No last call yet for Menlo Park's downtown specific plan

Council extends review timetable

It was, perhaps, an optimistic schedule -- three meetings to evaluate the draft downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, then on to other business. And indeed, the Menlo Park City Council found that three meetings weren't nearly enough during what was to be the final discussion on Tuesday (Sept. 20).

The plan aims to describe the types of new development and building dimensions allowed downtown and along El Camino Real for the next 30 years. Given the complexity, the plan will grace the agenda during October and possibly even November so that the council can hone its vision, continuing to build on the work carried out this summer by the Planning Commission.

Many of the 22 people who addressed the council during public comment, including educator Chuck Bernstein and former Planning Commissioner Patti Fry, seemed to agree there was a lot left to discuss.

Bike lanes

That is not to say, however, that nothing was accomplished at the Sept. 20 meeting as it stretched past midnight. At least a dozen bicycle and pedestrian advocates appeared delighted by the outcome of the council's decision to accept many of the nine suggestions made by the Bicycle Commission, in particular, concentrating on bike lanes rather than bike routes through downtown and El Camino Real.

Adina Levin, founder of the Drive Less Challenge, told the council she was excited to see bike parking stuffed full outside council chambers. During a presentation co-authored by Andrew Boone, she laid out a way to add 13 miles of bike lanes on eight streets, compared with the specific plan's one mile on two streets, through strategies such as restricting street parking between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and adding shared lane markings called "sharrows."

She asked the council to reconsider the specific plan's goal of widening El Camino Real to six lanes. "One of the real risks with transit-oriented development is if transit-oriented development is in little pockets separated by wide car avenues, then people wind up getting in their car to cross the street and you don't get the benefit of vibrancy, the benefit of a walkable, ride-able community," she said.

However, the council opted to keep the six-lane option open, while city staff said that implementing any changes would require a full public review. "Just to make it clear that it's not a done deal," said Associate Planner Thomas Rogers.

Bulb-outs also remain controversial. The Planning Commission recommended removing sidewalk extensions, which provide safe havens for pedestrians attempting to cross a street, from the specific plan to avoid interfering with bike and bus lanes. The council agreed, but advocates argue that the law requires bulb-outs to be installed in a way that doesn't interfere.

The council expects to continue its specific plan review on Tuesday, Oct. 4, with a focus on how to incorporate public benefits from new development, fire district concerns, and El Camino Real.

Click here to review the draft specific plan and associated reports.

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Posted by Adina Levin
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 22, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Thanks to City Council, the Bicycle Commission, and all the citizens who turned out to advocate for better bike and pedestrian access in the Downtown Specific Plan. Especially to the 8 kids who wrote letters to Council encouraging them to make the streets safer for walking and biking.

To the best of my understanding, the Plan does not actively call for El Camino to be widened to six lanes. Instead, the City Council wanted to preserve the option for the future. That said, expanding El Camino to six lanes of traffic is one of the worse things the city could to maintain a small-town feel as development is added on El Camino Real and the Station area.

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Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Sep 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm

It's important to understand that El Camino is already 3 lanes wide each way, but cars are parked in the right lane on downtown blocks, mainly on the west side. The planning commission realized that the curbs should remain where they are, not narrowed at the intersections ("bulb outs"), to leave the option of future continuous bike lanes, rush hour no-parking turn lanes and other options. Council agreed with this.

Henry Riggs
member, planning commission

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Posted by Andrew Boone
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs,

El Camino Real is only two vehicle lanes in each direction through most of downtown Menlo Park (Live Oaks Ave to Valparaiso Ave), and it is going to stay that way. Widening El Camino to a 6-lane highway is totally unrealistic non-option for the following reasons:

1. If a 6-lane El Camino is every seriously proposed (which I doubt), there will be a firestorm of opposition by residents and non-profits such as the Sierra Club and Transform who believe that El Camino is already unsafe enough as it is.

2. Caltrans, which controls El Camino Real, has a Complete Streets Policy that states that it "views all transportation improvements as opportunities to improve safety, access, and mobility for all travelers in California and recognizes bicycle, pedestrian, and transit modes as integral elements of the transportation system." Because a 6-lane El Camino would reduce safety for all travelers (bicycle, pedestrian, transit, and motorists) they will oppose it.

Another bad option that the council is preserving by removing curb extensions from the Downtown Plan include preserving currently under-utilized right-turn-only lanes. The four right-turn-only lanes proposed for removal serves fewer than 100 vehicles during peak commuter hours and are often inaccessible anyway due to vehicles waiting at red lights in the though lanes.

And finally, curb extensions do not conflict with bike lanes and are not permitted to do so according to federal design standards. Here is a photo of a bike lane next to a curb extension, and the two are not in conflict: Web Link

Yes, you are correct on one point - the City Council has agreed to accept the Planning Commission's bad recommendation to remove curb extensions from the Downtown Plan. This recommendation will continue to put residents at risk of traffic injuries in downtown, such as this one that occurred yesterday to a 14-yr old girl crossing the street: Web Link

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Posted by Matt Bryant
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 25, 2011 at 11:28 am


First I would like to say that I appreciate any public discussion of this plan and the chance to debate its details. Thanks to all who have been facilitating a healthy discussion of this long term plan.

