Parking would be accommodated in several structures up to five stories high, with grassy open space replacing much of the city's vast network of parking plazas. Intricate paving, pocked by trees aplenty, would stretch out behind buildings; roomy corridors, overhung with trellises, would bisect some city blocks, leading you to your car. The entire downtown area would be color-coordinated, with property owners adhering to a 15-color palette. Reasonable approximations will not do.
Sound good? If everything goes according to plan, that's what Menlo Park will look like in 1990 — or so said the consulting firm that prepared the "Downtown Development Plan" in 1970.
Menlo Park is famous, at least in some quarters, for conducting expensive, seemingly interminable land-use studies, to little effect — especially when it comes to downtown.
The 1970 plan got bogged down in a maelstrom of controversy, never reaching the City Council for approval. The "Center City" design guidelines drawn up in the mid-1990s have sat on a shelf ever since. The ambitious "Smart Growth" planning effort in the late 1990s crashed and burned before the report was even finished, when the consultant quit over pressure to justify her conclusions.
Planning efforts for downtown Menlo Park have largely been restricted to the city's general plan, adopted in 1952 and revised several times since. The maximum allowable building height of 30 feet in the downtown area and along El Camino Real has not changed since the 1967 revision, according to city planner Thomas Rogers.
Now, Menlo Park is in the middle of another extensive planning effort. By the anticipated completion date of October 2010, the current planning process will have taken three-and-a-half years, costing the city $1.16 million. Council members have lofty hopes for the process, and even people who witnessed the explosion (or decomposition) of the previous planning efforts are investing time and energy into doing it right this time.
Why did the city's previous planning efforts unravel — and why should residents expect a different outcome this time?
When it comes to figuring out why Menlo Park has had so much trouble getting a plan in place, the 1970 plan is as good a place as any to start.
The city had passed its phase of "rapid expansion," according to Williams & Mocine, the consultant hired to prepare the report. Now, it needed to make the downtown area more aesthetically pleasing, and easier to navigate for cars, pedestrians and bicyclists. The consultant identified a balancing act that many city officials still see as the central issue when it comes to planning: maintaining Menlo Park's residential, or "village," character, and establishing a solid tax base by supporting business growth.
The plan proposed a four-phase, 20-year implementation program, with costs split between the city, property owners, and commercial tenants.
It also outlined a traffic circulation plan that would have narrowed Santa Cruz Avenue, made Menlo, Oak Grove, and Live Oak one-way, added a new street east of Oak Grove, and turned Willow Road into a main thoroughfare, connecting it to what is now Sand Hill Road.
Controversy over the traffic plan led to the project's downfall, according to Reg Rice, who has lived in Menlo Park for over 50 years and serves on the city's Transportation Commission, as well as the steering committee for the current planning effort. Before the plan even made it to the council for approval, the debate over traffic — and especially over plans for Willow Road — made it politically untenable, he said. The council "absolutely didn't want to do it"; they pretended that the study had never been commissioned, ordering all copies to be destroyed, according to Mr. Rice.
A search of City Council meeting minutes from 1970 through 1972 seems to support Mr. Rice's version of events. There's a synopsis of a meeting during which a number of residents expressed heated opposition to the plan to turn Willow Road into an expressway. But while the plan does get a brief mention in passing while council members discussed another item, the search didn't turn up any record of it actually making it onto the council agenda.
"Ever since the Willow expressway idea got shot down, there have been two camps in Menlo Park," Mr. Rice said, tracing the city's longstanding political divide back to the controversy over that issue. But "I don't see that it's that strong anymore," he continued, acknowledging that he was in favor of extending Willow Road and had planted himself on the "progressive" side of that debate, but has softened over the years. Turning 80 has also given him a little more perspective. "It's time for that to end," he said. "Kind of like Israel and Palestine."
Mr. Rice encourages everyone to come to the workshops currently underway on downtown planning. "I'm afraid that the only people who'll come and say anything are the political activists, and that we won't hear from most of the people," he said. In that case, "We'll have nobody to blame but us couch potatoes."
Nearly 30 years after the aborted "Downtown Development Plan," a second major planning effort — dubbed "Smart Growth" — failed spectacularly, amid intensified debate over how Menlo Park should expand, if at all, during the dot-com boom.
The effort grew out of a summit of planning professionals, initiated by the city amid "pressure to accommodate intensified development." Instead of trying to contain development and limit growth, as the city had historically done, it should try to channel that new development in positive ways, those planners said. With companies lining up to come to Silicon Valley, Menlo Park would be able to pick what it wanted, and to diversity its tax base by accommodating a wide range of uses.
It promised to be the most ambitious land-use and traffic study the city had ever undertaken, developing comprehensive plans not only for downtown, but also for the city's "light industrial" area, for residential properties, and for traffic circulation.
But after six community workshops, the process fell apart when council members and residents questioned the conclusions made by the consultant, Marcia McNally, which had been based partly on confidential interviews with residents. Pressed by City Council members — particularly then-mayor Paul Collacchi — to turn over data obtained in those interviews, Ms. McNally resigned.
Among her findings: that the city should allow for taller buildings near transit stations, and for much denser residential buildings downtown.
"All of a sudden, we began to see results we just didn't believe were the consensus of the community," said Morris Brown, who himself was interviewed. Mr. Brown led the 2006 referendum drive on the Derry project, after the City Council had approved the project.
