Guest opinion: A call for new models to improve the downtown, make staff more accountable


By Lynne Bramlett

Sloane Citron's recent guest opinion on the state of the Menlo Park downtown raised many important points. Some comments:

Neighboring cities are actively working to revitalize their downtowns. For example, the Burlingame Downtown Business Improvement District initiative shows an inviting and creative approach. There are other local examples.

Reconsidering the role of the Chamber of Commerce would also help. I always thought a city's Chamber of Commerce focused on supporting small business owners. So I was surprised to see local "titans of industry" serving on the Menlo Park Chamber's board. These include the vice president of development at Facebook, a senior Facebook lawyer, and David Bohannon II. A former Menlo Park city manager also serves. Instead, I would prefer a focus on helping the small business owners and in revitalizing our commercial corridors.

Citron's column suggested "putting a can-do person in charge unleashed from the paralyzing Menlo Park bureaucracy." Unfortunately, staff can hinder, delay or halt council directives they disagree with, and I've personally witnessed blatant obstructionism. I'm not the only person to believe that staff runs Menlo Park although the council tries to lead. We need a healthier balance of power in our city.

To begin, we need more transparency into the staff organization and how it functions. This is shrouded in too much mystery. Some have suggested an overall performance/efficiency audit of the staff organization. Finding this kind of consultant may be difficult. Instead, the council could institute the role of city auditor, reporting directly to the council to promote honest, efficient, effective and fully accountable city government. The city auditor in Palo Alto works from an annual council-approved work plan, with the findings going directly to the council. Let's add this role in Menlo Park without needing to go to the ballot box.

The true size of the Menlo Park staff organization is also unclear when one considers the number of temporary employees, contractors, consultants, outsourced operations and "public-private partnerships." Our staff organization is also considered large for a city our size.

The biggest portion of the city's annual operating budget goes to pay for the staff organization. Development, especially the annual amounts coming in via development agreements, generates significant revenue. A smaller staff organization would reduce the need for development revenue, and perhaps reduce the staff's perceived focus of serving developers over residents.

The council also needs final approval power over the city manager's ability to hire direct reports. Recent senior hires have come from promotions and appointments. Instead, let's institute a more open hiring process designed to foster diversity and fresh ideas.

The city satisfaction surveys also need to include benchmarking information, to allow Menlo Park to objectively place its staff organizational performance into context. The National Research Council's community survey is considered the "gold standard" for city satisfaction surveys. This firm conducted Menlo Park's surveys in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

Longer-term, the city needs a community-led strategic plan that would sit above all other city plans. Instead of horizontal planning, we have many master "vertical" plans, such as the Transportation Master Plan and Parks and Recreation Master Plan, or development-focused plans (i.e. ConnectMenlo). These are not strategic plans. Forward-looking municipalities in the U.S. and abroad consider strategic plans a best practice.

Meanwhile, we could start by hearing the formal plans from the two City Council subcommittees working on plans designed to fix problems aired at the June development moratorium discussion.

I suspect the silence is partly because actual plans would require at least a tacit admission that ConnectMenlo was misrepresented as an authentic update to the city's General Plan Land Use and Circulation elements. Its benefits to residents were overstated and it lacked accountability. Current staff may also not know how to solve the problems, so outsiders may be needed along with allowing residents to help.

It's time to admit error, to learn from our mistakes and to re-do this process. The time cannot come soon enough.

Lynne Bramlett is a former Menlo Park library commissioner and a longtime resident of the community.

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12 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 6, 2019 at 1:29 pm

After reading this article it seems that nothing will be done to improve the down town area. If the city staff first needs to be analyzed and restructured for anything to happen, nothing will ever happen.

In the very least, Menlo Park, please do something about the downtown sidewalks. At least just rip out the loose bricks that poke out and replace them with cement. I tripped over one of those loose bricks the other day and almost fell over.

Next, rip out the median divide and trees in the center of the street. The trees in the middle of the street do nothing but make the street darker at night and also prevent decent parades. The trees can be replanted near the sidewalks. It would open up the street and not make it so dark and spooky at night. And speaking of dark and spooky, install some modern street lamps. The current ones are too dim.

Los Altos, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo and Burlingame all have vibrant downtowns. If they can do it, what's holding back Menlo Park? No excuses.

12 people like this
Posted by TomS
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 6, 2019 at 2:26 pm

It appears downtown Los Gatos is currently testing out changing their main drag into a one way, turning a portion of the street into a pedestrian zone. Given north bound El Camino traffic already can’t turn left onto Santa Cruz why not try testing out a one-way traffic pattern? Then those mature median trees will become street trees and residents and businesses could get a feel for how reduced vehicle traffic would effect downtown. Los Gato’s one way project looks quite temporary / trial basis, I assume the same could be done in Menlo Park.

8 people like this
Posted by charles reilly
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2019 at 6:46 am

Gone are the days when city's make all their plans around cars and parking. Please consider leaving your Mercedes at home and take a walk downtown. A number of towns on the Peninsula are providing municipal, perimeter parking around the downtown areas. You have to walk a block or two to your favorite restaurant.

14 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2019 at 12:13 pm

This is what happens when you have an unaccountable, bloated bureaucracy running things. Yet amazingly, many of the same people who are complaining about this in our little town of Menlo Park will continue to vote into office, at the state and federal level, politicians who want to continue to grow the reach and power of government bureaucracy to almost all facets of our lives. If bureaucracy is hard to keep accountable at the scale of Menlo Park, then just imagine how it is at the state or federal level.

