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What's wrong with downtown Menlo Park?

Original post made by Downtown, Menlo Park: Downtown, on Apr 10, 2007

Santa Cruz Avenue is looking pretty dowtrodden these days with so many stores closed down and boarded up, while downtown Palo Alto and Redwood City are more vibrant than ever. What is the problem with downtown Menlo Park?

Comments (28)

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Posted by Would like to shop downtown more often
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 10, 2007 at 12:51 pm

I live within walking distance of downtown, and whenever I go there for dinner I try to walk because it is so hard to find a parking place during lunch or dinner hour. But it seems like downtown Menlo Park needs more parking to be able to attract more lunch and dinner business from people who don't live close by. Also, when I need to bring my car to shop at Trader Joe's, it's often impossible to find a parking place. So I don't shop there as often as I would like.

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Posted by Walking Driving Shopper
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 10, 2007 at 1:40 pm

I have never had a problem finding parking, as long as I have been willing to walk a block or two, regardless of day or time of day.

What I keep hearing is that the long-time property owners keep increasing the rents to unaffordable levels for the shop tenants. Too often it seem they'd rather get the rent than have a tenant at a slightly lower rent.

It also seems that we have some major dead zones, especially in evening hours, with the real estate and banking offices along Santa Cruz. Wish we could change that, but doubt this city will ever try. So we're stuck with what we've got.

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Posted by Would like to shop downtown more often
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 10, 2007 at 1:53 pm

What makes Palo Alto's downtown so much more successful than ours? I'm sure the rents there must also be high. Has there been more of an overall plan in Palo Alto for development to attract the right mix of businesses?

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Posted by Responsible Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Apr 10, 2007 at 7:26 pm

To really know, first hand, what’s wrong with our downtown, we need to visit other downtowns in other towns up and down the Peninsula. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Burlingame, Los Altos, Los Gatos, etc. etc. What do they have that we don’t?
Indeed, to look at a totally artificial and instant downtown, spend some time at Santana Row. I found it very informative about what’s good and what to avoid. Here are some attributes, not in order:

1. Diverse and attractive retail (not a dozen carpet stores)
2. Very pedestrian friendly
3. Focal points, such as sitting area around water features
4. Open areas conducive to gathering
5. Adequate parking and transit accessible
6. Food, drink, coffee, outdoor sitting
7. Green arbor canopy and other floral foliage (Stanford Shopping Center)

The closest “proof-of-concept” in Menlo Park is the Kepler’s/Café Barrone area.
Large set-backs from the street. Piazza-like spaces. Mixed food and retail.
Outdoor seating. Very attractive.

You know what? We all have ideas about what our downtown should be like. If we all were to generate our “vision” and add it to these Comments, we could have the beginnings of a citizens’ collective concept, a blog task force. Why is that good? Because it is the first step to activate our Council to take the initiative and get the whole idea of a down-town El Camino Real Grand Boulevard concept started. . . and without the manipulations of expensive consultants.

Of course there are many economic problems to downtown revitalization. But, don't tell us why it can't be done. Tell us how we are going to do it!

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Posted by H. Menken
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 11, 2007 at 7:39 am

Downtown? Ha!

We don't need one-off stores. What are one-off stores? Stores that you only visit once (if at all) like furniture, carpet, bank, real estate, expensive linen, franchise marble ice cream stores for a start. There are many stores that are prohibitively expensive for a majority of people (yes, even around here) like expensive children boutiques, lighting and bathroom stores.

Look at Palo Alto. Save for the many rug stores, art galleries and the like, I can't think of one place that I (and I consider myself normal) would enjoy patronizing. You have a wonderful variety of restaurants, book stores, normal retail stores (like Apple) and the like. What's not to like?

Did you know that there are stores in downtown MP that aren't profitable at all? They are set up by wealthy individuals just to keep busy. Don't believe me? I know it for a fact (think lighting).

I agree that the landlords are to blame... but only partially. We are also to blame. There are many stores with very very very bad customer service. If we vote with our dollars, those stores might actually try to win customers.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 11, 2007 at 1:06 pm

H. Menken makes a good point. I've always wondered about many of the stores that are (or have been) on Santa Cruz – offering just ridiculous high-end stuff, they seem to have no chance of succeeding unless they somehow mange to dupe a few high-rollers out of some of their money every now and then (think the baby/children's boutique just up the block from Wells Fargo).

Outside of a couple of restaurants (Stacks for breakfast, Le Boulanger for lunch and that popular French restaurant for dinner/drinks), there is little that draws a lot of people to the street, save for Walgreens (and maybe Ace, but that store was much better before its recent reincarnation and I think most people prefer going to the one in Palo Alto instead).

Not sure what you can do about this – free enterprise and all – but it does illustrate how many dumb business ideas there are out there.

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Posted by just commerce baby
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 11, 2007 at 1:34 pm

Last I checked Santa Cruz Ave. is ATHERTON'S DOWNTOWN, but menlo park is allowed to shop/get their hair done there.

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Posted by mono poly
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 11, 2007 at 2:11 pm

I think all the landlords but one lives in Atherton, at least some family members do, so they can keep a close eye on their tenants.

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Posted by long time Menlo Park resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 11, 2007 at 4:43 pm

I am so frustrated at the lack of parking when I try to shop at Trader Joe's, and it's absolutely terrible to try to find a parking place to have lunch or dinner in downtown Menlo Park. Businesses like these that really contribute to the quality of life for both Menlo Park and Atherton residents and rely on daily visitor traffic (as opposed to furniture and rug stores) can't survive without ample parking. Maybe this is also the reason why there isn't any nice gym facility in the downtown Menlo Park area (not necessarily right on Santa Cruz Avenue, but off on one of the side streets). We only have small personal trainer shops, but no gym with classes, etc. like Reach, Vivre or several other nice gyms in downtown Palo Alto. I sure wish the City Council would do something about the downward slide in of our downtown area.

