Guest opinion: 'Big ideas' — and follow-through — needed for downtown Menlo Park | July 20, 2016 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - July 20, 2016

Guest opinion: 'Big ideas' — and follow-through — needed for downtown Menlo Park

by Dana Hendrickson

Four years ago Menlo Park residents identified a small number of bold civic projects they believed would greatly increase the vibrancy of our downtown business district, and these were included in the Downtown Specific Plan. Unfortunately, while the local economy remains strong, and the city is benefiting from an unexpectedly large budget surplus, no major new improvements have been made since 2012.

Recently, bike parking facilities were installed, a field trial of street dining was successfully completed, and a small section of a side street was converted into a temporary summer "parklet" for the second year in a row.

Overall progress is extremely disappointing. It's time for the Menlo Park City Council to aggressively implement a few of the big ideas in the Specific Plan — for example: outdoor dining, appealing social spaces, and improved bike access. If the city cannot improve downtown during "good times," why should residents be optimistic about our city's future?

So what new improvements are planned for the rest of 2016? Only a half-dozen outside dining areas on Santa Cruz Avenue, and even the roll-out schedule is uncertain. Since an initial kickoff in early 2014, no installations other than the Left Bank have started, and the city has not published the names of any restaurants that have submitted an approved design. At best, a few will have dining areas in place before the end of summer. So far, this promising program has performed poorly.

So what unplanned projects could be completed this year? The downtown parklet is an obvious candidate, but this requires the City Council to rethink the purpose of a parklet, commit to funding a high-quality implementation, hire a professional designer, select a permanent location, and display an uncharacteristic great sense of urgency. That the current unappealing one attracts so few people is not surprising. It is an unimaginative, green-carpeted space with few amenities: scattered plastic chairs, a few umbrellas and a string of overhead lights.

So what is needed? A parklet must be an inviting place where adults, young adults, and accompanied children can enjoy a variety of relaxing activities — where they can socialize, eat, drink, read, and "people watch." Attractive and comfortable seating, flowers, small container shade trees, and welcoming signage are all essential elements.

Since most downtown coffee shops and restaurants cannot afford dedicated street dining areas, a shared central location would conveniently serve anyone willing to bring purchases to the parklet. The city could also provide regular small-scale entertainment — for example, unamplified performances by individual musicians and small groups, guest speakers, small art exhibits, chess, and City Council roundtables. Mollie Stone's in Palo Alto operates an outside midday barbecue every Friday that serves about 100 people. Perhaps, one or more downtown Menlo Park restaurants would participate in a similar program in a parklet.

Improved bike access to downtown destinations is also badly needed, affordable and doable within six months. Today the eastbound bike lanes on Santa Cruz Avenue end suddenly at Fremont Park and both University Drive (south) and Menlo Avenue are "bike unfriendly" where slow-moving bicyclists share a single lane with faster vehicles. Few places exist where bicyclists can move aside to allow motorists to pass.

Bike lanes on University and Menlo Avenue and a connector through Fremont Park between Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues would easily solve problems that severely limit bicycle access to our central shopping district. These could be designed to minimize the loss of street parking and serve as a valuable foundation for a future Menlo-Ravenswood bike corridor.

New outdoor street dining and an inviting central parklet can significantly increase the overall appeal of our downtown, and new bike lanes would improve accessibility. Residents should demand their City Council demonstrate measurable progress during the next few months. Elections are rapidly approaching and there will never be a better time for members to show leadership. So what are they waiting for?

Dana Hendrickson is a 30-year resident who with his wife has raised a family in Menlo Park. He is an avid cyclist, active community volunteer, founder of the disabled veteran support nonprofit Rebuild Hope, and editor of Re-Imagine Menlo Park.


Like this comment
Posted by Elozabeth
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 20, 2016 at 4:22 pm

Excellent article on lack of leadership or maybe ideas regarding downtown Menlo. For example, the parklet. My question to that is why? We have a lovely spot, Fremont Park, that has become an eyesore. Rather than a parklet, why not start with what we already have and make it a beautiful resting stop. At one time, many took their lunch break there, sat and read, people watched, or visited with friends. On a warm night, it was a great to stroll there and just sit and watch the world go by. It fulfills everything that a parklet would do and even more. But no, the City has relegated it to the back burner.

Secondly, the parklet is a disaster. No charm, not inviting, and stuck between mundane buildings. Why would anyone gravitate there.

So, City Council members, adjust your priorities and bring back what was once a lovely oasis in Menlo.

Like this comment
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 12:27 pm

Thank you Dana for your very informative article, packed with great ideas! To Elizabeth's comment, I too would love to see improvements made to our existing Fremont park, rather than trying to insert a second parklet. A professional park designer would be key, but personally I would love to see more seating areas, drought friendly planting, and pathways. Let's get moving!!!

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