther, you have a nice town. Have at it. We'll have at ours.

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Posted by Ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 7, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Well, I guess I read the rendering of Santa Cruz Ave. incorrectly. The Central Plaza shows trees in the center of Santa Cruz Ave. before and after the proposed plaza, then trees on both sides of the plaza with no arrow traffic directionals (as shown on other downtown cross streets).
My bad. Let's start spending money the city doesn't have to make this dream come true. Unfortunately, at age 58, I'll never see this come to fruition because the downtown property owners will never spend their money for this kind of Menlo make-over. Most of the downtown buildings look exactly as they did when I was ten years-old — except they had customers then.

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Posted by Ankle Deep In It
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

They need to hire a consultant to tell them if they should hire a consultant.

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Posted by Annabelle
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 7, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Who is paying for this?
If you have money to throw away on cosmetic projects like this, give it to the schools who desperately need it.
We never learn from our past mistakes . . . never.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 7, 2010 at 3:17 pm

wow. there you have it folks. don't do anything to change anything and don't spend money and never hire consultants and learn from the past...the past...the old days...when things were so much better.

Never try to change. Change is bad.

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Posted by Neutral
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 7, 2010 at 10:04 pm

It's o.k. not to like something, in which case I say if you have an idea, by all means share it, otherwise I agree with some of the posters we need to be open to change. One idea I have is taking a portion of the revenue that would be generated and putting it towards our local schools. Just my thoughts.

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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I went to the 1st presentation tonight in the Presbyterian meeting room behind the hardware store. Approximately 75 people were there to hear one of the city planners, Tom Rogers, present the draft plan for the downtown, train station, and El Camino corridor. The presentation was quite detailed and went on for nearly an hour. After, a number of city staff were present to answer questions and they stayed another 20 minutes doing just that.
There will be two more meetings where the plan will be presented and I recommend those of you on this blog attend one or both so that you'll have the facts about what is being proposed. They also have a number of copies of the plan to hand out - one per attendee.
The plan is very detailed and quite impressive - around 150 pages - well organized and well written. Detailed color maps showing trees, circulation, building profiles, etc. give a good overview of what is planned for the different areas. To visually explain what is imagined for specific areas, such as the downtown marketplace, they include photos taken from cities across the country that have successfully implemented many of these ideas.
I hope I live long enough to see some of these ideas realized.

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Posted by jon
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 8, 2010 at 9:24 am

they should just demolish downtown and build a freeway on it or something

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Posted by margaret
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 11, 2010 at 9:32 am

Let me guess - the no-change crowd probably ignored all the notices and meetings regarding this project, per usual.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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