Guest opinion: Residentialist states his bottom line | August 13, 2008 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - August 13, 2008

Guest opinion: Residentialist states his bottom line

by Martin Engel

We are approaching the election season and have two seats to fill on the Menlo Park City Council. So, it is time to let the three candidates for these jobs know what we voters want, since they are supposed to represent us in our government.

"Residentialist" is a term that has fallen out of favor. The term describes a Menlo Park resident who is dedicated to preserving the small town, residential quality-of-life that characterizes this city. I believe that if we grew by several thousand more, we would no longer have the look and feel of that small town. For us residentialists, it's a matter of livability.

Therefore, to all you candidates who wish to represent me and want my vote, I pretty much oppose population growth and am perturbed if it is imposed on us. I don't want our "small town" to become a "big town." If I had wanted to live in a big town, I would have moved there.

"We must grow; growth is inevitable," we are told. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) assigns us a number of new houses. Sorry, I don't agree with that. A city ought to be able to control its own destiny and not have it driven by outside political, economic or self-aggrandizing forces.

Attention, present and future council members. I, for one, oppose the push toward greater urbanization, for whatever reason. High-density housing and traffic-oriented development (TOD) housing on or near El Camino are good examples of a bad idea. If commercial/industrial development must take place, scale is critical. For me, less is more. What happens, far too often, is the intrusion of development that draws on Menlo Park's resources and ends up making problems in our city worse, not reducing them.

You see, I'm not against all development. I'm in favor of careful, thoughtful, beneficial development. I'm in favor of development being "rule-governed," based on vision, policy, and a clear strategy prior to any project approvals. These should not be improvised case by case with constant compromises that don't benefit the city.

I don't want a new "high-rise city" crowding the Bayfront. I don't want Stanford to change Menlo Park into the new medical Welsh Road by building big, fat office blocks along El Camino. That's not the Menlo Park in which I choose to live. I'm against the constant "exceptions," the non-conforming zoning variances, the persistent improvised amending and gaming of the city's general plan in the interests of a seemingly endless series of developers maximizing their bottom line at the city's expense.

I don't want the Caltrain corridor to become the Berlin Wall, separating east and west Menlo Park even further and more definitively. That's another form of development I oppose.

El Camino should not become ever more a through-traffic flyway. It too is a city divider. The Downtown Vision plan needs to physically heal the rail and street fault lines, and our council representatives can and should take leadership in that effort.

Those of us who are residentialists must vote to guide our city away from self-serving developers and housing promoters in order to keep it the way we want it. It seems to be a persistent struggle. It's worth it.

Martin Engel lives on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park.


Posted by Mar, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Oct 20, 2013 at 10:42 am

All I hear is "I don'ts" from Martin Engel. It is crowded here and traffic congestion on Marsh and Middlefield and elsewhere is bad. People are going to keep moving in here for the weather, the institutions(Stanford, Silicon Valley companies, etc) We need to forsee growth and plan for it. You cannot stop growth. I write this in 2013 and there are units going in on El Camino but the public transportation system and thouroughfares have not significantly changed.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Mr. Engel:

In case you haven't noticed, we live in the "city" of Menlo Park not the "town" or "small town." A city of 35,000 people is not a small town or "village" not by any stretch of the imagination. I've lived in real small towns where there were less than 5000 people and most everyone knew everyone else. that doesn't even begin to describe Menlo Park. We live in a city. A city located on the San Francisco peninsula which is heavily populated. I have lived here for twenty years and Menlo Park has never been a small town since I moved here. What it has been is a city hamstrung by the likes of you and your mistaken belief that you live in a "small town."

As Mar noted above, you have a whole lot of what you "don't" want and none of what you do. You and the savemenlo obstructionists are what are causing vacant storefronts on Santa Cruz Ave. and vacant lots on El Camino. In case you haven't noticed the economy is improving. One only need go to Palo Alto to see that with all of its new retail and restaurants. How many of those do we have?

Like you, I don't like ABAG meddling in our affairs, but I also understand that progress is inevitable as is population growth in this area. You and the savemenlo bunch can either get on board and help steer the coming changes to our town or you can tell us all day what you "don't want" and get run over by said progress.

Posted by Another residentialist, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Kudos to Mr. Engels for reminding us what local politics is all about—residentialists vs developers.

By definition, most residents are residentialists — people who live here and want to preserve their communities. In the 30 years I’ve lived here, we nearly always had residentialist majorities on the City Council.

That’s what has kept our city so livable all this time. And again, as Mr. Engels states, being a residentialist in no way means one is against development; it means that one favors development that is an asset to the city without negatively impacting our neighborhoods and quality of life.

Now let’s examine a few of the claims another poster has made.