Responding to Ms. McNally's recommendations at the time, one resident wrote: "The concept that increasing density will increase the quality of life for the existing residents ... sounds totally bogus. Where did this come from? Why are you trying to sell it to us?"
At the time, then-councilman Nicholas Jellins said he thought people who objected to the consultant's findings were trying to shoot the messenger, because they didn't like the conclusions. In any case, amid general enthusiasm for the "Smart Growth" concept, doubts about the process had persisted from the first community workshop, with residents alleging that Ms. McNally favored developers, and that she had already "cooked" the data.
In an interview, Steve Schmidt, a councilman at the time, said that residents might simply not have been ready to compromise on land-use issues. Too much was made over the issue of the private interviews, on both sides, he said — by Ms. McNally for refusing to turn them over, and by Mr. Collacchi and others who called for her resignation if she didn't do so. Looking back on the process, Mr. Schmidt said that he couldn't think of anything the city could have done differently. The community was simply too divided.
"Maybe something had to happen — either we had to experience tall buildings, or abandoned car lots — for people to agree that we needed a plan," he said.
Here we go again?
The City Council initiated the current downtown planning process shortly after three new council members — John Boyle, Rich Cline and Heyward Robinson — swept into office in the 2006 election. After the city's four auto dealerships folded in 2005 and 2006, it became apparent that the city needed a new plan to help guide decisions about what to do with the land, Mr. Cline said in an interview.
The old, polarized debate started up again: "'We're not going to overdevelop Menlo Park on my watch,' versus, 'This town is completely outdated, we need a minimum of five stories (on El Camino Real),'" he said. "But that glossed over the real question: What do we actually want?"
The issues that residents are now debating haven't changed much from that 1970 study. Should the city allow for higher buildings, if it means more open space? Should it widen sidewalks at the risk of increasing traffic congestion? Should it build parking structures, and figure out some other use for some of the 45 acres of surface parking lots downtown and along El Camino?
People disagree on where the happy medium lies, but council members say they hope residents can reach a compromise that everyone can live with, if not embrace.
Still, there are already rumblings of discontent, mostly concerning the lightning rod issue of building height and density. Mr. Brown has compared the current planning process to "Smart Growth," saying he's "shocked" that buildings over three stories tall on El Camino Real are even being considered. Mr. Brown interprets the referendum drive on the four-story Derry project, during which he collected over 3,000 signatures, as a sign that many residents don't support buildings that tall.
"How did the consultant come up with this kind of an overall plan?" Mr. Brown asked in an interview, though he acknowledged that he hasn't been to all the workshops so far. "It's not locked in concrete, but there seems to be a push to higher-density development." Patti Fry voiced similar concerns in an e-mail to the City Council, saying she fears the consulting company, Perkins+Will, is making assumptions about the will of the community, and skewing its analysis in favor of high-density development.
"Time will tell."
Put aside for a moment the myriad practical considerations wrapped up in actually implementing a land-use plan: amending the zoning code to follow the plan's guidelines, getting developers to build within that code, paying for desired capital improvements, and getting future city councils to honor the plan. Based on the city's history, simply getting an approved document will be challenge enough. The consultant hopes to have the plan finished and ready for approval by October 2010.
Menlo Park's land-use plans have tended to become radioactive before they even reach the council, with a controversial recommendation or two souring the entire report. Some of the recommendations in the 1970 plan eventually came to pass, such as making Ravenswood Avenue flow across El Camino, and planting a row of trees down the middle of El Camino. But the vast majority of the plan's recommendations were never even considered. After the "Smart Growth" process fell apart, the reams of data collected by consultants ended up in a file.
The "Center City" guidelines, drawn up in 1996 and 1997, included such innocuous recommendations as improving and maintaining landscaping, making more room for pedestrians, connecting El Camino Real to the downtown area, and improving night life downtown. But the suggestion that buildings on El Camino Real and in the downtown area could reach up to four stories relegated it to the shelf, as well.
Council members are already hearing doomsday predictions about what will happen if they approve a plan that would allow for bigger buildings. "You don't want to go down as the council that destroyed quality of life in Menlo Park," resident Frank Carney said at a June 9 council meeting, objecting to the prospect of four- and five-story buildings on El Camino.
Councilman Cline said his colleagues should brace themselves for the inevitable opposition that will come with any plan.
"My honest feeling is: To get something like this done, you have got to be willing to sacrifice your political position," he said. "You have to take yourself out of that position, and say: What is the best thing for this city? Having control of our own future through a plan, or not knowing what's around the next corner? Which is it going to be? Is it more important than you getting another couple years on the council? It should be."
"We have a history of failed (planning) processes," said Mayor Heyward Robinson at the June 9 council meeting. "It's really important that we do this right."
Henry Riggs, a member of the steering committee for the downtown planning process who has expressed concern the council won't honor the will of the community, said he was heartened by the council's nuanced discussion of the planning process at the June 9 meeting. Mr. Rice, who blamed both the council that oversaw the 1970 planning effort and the one that presided over "Smart Growth" for caving to political pressure, said he thinks the current council is different: more devoted to the process, and to the ideal of open government.
What's the outlook for the current process? Ms. McNally, the "Smart Growth" consultant, may have said it best, in a table she drew up shortly before that effort imploded. Under a column titled "Smart Growth Principles," she wrote: "Define a vision, then stick with it." Under the adjacent column, under the heading "Accomplishments to date," she wrote: "Time will tell."
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