I wholly support curb extensions, and I am resolutely opposed to any lane additions to El Camino Real. As for the possible future lane additions, I have lived in and frequented other cities that had six lanes (or more!) of traffic in a pedestrian neighborhood. As a pedestrian or cyclist in these areas, quite frankly it makes you feel as though you are trying to cross a freeway, and the crosswalk timer for these intersection is never long enough!

Beyond just safety issues, major multi-lane thoroughfares in neighborhoods and small downtown areas like Menlo Park create the look and feel of a huge negative space within the community, making one section seem as if it is completely cut off or inaccessible from the other. This effect has been well documented in urban planning and architectural theory - the results of how freeways intersecting neighborhoods severs their sense of continuity, history, cultural connection, and sense of place. Increasing lanes also sends the clear message that cars are a higher priority than pedestrians and cyclists.

Although El Camino Real is not technically a freeway, I believe that the widening effect will be the same. I live close enough to El Camino that I can see it (and the traffic). I have to say that already it feels like a blight to my neighborhood, and it always feels stressful to cross it just to walk downtown to shop or to get my groceries. Although I know the trains add to this, the constant flow of traffic is noisy already, and no doubt contribute to a high level of exhaust fumes in the air.

As for the curb bulb-outs, one of the most positive results that I have personally experienced from the existence of curb extensions is a large increase in visibility for drivers, pedestrians and bikers. Too often vehicles that are parked close to intersections (even with the red no-parking zone paint on curbs) end up blocking the site lines between drivers and pedestrians or cyclists, especially when larger vehicles are parked in the end spot. Curb extensions definitely help with visibility issues, not to mention all of the other issues that have been discussed.

Just for the record, I would like to say that since moving to Menlo Park in May 2010, as a pedestrian I have come extremely close to being run over by cars at intersections in the downtown area. And I mean really close. The most recent was my wife and I trying to cross Alma at Ravenswood - that incredibly wide section you have to cross going toward downtown on Ravenswood right before the train tracks. There are not even any pedestrian cross walk lines there! People turning off of Ravenswood fly through this intersection, and that night my wife and I were practically ran over by a guy who never even slowed down or stopped. My near miss experiences in Menlo Park are way more than I have experienced in any other city in that amount of time, including having lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Houston. My point is that I believe the situation is already dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, and the future downtown plan should seriously consider any measures that can be taken to not only ensure the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, but to also make drivers more aware of their own driving behavior and to help make it clear they are not the priority and that we all must share the spaces in which we live, work, and play.

Thank you for your time and ear.

-Matt Bryant
Menlo Park

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Posted by Patti Fry
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I am thankful the Council is taking extra time to consider the complexities and potential consequences of the draft Specific Plan. Many of its details were never discussed in the community Workshops: the project approval process, potential size of buildings (only height), guidelines, nature of parking plazas, parking requirements, the mix of uses allowed “by right”, a new Base level of development that doesn’t require an exchange of Public Benefit. Now is the time to dig into such details, and test them for reasonableness and for potential unintended consequences.
Most people think they know what the Vision meant – goodbye to weedy El Camino lots, hello to more senior housing and a more lively Downtown.
But the Plan makes many other changes. As proposed, the Plan creates more jobs than housing, adding commuters and increasing – not reducing - the current jobs/housing imbalance. It shuts out the voice of neighborhoods and local businesses by eliminating the current public review process for uses that might affect them (e.g., food and beverage sales, medical office, take-out restaurants, dense housing) while allowing significantly larger structures and requiring less parking.
It allows 5 story office buildings with 10 foot setbacks. It removes 35 parking spaces from behind Trader Joe’s and 32 from the Farmers Market lot. It is expected to result in less retail/restaurant on El Camino. Over half of the new development is expected to be offices (one reason the Plan will increase - not decrease - Menlo Park’s greenhouse gas emissions.) The consultants conclude at least one hotel is required for the Plan’s financial viability.
I urge the Council to continue its careful review and modifications. They’re just getting into the issues that will make the difference between the Plan fulfilling the Vision of a well-connected, vibrant small town and the possibility of over-developed grid-locked urbanization that benefits private developers at the cost of our residential community.

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Posted by Lessons of 2010
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2011 at 8:31 am

It amazes me how little Patti and the naysayers learned from from the 2010 elections. With Measure T (Menlo Gateway) and Chuck Bernstein's Council run, you had perhaps the clearest possible measurements for how Menlo Park feels about development, and what happened? Measure T passes with 64.5% of the vote, and Chuck avoids last place only because Russ Peterson forgot to withdraw his papers at the last minute. Now we're getting a repeat of their losing messages? The Council knows better, just like the Planning Commission.

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Posted by Lessons of 2011
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 3, 2011 at 9:15 am

What the elections of 2010 told us was that Menlo Park voters can be deceived by copious amounts of money spent on advertising. Measure T and Chuck Bernstein have nothing to do with the downtown/El Camino Plan!

I feel grateful to Patti Fry for doing the work that the city staff and consultants somehow seem unable to contemplate. I am glad her work has gotten the attention of the council and planning commission. Unless you are a developer itching to make money from a poorly developed plan, you should be happy that the council and planning commission are proceeding so carefully and thoughtfully.

Keep in mind that the residents have said, time and again, that they want to preserve the village character of Menlo Park. That is the #1 priority. The plan, in its current sloppy and unfinished form, will not serve that goal, but will instead result in less retail, more crowding, fewer restaurants, increased traffic. That is not what most residents (sans developers) want, and if the council and planning commission have to schedule a few extra meetings to fix those problems, that is time well spent.

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