First: that Menlo Park is not a small town or small city. As the population of San Jose reached 982,765 last year — that’s nearly a million residents — with San Francisco not far behind at 825,863 in 2012, I think we can safely call Menlo Park, with a mere 32,000 residents, a small city—certainly by comparison.

Even Redwood City clocks in at 79,000 — more than double the size of Menlo Park. It is a simple fact that we live in one of the smaller cities in the Bay Area.

Next: that progress is inevitable.

"Progress" is simply the movement toward a particular goal. What is more to the point is asking what goal do we seek to progress to? The abuses of governments in the name of “progress” are legion. The Soviet’s Five Year Plans were all about “progress”, which resulted in widespread famine. Charismatic fascistic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini promised “progress.”

Coming back to our small suburban bedroom community, if “progress” is to be redefined as “crowding” and “urbanization,” many of us will agree that this is not a good thing. In fact, it would mean the end of our city as we know it. Remember, not all change is change for the better.

Next: that population growth is inevitable.

Also false. In fact, people are leaving California in droves. And the birthrate has fallen to what some are calling a dangerous level. Here’s the title of an article in Daily News: “Declining Birth Rate Poses Challenge to California’s Future.” Nevertheless, even if many more people wished to live in our city, cities have the right to manage their own affairs, including their own zoning laws, which can prevent overcrowding of a built-out community and preserve a city’s character.

Going on to dispel a few myths: The vacant lots on El Camino are not and were never the fault of: residentialists, SaveMenlo, or the city of Menlo Park. They were always and only the result of Stanford’s policy, i.e., to keep collecting rents from the vacated auto dealerships and to intentionally leave the property vacant. If you want to blame someone for those vacant lots, blame the actual guilty party: Stanford.

Nor can residentialists or SaveMenlo be blamed for vacant stores on Santa Cruz Ave. In fact, most of the vacancies have since been filled as the economy has picked up. They were largely a feature of the economic downturn, although some city policies may have been a factor in some cases.

In short, bogus arguments are being hurled around in an attempt to rationalize policies that are injurious to our city. It’s time for residents to stand up in support of our suburban community, especially in the face of goliaths like Stanford and ABAG. It’s time for us all to be residentialists, and to vote accordingly when the time comes.

Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 24, 2013 at 3:13 pm


I don't think you are as right as you think you are.

Stanford doesn't own 1300 ECR or Derry. Those sites are equal in size to the Stanford lots.

Santa Cruz retail fails because there aren't enough residents or office workers downtown to support it.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Oct 24, 2013 at 4:07 pm

As you can see, this was published in August of 2008. No one told me that this vintage opinion piece would resurface in 2013. After having served on several city commissions (Environmental Quality and Transportation), I continue to read about, but now no longer involve myself in the political shenanigans of my city.

The results of council and administration decisions that will adversely affect Menlo Park will not really be apparent to me during my lifetime. Continuing to be angry and disappointed has been highly unrewarding. For that matter, after having blogged about it for nearly a decade, I now also watch the Kafkaesque goings on with the high-speed train from a distance.

Although having heard repeatedly that one person can make a difference, that has not been my experience. Indeed, I had hoped for a popular uprising against the onslaught on our quality of life by our elected and employed city officials here in Menlo Park, just as I had hoped for such a rallying by the greater population against the trials and tribulations of high-speed rail in California. Sadly, neither has happened.

I'm now in my mid-80s and have discovered other fish to fry.

Posted by Par, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm

@Another residentialist. Kudos to you! Change is not always better, except for those who hope to profit from it. In Menlo Park we have a pretty nice large town/ small city and for the sake of those coming after us, we should keep it that way. There is nothing nice about urban sprawl and mountains of crowned condos and ever increasing traffic congestion. Menlo's schools are seeing increases in enrollment as it is and, indeed, life has sprung back to Santa Cruz Avenue. I do not want our lovely area to change just because some think change is inevitable and nay change is desirable. NO, it is not, but it is up to us to monitor carefully what those developers of change are truly foisting on us and to stop this false progress.

Posted by village character fan, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:37 am

During the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan workshops, the single most popular and desired goal was to maintain a village character in that area, the center of our town (aka small city).

It's time to talk more about what "a village character" means and what it doesn't. It isn't a matter of population size; it's a matter of scale of development, the look and feel of the town, and how well the community is supported by local businesses and the city infrastructure such as parks and schools.

The Specific Plan is being reviewed now, and the decisions made by Planning Commissioners and Council Members will tell us voters a lot about their values and how much they honor the Vision that was created by the community. There is some telling experience with what it allows, helpful economic information now that unusually harsh market conditions are behind us, and evidence that certain key aspects of the Plan remain incomplete such as a funding plan for infrastructure improvements and a plan to improve east-west connectivity.

