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Is Menlo Park's downtown plan doomed to failure?

Original post made by News Guy, another community, on Nov 22, 2009

This was posted in the Menlo Park City Council e-mail log.

Couperus <> | Sat, Nov 21, 2009 at 3:13 PM To:

This week attention in Menlo Park has been focused on the Bohannon development and nothing of significance is occurring with respect to the “Visioning Plan,” which is however progressing towards an expected mid-March completion for review by the City Council.

However, two articles did appear in the press this week, which show that Menlo Park is not alone in venturing into troubled waters. One was in The Examiner, the other in The Wall Street Journal. Both are revealing and should give Menlo Park cause for concern.

The Examiner story, entitled "Redwood City Struggling with Rebuilding Downtown", is about Redwood City's 50 million-dollar downtown revitalization project, which has produced a vibrant night life - but it has come at the cost of a withering downtown retail district with a high vacancy rate. (This article states 11.8% but other sources report over 20%.)

Beautiful but empty buildings line Broadway, where there is only one retail business left - Bob's Courthouse Coffee Shop. Bob has suffered a 50% drop in business over the past two years. "There's nothing to come down here for except to eat. There's no retail. The parking is atrocious," he said.

Yet, two parking garages were part of the revitalization and now the City is coping with a million dollar a year loss from lower than expected parking fees. "Redwood City's downtown plan, adopted in May 2007, encompasses a three-block radius of the historic courthouse. It outlined the city's need to bring in downtown housing, concentrate retail uses on Broadway and near Caltrain, and increase the area's walkability."

Does this sound familiar? Here's the link to the article: Web Link

The Wall Street Journal features an article entitled "Market Mimics Falter - San Francisco Ferry Building Proves a Tough Model to Follow."

The gist of the article is that Ferry Plaza is an anomaly - that attempts to replicate it in other localities are just not working. Cities like Oakland, Napa and Santa Rosa have made marketplaces, like Ferry Plaza, the centerpiece of their redevelopment efforts. None have fulfilled the promise.

In fact, according to this article, "There is little evidence the marketplace concept can turn a location into a destination. People have convinced themselves that it will work without really understanding why," said Dena Belzer, president of Strategic Economics, an urban consulting firm.

Again, Menlo Park is not alone in planning for one of these in its downtown. Check out the following link to find out what has happened in the cities where marketplaces are part of redevelopment. And, then ask yourself if Menlo Park, a relatively small city of some 30,000 residents could successfully replicate the Ferry Plaza that serves a city of over 809,000 residents and is a tourist destination. Web Link

Comments (22)

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Nov 22, 2009 at 7:58 am

Is this the same lady who was telling people she wanted to kill the whole downtown vision plan at the farmer's market and handed out fliers?

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Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 22, 2009 at 12:54 pm

to truth:


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Posted by C'mon Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 22, 2009 at 9:28 pm

I've thought the revisioning process has been extremely fair, allowing all of us a voice, and lots of great ideas. Yes, there have been some that have tried to derail the process from day one, but we are almost there. Can you imagine a downtown area with a new parking facility, that is somewhat hidden, maybe even beautiful? Or ECR finally filled with "something"? We can do this, but we have to stop the "no growth at all cost" type mentality. Most of us are NOT calling for 3+ story buildings, most of us are calling for open space, big frontages, possibly a 2-story parking facility with one level underground, etc. As our national political scene has shown us the past 6+ years or so, we cannot let the two extreme ends of this opportunity to rule this process. We need those of you that are level-headed, can compromise and push an agenda that will help all of us.

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Posted by reality check
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 23, 2009 at 8:17 am

Well C'mon Menlo Park, the current plan isn't what you think it is. It doesn't stop at 3 storeys or just one parking garage or have lots of open space (except where it doesn't make sense between El Camino and the RR tracks and no one can even hear her/his own thinking). It goes up 5 storeys and implies there could be more. It puts buildings in current parking lots. It does almost nothing creative along El Camino, where by the way change is occurring even under current rules.
Most of us think of increased "vibrancy" as increased retail opportunities that draw us to our own downtown. The current plan seems to think of "vibrancy" as more congestion (people, cars).
Maybe common sense will prevail, so some good changes occur to refresh El Camino and downtown and bring more retail. The plan is not there right now.

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Posted by C'mon Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 23, 2009 at 10:45 am

And there you have it, more extreme views and opinions. "It goes up 5 stories and implies there could be more". If there is one 5 story building, among several one story or two story buildings, and the 5 story building is set back, with a large frontage (aka Barrone's), could we benefit from something like this, could it be good for the community? Perhaps.

It is difficult to listen to people that will not even consider anything, besides one story retail, and lots of open space. If this were such a great idea, than this would have happened 20,30+ years ago, when it was being proposed by people that do not want one more family moving to our city. This is just not realistic. I think these are the same type people that criticize the school growth. We are a typical city, we are not growing "out of control" nor will we. We just want a little more out of our commercial district and more than nail salons, vacant stores, vacant lots and no parking. It's not a lot to ask for, and can genuinely be discussed and agreed upon, if there is common sense.