14 people like this
Posted by Ed R
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Speaking of a vibrant and inviting downtown, why is it that we can't seem to do something about Santa Cruz, our main commercial street? It's really embarrassing. Rooted in the 1950's, with East Berlin brick bunkers for outdoor dining. Whose brilliant idea was that?? Really?? What happened to good pedestrian friendly civic design? Why can't we make this area inviting to walk, dine, and shop. There are plenty of good examples in neighboring communities.

We can do so much better. Clearly I'm not the only one who would like to see this change. Hello, is someone at City Hall listening?

8 people like this
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2019 at 2:59 pm

@ charles reilly

<<Please consider leaving your Mercedes at home and take a walk downtown. >> and
<<You have to walk a block or two to your favorite restaurant.>>

My family likes to occasionally include grandparents at restaurant dinners, some of whom can't walk a block or two.
Are we supposed to double park between ugly bump-out dining spaces and the center median, blocking all cars behind us? It's hard enough to drive on Santa Cruz & avoid the bikes, skateboards, in-line skaters, and jaywalkers hidden by the center median shrubbery.

3 people like this
Posted by TomS
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 7, 2019 at 4:39 pm

The reality is it will always be difficult to park both legal (and illegally) directly in front of any establishment in a healthy downtown area. This is true anywhere. A decent amount of the restaurants on Santa Cruz have rear entrances facing the numerous parking lots surrounding the perimeter of the downtown core making Menlo Park's downtown one of the more accessible downtown areas for the less able-bodied. Further expanding designated parking spaces adjacent to such entry points seems like something the city would be receptive to adding if they don't already exist.

8 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2019 at 8:24 pm

George Fisher is a registered user.

Excellent commentary. Definitely worth Council and community consideration.

5 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 8, 2019 at 5:48 am

@Downtowner, for the grandparents, you do what everybody does in non-dead downtowns - drop the grandparents off at the door and then park, and fetch the car when you leave. Or consider an Uber/Lyft right to the door, then you can have a few drinks and not worry about driving everybody home.

From the original article POV, if we're making downtown staff accountable, what kpis will they be accountable for? Foot traffic, sales, vacancy rates, restaurant selection, retail options, pedestrian safety?

2 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2019 at 6:57 am

pearl is a registered user.

@MP Resident:

"From the original article POV, if we're making downtown staff accountable, what kpis will they be accountable for?"

What does "kpis" mean?

2 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 8, 2019 at 7:16 am

@pearl KPIs are Key Performance Indicators - metrics and other hard data, as well as soft data like survey results (useful but too easy to game)

3 people like this
Posted by danahendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2019 at 1:53 pm

TomS: your idea of making downtown Santa Cruz a one-way street and recovering space for other uses is worthy of consideration. On-street parking spaces would be lost on one side but the city already plans to increase the number of short-term spaces in the plazas.

1 person likes this
Posted by TomS
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 8, 2019 at 4:10 pm

As long as the space repurposed as pedestrian/park/multi use area is better implemented than the recently failed park-let concept adjacent Starbucks I think it could make for a more interesting downtown. There might have to be some sort of public/private partnership with adjacent tenants as in incentive to keep the recaptures spaces clean and appealing. There might even be enough recaptured space to add in some small cafe kiosks with seating, etc. Something similar in scale to the Ritual Roasters in Hayes Valley (SF) that's in a repurposed shipping container, or even the new St. Frank Coffee on Alma (though with more seating!). Piaggio Ape's repurposed as food carts seem to be popular in Europe, something like this with adjacent seating could be interesting and probably easy to implement on a temporary bias.

Not sure if it's feasible but the one way traffic might be able to switch sides at some of the junctions between University and El Camino. That way it isn't so bias towards tenants on one side. It'd also further discourage speeding.

Here's info on Los Gato's one-way experiment:
Web Link

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Posted by TomS
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 8, 2019 at 4:14 pm

I should probably clarify, I don't think we should be adding shipping containers converted to cafes to our downtown, I more just meant the size (IE not large, kiosk types).

3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 8, 2019 at 8:48 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

Close Santa Cruz in both directions and make it a mall like the Pearl St. mall in Boulder, CO. There's not that much parking on SC ave anyway and as someone noted most of the businesses have entrances opening onto the parking lots. Build a garage and along with a Santa Cruz Ave. Mall you'll develop a place worth visiting.

9 people like this
Posted by Pot Meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 9, 2019 at 1:32 pm

I agree with Ms. Bramlett's sentiment, though not necessarily her suggestions. It's anyone's guess as to what the management staff in City Hall does. (Kudos, however, to the front line folks in public works, parks and rec, and the library, who do an admirable job of providing services.)

The only large-scale work product we have seen from City Hall is the white glove treatment for Facebook and the mixed use developments near the train station. In other words, private projects. But other than the new bathrooms at Lyle Park, try naming an example of significant and tangible City-sponsored improvement in the last 10 or so years, in downtown or elsewhere. The list of pie-in-the-sky, "maybe someday" projects continues to grow: downtown parking garage, Caltrain grade separation, Belle Haven library, bike/pedestrian improvements. And then there is my favorite idea, the gondola connecting Menlo Park to Stanford's campus (that is sarcasm btw).

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Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 11, 2019 at 10:20 am

Here's the public space link from the DSP - I think exactly none of it has happened on SC

they did get a new park built at Nelon that has my kid excited

2 people like this
Posted by Sara T
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 11, 2019 at 11:07 am

Sara T is a registered user.

Where is the link?

2 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Oct 11, 2019 at 11:15 am

pearl is a registered user.

TO: MPer

Where is the link to which you refer?

Here's the link to Nealon Park, if anyone's interested:

Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 14, 2019 at 2:00 pm

here's the link
Web Link

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