Guest opinion: Pall of lawsuit hangs over Downtown Plan | May 30, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - May 30, 2012

Guest opinion: Pall of lawsuit hangs over Downtown Plan

by Henry Riggs

Many of us are excited about the possible renewal of a tired Menlo Park business district — a dozen vacant storefronts and the El Camino vacant lots.

Of course, the Downtown Specific Plan was never going to please everybody (nothing in Menlo can do that). Still, it's disappointing that the familiar, vocal few who don't like the results of five years of community discussion would rather hire lawyers than see the plan go forward with best wishes.

I think of all the residents who attended the workshops, trudged around downtown with the planners, attended the speaker series and spoke (and listened to others) at the many, many, detailed public hearings. It's not easy to come to consensus in an educated and outspoken town like ours, yet we got there — consensus being a collective opinion where the dissenting minority gains respect, if not agreement, with the majority. It took five years and many thousands of volunteer hours.

Most disappointing is that there will be costs to all of us to defend the plan against these legal maneuvers. And why? Those who claim to represent the shop owners say they "haven't been heard," yet the plan was revised for every comment the merchant leaders made — to the credit of everyone involved, in my view: Loss of parking for improved sidewalks, scaled back. Housing above potential parking structures, ruled out. Allowed height of parking structures, reduced to match adjacent buildings. Optional location for the parking structure, added. Small park areas to pause for a moment, now subject to trial installation and merchant review. Two covered areas and a "paseo" to supplement the farmers market, subject to trial installation and farmers market review. Buildings on Santa Cruz Avenue can be all of 12 percent bigger than current rules — and that only through a public hearing. In fact the only allowances for tall buildings were carefully located on El Camino, away from existing residences.

I've spoken with developers who also live in Menlo Park. They worry that the carefully fussed and compromised zoning changes are not enough to entice investment in old buildings and vacant lots; two friends in Linfield Oaks worry that it's too much enticement. And yet, both sides are willing to see, and hope, that it will work. Something has to.

Change isn't easy, especially for those who have not seen it for five decades. There were cries of doom when the Keplers/Borrone building was proposed, when the Stacks building was proposed, and of course the Derry project was killed outright (and remains a derelict site today).

This zoning update called the Specific Plan goes to council on June 5. In the next few weeks, our council can adopt these painstakingly vetted new rules and, with luck, investment will return to Menlo Park's downtown.

Henry Riggs is a planning commissioner who lives on Callie Lane in Menlo Park.


Posted by Central Menlo, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Which shop owners are suing?

I'd be glad to vote...with my pocketbook.

I'm sure there are many other local businesses who would appreciate my business. That, and many in the community who would appreciate seeing the Downtown Plan implemented. It might be good for homeowners and business owners alike.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm

"Which shop owners are suing?"

You can bet Draegers and Flegels. Flegels seems to think they are the sole arbiter of what happens to the downtown. Draegers doesn't want any of their parking messed with. You can also probably add to the list a long line of out of town landlords that don't want to spend a nickel on their properties. They just want to keep raking in rents on paid for properties with 1978 property tax assessments. The only way anything will change dowtown is to shove it down these folks' throats.

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 29, 2012 at 9:12 pm

With Stanford Shopping Center and larger Palo Alto so close by, the downtown merchants have serious competition. Ease of parking is essential for them to survive and to thrive.
It's only right for downtown owners to be involved in crafting a meaningful test of some of the proposed changes. Anyone remember the street furniture fiasco on Santa Cruz? Designed by staff. We should be delighted the merchants want to be involved in making the plan as good as possible.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 30, 2012 at 7:20 am

Get Real:

they already have been involved, extensively. This downtown plan has been no secret. It's been before the public for years. They have taken in extensive public input, including input from downtown merchants. So, how is it they haven't had a chance to put their input in? The primary problem isn't merchants. It's downtown landlords that don't even live here anymore. As I said before, they don't want to spend a nickel on their properties. They just want to keep raking in rents on paid for properties with 1978 tax assessments. That is all they care about. They don't care that the down town looks like somethng out of the 60's. A lot of them probably haven't even seen it since the 80's.

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 30, 2012 at 7:44 am

MV - yes, there are some absentee landlords who don't care but the merchants and property owners who are speaking out are very involved in our community. We should value them as they are anchors of a vibrant downtown.
Your dismissive attitude is troubling. The Plan has gotten better over the years, and continued discussion might make it even better. Such dialogue is good in a democracy and for a healthy community.

Posted by Morris Brown, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 30, 2012 at 8:26 am

Just to be clear, this article from Henry Riggs, should be viewed in the context of at least some self interest. Henry is an architect, active with projects in Menlo Park. During his tenure on the Planning Commission, I’m not sure there was ever a project he didn’t endorse and always, bigger and higher is always better in his view.

The Downtown plan is a sure fire disaster. It has been staff and consultant driven for the last 3 years, and in no way reflects what the residents of Menlo Park preferred as evidenced in the early “visioning” meetings. All the meetings that Henry references in context with the residents were indeed held. There were recommendations from these meetings but they were manipulated by our staff and their consultant, and morphed into the present plan. Extremely poor oversight by our council just let the process proceed and now 5 years later and $1.5 million having been spent, we get this disaster.