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Posted by double check that reality
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Nov 23, 2009 at 11:07 am

C'mon, check the plans. Reality Check is correct: the consultants are asking for 5 stories on El Camino and 600 housing units, and not any other real changes to a street that needs a boost. Most of my MP friends are pretty unaware that this visioning effort even exists, so when they hear about the plans, they are pretty shocked. I suspect that once more residents become aware of the proposal, it will be jettisoned or substantially reformed.

I am one of the people who has been advocating for years for a renovation of El Camino (not so much Santa Cruz, though we do need a multi-level parking garage--let's not get trapped into the hysteria that suggests our downtown will be ruined if we have one of those) and it is absolutely painful to see where the current process has led us. In the sessions I attended, I did not hear residents asking for a lot more housing or tall buildings on ECR.

Most people want more retail. Not the nail salons, used clothing, and rug stores. I travel a lot around the bay area, and we have one of the saddest downtowns on the mid-peninsula, certainly pretty pathetic compared to our closest neighbors. But...I don't think this visioning process is going to make a dent in that. We need a proactive business development person to entice a better retail mix to our downtown.

Vibrancy will occur when you have a lot of people strolling the streets, shopping, looking in windows, and dining. Adding 1500 people to El Camino, as RC says, will only create more congestion, as those new residents drive over to Redwood City or Palo Alto to shop. Nothing to draw them to Menlo Park!

C'mon, I think your goals are no different from RC's or mine but I do wonder if you are aware of the status of the planning process.

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Posted by Tom haid
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 23, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Good reporting
now is not the time for lofty big spending plans
now is the time to look at prioities
simplicity beauty and a tight nit local comunity is what I would
like to see. Keep to chain box stores out like whole foods etc and focus
on supporting our local business that have given so much to us all
over so many years. Now is the time to say thank you for what we have
and say it by supporting what we have
have a thankfull Thanksgiving

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Posted by Cause and Effect?
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 23, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Not sure that you can draw the conclusion that the revitalization of downtown RWC is the cause of high retail vacancy rates there. Considering that virtually every downtown on the peninsula has high vacancy rates, I don't think downtown RWC is unique. As a store owner on Santa Cruz Ave, I can tell you that people aren't spending money right now nor are people starting/opening businesses. If the economy was booming and RWC still had high vacancy rates, I could buy this argument but we'll have to wait and see.

Thankfully, our downtown isn't as run down as Redwood City's was 10 years ago and I salute RWC for trying to do something about it. I'm pretty confident (sadly) that nothing like that revitalization will ever happen in MP.

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Posted by Frank Thorne
a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Hello all -- I went to all three of the consultant meetings (I was residing in MP at the time) and I can assure you that having 4-5 story buildings on ECR was discussed, and that many of the participants liked and supported the idea.

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Posted by squished
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

What is the big problem with a multi-level parking garage? I avoid parking downtown whenever possible - fortunately, I live close enough to walk. Ever tried to back out of the parking lot behind Draeger's, or find a parking place to pick up food at Su Hong to Go at lunchtime? I would much prefer a multi-level parking garage that has actual space to back out of, and enough room between spaces to easily open a door. And no, I don't drive a tank - a small car - but it's hard to maneuver these tiny parking spaces when you are wedged between two SUVs.

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Posted by reality check
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I personally do not mind one multi-level parking garage in an appropriate place, but I do mind the several that are in the current plan. I do mind that there is a hotel in the current parking lot behind Su Hong To Go and I do mind the covered market that takes up part of Trader Joe's parking lot and part of the Farmers Market area. Talk about causing parking problems.
I also went to most of the various workshops. Some people liked some height, many others did not. The current plan would allow all buildings on El Camino to be that tall, or even higher with incentives that the consultant now mentions.

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Posted by wow
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Wait a minute. 600 new housing units over 30 years is what I heard. 20 new homes a year is too much?

The current plan studies EIR impacts of 4-5 stories or the absolute maximum impact and does not allow it all over town.

You are either misguided or you are purposefull lying. Or even higher?

Don't let these old timers scare you Menlo Park. They will lie and cheat to scare you. Do your own homework and talk to council members or planning commissioners on your own.

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Posted by Interested neighbor
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I just wanted to pitch this idea again. --in a forum that seems to get a fair amount of viewing and comments. I think there is an opportunity to improve the El Camino Corridor as part of this downtown revital(visual)isation.

By building combination retail (below)/office or housing (above) setback from El Camino, with its own traffic lane and strip of diagonal parking separated from El Camino by a planted area, such as in along portions of Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley or Middlefield Rd in midtown Palo Alto, you can have 1) a good mix of retail, office and housing, 2) mix of small and larger retail (if you wish), 3) 3 lanes of traffic on ECR both northbound and southbound, 4) more parking than the current configuration of lanes on ECR allows. In fact, setback 75 or 100 feet from the current outer lanes of ECR, 3 or more story buildings would not produce the tunnel effect on ECR that some people worry about. There'd also be more opportunities for plantings and a wider pedestrian walkway.

