Menlo Park is notorious for conducting endless studies of the same issues: Traffic. Downtown parking. Traffic. Downtown vibrancy. Some residents hope to break that cycle and move forward with actual change.
Dana Hendrickson, coordinator of what he has dubbed "Re-Imagine Menlo Park," said he's hoping to capture the momentum raised during the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan debate in 2014 to revitalize the city's downtown district.
"People have said, 'I'm tired of all this voting stuff, what can I do? How do we do this? When do we see stuff?'" Mr. Hendrickson said.
While implementing the specific plan and other bureaucratic processes are underway, and developers Greenheart and Stanford are planning mixed-use complexes along El Camino Real, he said he didn't see any central coordination between all the different pieces.
"How do we work with the city so they view this as being supportive and not out of sync with what they're trying to do?" he asked.
The 'how' remains a question in search of an answer for the time being, although he hopes within the next three months to have a formal structure, perhaps a different name, and a way for people to see how they can help out.
So what does this ideal re-imagined downtown look like? It has a focal point, for starters, something that gives the area an identity. "Some sort of beautiful spot that says visually and aesthetically, 'this is downtown,'" Mr. Hendrickson said.
Also: More parking. One idea the group is kicking around is combining the two goals: Build the parking spaces underground, and above ground, create a park with trees, fountains, seating. "It would solve the parking problem and create a hub, an identity. Something to be proud of."
Mayor Cat Carlton said she's excited to get input from the community, perhaps via an advisory board. "Whether informal and resident-led, or whether the city runs it, I don't know at this point," she said. "Regardless, I want to make sure that we are listening to people. It benefits everyone to have good, open, honest conversation. What that animal looks like, I can't tell you right now."
Downtown has already seen some revitalization, with the Off the Grid weekly food truck event, the temporary paseo for movie screenings, and expanded outdoor dining.
Ms. Carlton seconded improving parking downtown as a logical next step. At a recent convention of mayors, which she said she paid out of pocket to attend, there was much talk of building underground parking structures with parks on top.
"I'm sure it's going to be controversial, but I'm really looking forward to talking about it," she said. "The (Menlo Park Presbyterian Church) has offered to help pay. We could put in electric car chargers, and have places for downtown employees to park and a permit program."
While that's a longer-term project, there are also fixes that could be made in the immediate future such as changing the default parking lot time limit to three hours instead of two.
"Two hours is just not enough time to go do what you need to do downtown and shop," Ms. Carlton said. "We want people to have enough time. We do it over Christmas and the world doesn't end. If you're going to have a problem you're going to have it over Christmas, right? So we've had our test run."
Other changes, well, those are harder to sort out. While the city would love to see "cooler, better stores" downtown it's "a chicken-and-egg problem. They want more foot traffic, and we're not going to get the foot traffic until we get cool stores."
There's also the delicate issue of how to work with the family trusts that own many downtown buildings and who aren't interested in selling or in change, according to the mayor. Part of that work entails making it easier for the owners to fix up their properties by taking steps such as revising the fire code, and by hashing out the city's economic development plan.
"Someone had the bright idea in the 1970s that wouldn't it be awesome if MP was the town for home decor and they actually worked on that. That was their goal!" Ms. Carlton said. "How many times, honestly, can you re-do your house? That doesn't make for an exciting downtown for the people who live here. I love the (furniture) stores that we have, but we have enough. We're full. That's why we're working on the economic development plan."
Go to mpcdforum.com to see the "Re-Imagine Menlo Park" website.