Lawsuits or other possible methods to stop this should all be employed.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 30, 2012 at 10:13 am

Get Real:

at some point we have to stop discussing and actually build something. Frankly, I think this thing has been talked to death and everyone has had plenty of time for input. Pull the trigger already or forget about it.

Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on May 30, 2012 at 10:36 am

Menlo Voter - "pull the trigger or forget about it". I absolutely agree with you. At last nights CC meeting someone mentioned a quote that is evidently used a lot at Facebook, "Done is better than perfect". I think that applies to the DTSP too. The vast majority of such plans, be they for cities like MP or private development master plans do not get fully built as originally planned. A good plan is one that can adapt to changes over time, but no plan is worth a darn until its implementation has gotten started.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on May 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Note the effect of the Los Altos downtown re-do. IT'S EMPTY. STORES ARE GONE.

Posted by Marcy Magatelli, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I am someone who both lives and works in downtown MP, and I tried to attend as many of those "Sessions" Mr. Riggs speaks of, but none of the meetings I attended ever talked about a "Paseo" closing off a side street! One allday session, the "Charret"or whatever~ was all about the block of Santa Cruz Ave. on the East side of El Camino, joining the Train Station! That never went anywhere. Then there were several meetings about parking. The people who run our wonderful farmers' Market are the people complaining about the covered street closure and paseo, they don't see it as "supplement" to their many years ofconsistant hardwork and neither does Wells Fargo Bank. Many of the store fronts that are empty are because the owners are asking too high rent. I know several shopkeepers who wanted to open a shop in downtown MP, who went to other towns because of the rent and the reputation of MP's Planning Dept. cuasing too many costly delays.
I don't mean to cause more arguing, but no one should totally believe just one person's opinion of how this process has taken place. I think having "temporary" trial runs of some of the ideas the planners want, will be a big eye-opener for everyone who comes downtown; both the wider sidewalks and the closed streets. I am especially curious to see how our permanent restaurants like having all these pop-up food consessions!

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm

The review process is still in play. Between the visioning process and the draft Plan a lot was added in by consultants and staff. Some things, like architectural guidelines, are really good but other things aren't.
The Planning Commission certainly didn't do a thorough review of 5" of documents in just one meeting. The Council should do right and have a thorough discussion during regular meeting hours (not late at night when no one is at their best). What's a few more weeks after all this time? The consultants say there may not be any building for a while.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on May 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Kind of off topic here, but I noticed today that Penzey's Spices is still there. That wasn't something I predicted 4 years ago. How do they make it work?

Downtown today was pretty busy, I was happy to see. The Parking Nazis were having a field day, too. I just barely escaped their wrath.

Speaking of wrath, what is wrong w/MP Planning Dept? Are they a bunch of slow moving zombies, or do I have my depts. screwed up? Sheesh, evolution moves faster than Menlo depts.

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm

As Ms. Magatelli and Mr. Brown suggest, it's false and misleading to claim that the current version of the plan has existed for 5 years. The new zoning standards for development, with 2 levels quite a bit in excess of current rules and no Use Permit for most projects, are examples. Such details only began to surface last year in the draft plan and the final plan only last month.

I would bet most people have no clue that there would be no public benefit for substantially larger projects, and they no longer would have a say in a public hearing about a project's impacts.

A trial of controversial elements like the paseo and marketplace is great. If the community accepts or rejects, then appropriate action can be taken Unfortunately, the overbuilding predicted by Mr. Brown can't be undone for another 30-50 years.

Mr. Riggs knows better but he must hope no one else does.

Posted by planning omission, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on May 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm

get real and others are correct. I attended a bunch of those meetings, and the vision that most residents share (and it's amazing -- attendees mostly agreed) was not translated into the plans that are now under consideration.

It's worth repeating: those empty car lots that everyone complains about are not a result of poor city planning. They exist because of Stanford's greed. Stanford is still collecting rent on those properties and was waiting to develop until the properties could be rezoned to their maximum benefit.

It is hardly a surprise that the plan is inordinately generous to Stanford. You do have to question whether behind-the-scenes meetings between consultants and Stanford occurred. As residents, we should be asking why the smaller and less wealthy landowners are not given the same consideration, and why there is no public benefit associated with this generous zoning.

I may not agree 100% with the downtown merchants, but I understand their perspective. I just live here -- I don't own a business downtown. I can imagine how I would feel if my livelihood were threatened by this out-of-left-field plan.

I hope the council will at least pause to reconsider the roots of this plan. Menlo Park needs change and renovation. That was a *unanimous* sentiment at the meetings I attended. But we were all hoping for a transformation into a European-style village, not a tunnel created by highrise office buildings and new driving/parking/shopping nightmares.