The Specific Plan has serious flaws that need fixed. It's clear, for example, that a large office park can be built not only on Stanford's land but also in the area where the current Big 5 shopping center exists. Office rents push out retail and housing, both of which contribute far more to a village character than large office buildings. Besides, there are other parts of town more suitable for large offices.

It's clear that the trigger was set too high, at double+ the prior trigger, for public review and opportunity for neighbor voices about projects. Ostensibly this was to promote development, a give-away that isn't needed and serves to favor developers over residents. The largest projects are either negotiating anyway (Stanford) or in the Bonus category already so lowering the trigger won't stop development.

Decision makers who care more about residents than developers will fix the flaws to fulfill the Vision and honor the process. Those that don't should worry about the next election.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2013 at 5:23 pm

So, what kind of journalism resurrects an article from 2008 just to get some community arguments going? Earlier this week, another story (actual news this time) had 3 different headlines on the web page.

I know that not much happens around here, but surely there is enough real news to fill a web page? And feature stories shouldn't be that hard to find either.

Very sad, and even sadder is that this "journalism" gets local awards.

Posted by interested in Menlo, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 26, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Neighbor from another community, the way this forum was explained to me is that it's the readers and posters who decide, by posting, what's featured and what gets "resurrected". Looks to me like a reader pulled up this 2008 guest opinion, and wanted to comment on it. Then, other readers wanted to comment on it. Those of us who are interested in evergreen issues of Menlo Park are just that: interested. What are your interests?

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:04 pm

My interests are very broad, and one of them is definitely to keep the Peninsula as charming as possible while accepting that growth is inevitable, but can still be managed.

This is not 2008, and it would be much more powerful to write an editorial about current conditions and reasonable/possible solutions that are relevant in today's world.

Posted by Old MP, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 27, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Being a bit realistic here...I don't think you can create a village type environment on any 35mph 4 lane county highway...aka El Camino Real. You can on Santa Cruz Ave and the surrounding streets...but ECR will never be a friendly/cozy environment due to size/width, average vehicle speed, vehicles using the road (from cars to semis), number of vehicles, etc.

Like it or not, the Save Menlo crowd needS to be realistic as to what is the best use (for everyone) of the lots along such a busy and vital artery that is ECR. A walkable neighborhood it is not.

If you want an example of a village feel, then look at Los Altos and its downtown area. Though Los Altos population is slightly smaller (30K), I think it is the best local area to look at. Note that none of their "village" is located on a busy street (Foothill Expwy or San Antonio). But down on ECR you can find all sorts of commercial activity.

Posted by village character fan, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Villages in Europe have highways going through them. Many have cultivated and retained charm and a village character. Some in this thread reject the idea that this is important or possible but that was by far the single most important goal of the Specific Plan process.

Here are some ideas: architectural style like the Stanford Park Hotel, Oasis; low slung buildings or buildings with gardens around; small-scale building fronts (not wide although a number can be adjacent with no break); retail and housing; small-scale office, only on upper floor and no large office buildings.

Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm

@ the new "Downtowner" - please get your own name. I've used this one for several years and your recent co-option is causing confusion.

Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm

@Interested in Menlo I believe neighbor is correct. THis string started as a "guest opinion" post from Martin. I don't thin just any of us can resurrect something belonging to someone else and post that; it had to be posted by the Almanac. I personally didn't realize it was old until Martin put up his recent post (BTW, Martin, I understand your current views, often disagreed with you, but will miss the fire).

Posted by Former Resident, a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2013 at 6:26 pm

I remember when Stone Pine Lane was first proposed. There was ferocious opposition, from Felton Gables and elsewhere. It replaced the then-large Roger Reynolds nursery, along with a large area of open space which included an old, deteriorated dancing area. Before Eighth Grade at Encinal School, I hunted insects there for the required insect collection.

The fears of residents of Felton Gables and others turned out to be not valid. While the development ruined some open space, it was not nearly as bad as predicted.

That having been said, the lesson here is that development can be done in a way that does not destroy areas. Still, the area could have been made into a park for the benefit of more.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Question: What open space was removed when your home or business was built? I'll bet there were neighbors back then who thought your place shouldn't be built.

File under "be sure to close and lock the gate behind you... once you join the party."

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Question: What open space was removed when your home or business was built? I'll bet there were neighbors back then who thought your place shouldn't be built.

File under "be sure to close and lock the gate behind you... once you join the party."

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm


everyone hates "change" unless it's "their" change. Most folks are ok with tearing down single story houses and building two story houses towering over their neighbor's yards, but god forbid someone should try to do with their property what those same people don't think is "proper."

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