What specific changes would improve the city planning process? The temporary pocket park was a big disappointment, and it consumed valuable public works department resources. Therefore, the City Council should learn important lessons from this experience and make appropriate changes to our city planning processes.
Good government serves the council, city staff, and our entire community; improves project outcomes; and reduces risks. But it requires a willingness to honestly and openly identify and examine missteps, mistakes and new opportunities. I hope this column spurs constructive community discussions about how to accelerate civic improvements in our downtown.
The failure of the temporary pocket park can be traced to the decision to implement it as an informal experiment rather a formal project. The planning and evaluation lacked all the ingredients needed for a successful field trial: clear direction from the City Council, well-defined objectives, success metrics, a professional designer, regular reviews, and effective public outreach. It was impossible for anyone to understand what was or was not happening and planned, why, and what was ahead. This left city staff ill-equipped to manage this "orphan," and residents could not get answers to the most basic questions about the status and future of the pocket park. Resident oversight likely would have helped, but the Parks and Recreation Commission apparently was not involved. Why?
Two recent surveys — one by the city and the other by me — revealed that residents rarely used the temporary pocket park because it was viewed as uninviting, unattractive, dirty and unsanitary. However, more than a third do support transforming either Curtis or another downtown location into an inviting public place that can be enjoyed whenever residents and visitors pass by, pass through, and use it. And they provided specific ideas as to what they wanted. This is surprisingly positive, given the poor quality of the pocket park experience.
One idea: the City Council should consider converting Curtis Street into a small public plaza like ones popular in Europe. These plazas are simple, inviting, practical, and affordable. They generally have attractively designed stone or tile surfaces, fixed metal or stone benches, either a sculpture or small water feature, ample shade, and attractive lighting.
Curtis Street is an excellent location as it connects two large parking lots to destinations on Santa Cruz Avenue. Several cafes and bakeries are nearby, so it is convenient for residents who want to enjoy a short lunch or beverage in a welcoming outside setting. And an attractive plaza would naturally complement the new street dining areas. A hard-surface plaza would also eliminate the potential health problems associated with the artificial turf used in the pocket park.
The Curtis Street project illustrates the poor quality of communications that too often occurs between the city, businesses and residents during the planning and execution stages of civic projects. No written official project and trial plans were available to read. There were no public reviews to discuss progress, answer questions, and solicit community feedback.
This spring the Chamber of Commerce and I proactively approached a council member with a written proposal to volunteer our help to get the project on a successful track, but found no interest in our offer. And during the past three years the city conducted only one resident survey — just a few weeks ago — and the council neither presented nor discussed the results. Why?
The failure of the small-scale Curtis Street pocket park raises many red flags about the future of the much larger civic projects proposed in the Downtown Specific Plan: a beautiful pedestrian-friendly boulevard (paseo), two connecting small parks, an integrated farmers' market and downtown parking structures. How likely is it the current City Council will want to undertake any of these more ambitious projects? I am not optimistic.
So how can residents and businesses have an immediate positive impact? Tell our City Council members you want them to initiate a 60-day audit of the Curtis Street pocket park trial, and simultaneously develop a sound field trial plan for a Curtis Street plaza.
Anyone interested in actively supporting either or both these initiatives can send me a message at email@example.com and we can discuss how to join forces.
Menlo Park resident Dana Hendrickson is an avid cyclist, active community volunteer, founder of the disabled veteran support nonprofit Rebuild Hope, and editor of Re-Imagine Menlo Park.
This story contains 847 words.
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