Posted by Here We Go Again, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Mr. Riggs is absolutely, positively correct. I also love that Morris Brown accuses Mr. Riggs of "self interest". This is the same Morris Brown who almost single handily has turned Menlo Park into the outdated, vacant store and vacant lot town. He headed up the opposition to The Derry Project, which now is an eyesore, the Mattison property (spelling?), which has been vacant for 5+ years? And now the downtown plan he is outwardly waging war against. If WE want moderate growth, change and improvement. We have to come out and support this plan during the council meetings, with letters and other means of support. The folks that Morris Brown represents, and influences, and organizes, are VERY few. Unfortunately, he makes sure he finds the time to attend these meetings, and continues to be that squeaky wheel.
Please get involved, or we'll end up with another fiasco, and we'll continue to have the ugliest downtown on the peninsula!

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm

HWGA - Excuse me, but you are rewriting history! Wasn't there a referendum with far more signatures than were required? So weren't there many people who were greatly concerned with the original Derry project? Then, the Derry family had problems and simply didn't take the revised project to the Council after it was approved by the Planning Commission. Mr. Brown didn't stand to gain anything financially from that effort, unlike Mr Riggs who had to recuse himself from discussing parts of the Specific Plan because he had a conflict of interest!

You and others just don't get it, or don't want to admit it -- storefronts on Santa Cruz are empty or dilapidated because of a) the economy, which has caused many businesses to suffer, especially in high rent locations, and b) absentee landlords who charge those high rents and because of Prop 13 can afford to let them remain empty.
El Camino vacant lots either have approved projects or are generating rent(Stanford).

Posted by Here We Go Again, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 31, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Your version of the "rewriting history" is interesting. Were we not supposed to get a referendum on a city wide ballot? Hmmmm, I think that's what you had all promised? Thank you Get Real and Mr. Brown for giving us 3 more abandoned store fronts on Derry Project land, it's quite nice to look at, or perhaps the abandon theater is another one we should discuss? No matter what is said, or how it is portrayed, your little group is against improvement. You call it the big bad word of "development", most commonsense folks call it improvement. It's been known throughout the peninsula that MP is NOT business or development friendly, regardless of the change, big or small. Thank you for that.

Posted by get real, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 31, 2012 at 11:04 pm

HWGA - it was the Council's decision not to put the referendum on the ballot. The people who pushed the referendum acted in good faith IMO. Those of us who signed the petitions expected the Council to act on it or put it to a vote. They did neither. But you're missing the point: a revised Derry project was approved by the PC and just needs to be submitted to the CC for approval. Remember?

MP has big problems in its building department, maybe planning, too, with undocumented and inconsistently applied rules. That's what I hear from developer friends. Yes, friends.
These posts would be more productive and enlightening without resorting to accusations and labels.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2012 at 6:59 am

Get real:

I don't know where you get your information about problems in the building department. I'm a builder. I build in Menlo Park. I've never encountered "undocumented and inconsistently applied rules." The Building Code is three volumes of a great amount of detail. The building code is what teh building department applies.

I have always found the inspectors to be fair and consistent and if I ever had an issue the Building Official is very accessible.

Your developer freinds proabably have problems with the Planning Department. Developers usually do as they typically want to bend, skirt or flat out avoid the rules.

Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on Jun 1, 2012 at 9:22 am

I would like to echo Menlo Voter's comments about the staff in both the Planning and Building Departments; in fact I want to extend my comments to include the Transportation and Engineering Departments as well. I, too, have dealt with these people alot. In my opinion MP is fortunate to have a City staff that is dedicated, knowledgable and professional. Don't blame staff because the rules and regulations aren't to your liking or don't support your point of view. THey are charged with interpretation and enforcement of the rules. ALso, keep in mind, everyone who walks up to the counter is a CUSTOMER, be that person a residnent, a developer or a business owner, and the staff are there to serve the public. Sometimes I haven't liked the answer I got, or enjoyed the process necessary to achieve the goal, but I have always appreciated the competent staff I worked with.

Posted by planning omission, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm

So it sounds as though the only people who vocally support this plan are those who work in industries (architecture, development) that stand to benefit from inappropriate high density?


Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm

PO -
I'm neither architect nor developer - just a working stiff lucky enough to live in this wonderful town. Perhaps I need to be more vocal about it but I also support the downtown/El Camino development plan. I was involved in the early planning meetings and have been pleased in reading the final document how many of the suggestions from those meetings were incorporated.
I for one can't wait to start seeing this plan implemented.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm


there are things in this plan I like and things I don't. I just don't see the point in continuing to talk about something that has been talked to death already. I'm not a developer, I'm a builder. I have no dog in the hunt. I just want to see them do something or decide to do nothing. JUST STOP TALKING AND TALKING AND TALKING.

Posted by Norman, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I haven't followed this mostly because in my view Menlo Park's plans over the last 20 years have all been amateurish and bad. I feel this even though the office holders have changed.

One thing I do know that is downright stupid is that MP needs parking structures. I have never ever been locked out of parking in MP and I lived here for almost 40 years. You can always find a parking place, somewhere so the need for structures is bogus.

This part of the 'plan' smells to high heaven. Something very fishy is going on. Feels like 'traffic calming' on Santa Cruz Avenue all over again.