Guest opinion: On departing, thinking about city's future


By Paul Bendix

Arriving in Menlo Park in 1981, I discovered the pleasures of a 10-minute commute to work and no more fines for parking in a San Francisco alley. My new apartment featured a lawn, a patio and, inexplicably, sun. It was hard to get used to the quiet. I imagined lying down on Linfield Avenue, broad enough for four lanes of traffic and almost carless.

Cars and suburbia were designed for each other. In Menlo Park my disabled life acquired convenience. Shopping was faster, entertainment easier. I could spontaneously go out for a meal or a movie. It was all a pleasant antidote to the pressures of working in Silicon Valley.

When I moved downtown in 1993, plate glass windows on Santa Cruz Avenue revealed an aging, slumping and stiffening person in a wheelchair. The reflections were mercilessly accurate. I was adjusting to another stage of disability. Which is why I needed those other reflections, the faces of people who got to know me in shops and restaurants. Menlo Park felt small and friendly, and I needed a place that was both.

Today, lots of people want to keep the town small and friendly provoking big and unfriendly civic battles.

For many, Menlo Park offers nightly refuge from the workplace. Silicon Valley's pressures and tumult are close, but they can seem far away. No wonder, in high-tech boom times, Menlo Park's property values keep soaring.

So do expectations. Can Menlo Park reap the benefits of proximity to high-tech companies without taking on the responsibilities?

Entrepreneurs want to grow businesses, a growth that keeps local home values high and boutiques full. How much growth do they need, and where is it supposed to take place?

Downtown Menlo Park is on the brink of inevitable transformation. Environmental pressures, now including drought, signal an end to urban sprawl. Home and workplace must be closer together, in time or space. This means denser communities and faster mass-transit commutes, but you'd never know it from talking to many in town.

So I leave Menlo Park wondering how the community will take on these challenges. Caltrain offers an enduring litmus test. The commuter line carries much of the region's professional workforce, and I'm reasonably confident it will get electrified, with the faster acceleration and performance the route demands. As for grade-separated crossings, I'm not holding my breath.

Besides, I've got plenty to worry about in my new San Francisco neighborhood. My wife can walk to work. And I can board the 35 Eureka bus for a hair-raising slalom over the lower slopes of Twin Peaks. When Muni deposits me back in my neighborhood, the real excitement begins with a wheelchair roll home down the cliff-like slopes of Glen Park. I asked for it. Now it's home.

==I Former Menlo Park resident Paul Bendix was an Almanac blogger before his move to San Francisco. You can read his archive blog columns by clicking here.


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