Editorial: Last call for action on downtown plan | May 2, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - May 2, 2012

Editorial: Last call for action on downtown plan

After many years of hearings and thousands of hours of staff work, the city of Menlo Park is nearing the finish line on a plan that could add hundreds of new homes and hotel rooms, and more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space to downtown and El Camino Real.

It is a blueprint that will only take shape if developers see a way to make a profit on the new buildings enabled by the massive design documents, although the city may implement some elements such as small parks on its own.

The $1 million-plus plan itself has been under construction for nearly five years, starting with a series of workshops that included walks by citizen groups around El Camino Real and the downtown area that set the stage for city planners and several consultants, including Perkins and Will, to draft the underlying documents that will go through a final hearing next month.

A review by the Planning Commission took place Monday, April 30, after the Almanac's deadline, but the public will be welcome to make comments on June 5 before the City Council. The following week, the council is scheduled to take final action on the plan, although June 19 has been set aside as an overflow day if work is not completed the week before.

Menlo Park has been flirting with a new downtown design scheme for years, but none ever actually reached a final City Council vote. This time around, we hope a consensus of the council will have the courage to move forward and adopt the plan.

As we have said frequently in this space, it is time for the city to step into the modern era and dress up its charming but aging downtown. And it is just as important to upgrade El Camino Real by replacing the vacant auto dealerships, which have been an eyesore for more than five years.

We should note that passage of the plan will only provide the zoning needed to create up to 680 new housing units, 330,000 square feet of new retail, office and commercial space, and an estimated 380 new hotel rooms. If built out, which could take up to 30 years, planners see a potential for at least 1,500 new residents and 1,300 new jobs.

If the plan is approved and developers are ready to build, for the first time ever residents could see three- and four-story buildings along the entire length of El Camino Real, from Watkins Avenue in Atherton to the county line at San Francisquito Creek.

Those buildings could feature new retail shops on the ground floor, served by underground parking. Zoning for hotels is included south of Santa Cruz Avenue. The buildings will be taller on the east side of the street, and drop at least one floor on the west side to blend in with nearby residential neighborhoods.

The city already has approved a 26-home project at 389 El Camino, which features nine two-story homes across the back of the 1.23-acre property facing the neighborhoods between Partridge and College avenues. The remaining homes along El Camino are townhouses that range up to three stories.

On Santa Cruz Avenue, the new zoning permits up to three-story buildings and adds wider sidewalks (which will be tested first), tree-shaded paseos, plazas and pocket parks between Fremont Park and the Caltrain depot. In response to merchant concerns, a small market structure on Chestnut Street between Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues will be given a trial run before any decision is made about it becoming a permanent fixture.

Three possible sites for up to two parking garages are designated in the plan, all on the parking plazas between Santa Cruz and Oak Grove avenues. One garage, with one level below grade and four above, could occupy a site behind Flegels and off Maloney behind the post office.

Another garage site is tucked into the plaza between Crane and Chestnut streets off Oak Grove. It would accommodate 250 vehicles on five levels. The garages would accommodate many all-day permit parkers, who now take up a large portion of the parking plazas, which would free up space for shoppers.

There are many more features of the downtown plan that will come out during what is expected to be a thorough airing before the City Council in June. We believe it will encourage the development of sensible projects on El Camino Real and the downtown area. Whether you agree, or disagree, your last chance to comment is June 5.


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