This configuration let's you build up and not look too urbanized. Obviously, this takes away some of the developable area on each parcel; and would require some carefully written zoning rules. This loss of developable area could be compensated for by an increase in the height limit.

Just a thought. Seems like it would have some beneficial aspects along ECR. What do you think? For a good example look on Google Maps at Shattuck Avenue between Allston Way and Kittredge St. (approx 2 blocks west of Cal's memorial stadium)

Regards, Dave

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Posted by Quincy
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:50 pm

The closer you get to El Camino, the more difficult parking becomes. That's where a parking structure might be a good idea. I have no idea why anyone would want a covered marketplace taking up a parking lot. The Farmer's market organizers think it's an untenable idea, and they are the ones with some expertise in the matter.

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Posted by Interested neighbor
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm

To see the areas mentioned above paste the following links (with any spaces deleted) into your browser:

Palo Alto:
Web Link

Web Link

Regards, Dave

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Posted by Interested neighbor
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 23, 2009 at 1:56 pm

OK. Just click on either of the Links. Ain't Technology Wunnerfull!

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Posted by Wondering
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 23, 2009 at 2:03 pm

I haven't seen anyone talk about the Stanford Shopping Center. I wonder if it will be possible for Menlo Park to attract "meaningful" retail to our town as long as there is the Stanford Shopping Center with FREE, un-time restricted parking, just "down the street". (Yes, that means no "little men" in their "little carts" giving out parking tickets!)

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Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2009 at 2:05 pm

I came away from reading the original article (posted by Newsguy, written by Couperus) with a completely different message relative to the direction this discussion has taken. First, I didn't get the impression that the article was intended to be pro or con relative to any specific plan, but rather a fairly sensible and coherent caution to look at lessons learned right in our area as the planning process moves forward. In my view, great advice. Second, from many of the postings, I am troubled that people are "shooting the messenger".. The experiences in RWC and elsewhere may not be what we want to hear, but those experiences may be the best predictor of the things we need to be especially concerned about in developing a MP plan.

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Posted by grain of salt
a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2009 at 2:36 pm

I would say to take the article on RWC with a grain of salt. It would have been helpful if they interviewed more restaurant owners. Since the revitalization project in RWC there has been a growth in restaurants. The downtown which used to be dubbed "Deadwood City" is alive again. Many merchants are like the other quoted in the article (not displayed in this post however) who said "his revenue has fallen 5 percent since the economic downturn." I recently ate at Donato Enoteca (great new restaurant) and had a hard time finding parking. That is a good sign- at least there were no tumbleweeds.

Maybe Bob's business is dropping for other reasons. Many of the downtown merchants are happy with the new found traffic to downtown. The movie theater is one of the highest grossing Century theaters in the state! Bob's Courthouse is across the street. The city has also provided entertainment from May-October to the Courthouse Square across the street from his business. A captive audience that surrounding businesses have benefited from.

Retail chains will only gravitate to a downtown that has a certain per capita of downtown residents per city block in proximity to business. Redwood City does not have much housing in proximity to downtown. Take for instance a place like Burlingame. Burlingame Avenue has turned into a retail shopping center- and they have high density housing surrounding it. Burlingame also had the argument that the closest shopping for them was Hillsdale, so they definitely had an audience for some retail chains.

It's going to be hard to attract Mom & Pop retail in this economy and if retail chains will not come, than it is going to be a long road. Restaurants provide a convenient service and can sustain a bit better (like in a RWC) since most people coming to downtown for entertainment choose to grab a bite to eat.

Obviously Menlo Park is a different story. However, there are some great new clothing shops downtown. We love Cheeky Monkey and frequent a couple of restaurants regularly. The addition of Amicis has been great for our family. It's going to be a slow journey. Hopefully they will have a viable plan. I also hope people can have a more positive outlook and not an "if it ain't broke" one. It's "broke" everywhere right now.

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Posted by N.W.
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 23, 2009 at 2:43 pm

The advantage of parking garages is that there is more available open space. More room to plant trees or create out door dining, parks space, etc.
Who needs a huge swath of asphalt?

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Posted by E. Moritz
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 23, 2009 at 3:03 pm

How about putting a synthetic turf field on the top story of any parking structure in downtown Menlo Park?

You want people downtown? That will bring families to the city center and it will provide desperately needed playing fields. And the sea gulls can continue to go undisturbed in the old dump area that's now called "open space".

Talk about "destination" centers. T-ball... Flag football..... Soccer.... think of all the players and their spectator families that will be drawn to the city center.

Build it and they will come?

Just a thought.

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Posted by get modern
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 1, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Let's really jazz this up. Two or three pop clubs can open up and everyone can walk around juiced up. A whole block with red lights and the suitable establishments to satisfy the most desires. Now that's vibrancy.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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