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Posted by Walking Driving Shopper
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 11, 2007 at 10:33 pm

I don't understand long time MP resident's comments about not finding parking downtown. It seems to me that there is more willingness to walk further in Palo Alto than in Menlo Park. Except for Sunday AM's when the Farmers' Market is nearby, I have never had to walk to Trader Joe's as far as I have to walk to Whole Foods in Palo Alto. Same for restaurants virtually any time of day or night.

Aren't there some gym facilities downtown (one is on Alma, another on Crane)? Maybe they aren't as large as in PA, but they do exist.

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Posted by Polly Anna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 12, 2007 at 11:15 am

I've lived within walking distance of downtown Menlo Park for the past two years, and I love it.

It's not perfect -- the Trader Joe's parking lot desperately needs repaving and the renovated lot behind JZ Cool is poorly designed -- but it's still a lovely downtown. I can run most of my weekend errands without ever getting into my car.

Santa Cruz Ave. is book-ended by Fremont Park and the Kepler's/Borrone plaza, two wonderful gathering places.

Granted, there are a number of businesses I never patronize (oriental rugs, Flegel's, the $500 sheet store, the ridiculously priced children's store) and some I'd really like to see (good gelato place, bigger hardware store, decent bagels, moderately priced casual restaurants, realistically priced children's clothes) but overall, it's pretty wonderful. Cheeky Monkey, 4 Clothing Solutions and Kepler's are real gems, and Trader Joe's is indespensible.

However, I absolutely agree that customer service is really lacking in a lot of stores. (Yes, Walgreens, Baskin Robbins and JZ Cool, I'm looking at you.) And I've noticed at several of the restaurants that prices are up, but food quality is inconsistent and service is poor.

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Posted by Gern Blanston
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 12, 2007 at 4:48 pm

"I am so frustrated at the lack of parking when I try to shop at Trader Joe's, and it's absolutely terrible to try to find a parking place to have lunch or dinner in downtown Menlo Park...."

Fates help this person if s/he ever moves to a true urban environment. Parking problem in Menlo Park? Perhaps if you shop Trader Joe's only at 6pm and can't bear to walk more than 20 yards from car to store. Honestly, my wife and I shop TJ's perhaps twice per week, usually in the early evening when the store is busy, and I don't ever remember having to walk more than 50-75 yards to enter the store. Menlo Park does not have a parking problem, at any time of day, far as I can tell. If you're willing to park in the lots on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue there are always spots available.

No, I think what we have here is a citizenry that is increasingly impatient, self-important, self-absorbed, and entirely too lazy to get out of their damned cars and walk a little. It's convenience over courtesy and community, as evidenced most evenings in the TJ's parking lot, I'm sure, when harried, cell-phone-wielding drivers jockey for prime spots close to the store.

But I'm a crufty Luddite who wishes Santa Cruz Avenue were closed to vehicle traffic (economic anathema though that may be), so my opinion doesn't matter.


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Posted by anon.
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2007 at 9:48 pm

just thought i'd chime in and say that palo alto isn't thriving like the original post suggests, and can't say anything about redwood suggest that pa is thriving is a mistake, atleast in my opinion...

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Posted by No more boring downtowns
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 13, 2007 at 11:17 pm

There are many good suggestions here. The basic problems are a lack of interesting stores and the bizarre traffic patterns that make walking hazardous.

Stanford's proximity could be a windfall for us, as the current management continues to kick out popular stores in favor of more upscale establishments. Latest victim: Discovery Store. Someone should have been on the phone to their headquarters last month, offering to relocate the store to a prime location on Santa Cruz...but wait, things like that don't happen around here, do they?

Palo Alto may not have the most vibrant downtown in the world, but it's a lot more fun to check out all the little shops and restaurants on University than to cruise the Cruz. Note also that PA will be adding a two-story retail building to the nexus of downtown activity at Bryant and University.

It's not as if our city planners need to come up with anything new (that's assuming that our city planners ever do anything other than react to plans brought to them by developers and remodeling residents). You don't even have to go outside the bay area for examples of cities that have reinvented their downtowns. In a mere five years, Santa Cruz--the city, not the street--has managed to close the doors on most of its henna and hemp shops, replacing them with a more attractive mix of retail establishments. Note that Santa Cruz also has very wide sidewalks and a narrow main downtown street. San Mateo has revitalized its downtown. And downtown Los Gatos is people and pet friendly.

Meanwhile, back on Santa Cruz, we have not one but four (maybe more?) stores selling used clothing, and a bunch of stores that just aren't very appealing and don't deserve a prime retail location.

With Stanford's expansion and the increased retail development in our neighbors to the north and south, Santa Cruz is destined to become a blur for drivers heading down El Camino. It isn't too late to revive our downtown, but someone needs to take action before our sales tax revenues evaporate.

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Posted by menlo mommy
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 14, 2007 at 7:03 pm

I absolutely love downtown Menlo Park! Never have a problem parking, in fact it's easier to park there than in Palo Alto. Draeger's has all that parking to the side and there's tons of it by the Dance Academy, and can always park for the Left Bank. Trader Joe's is just a very busy place, that's all. Maybe it should move elsewhere.

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Posted by Dog Owner
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 14, 2007 at 8:58 pm

Trader Joe's is the crown jewel of Downtown MP!

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Posted by clean it up
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 15, 2007 at 11:21 am

Downtown Menlo Park is dirty and unattractive. Really needs a good scrub down once a week. Look at Santa Cruz Ave in Los Gatos. Clean and busy all the time. University in PA is cleaner too.

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Posted by since you mentioned it
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 15, 2007 at 3:29 pm

We just drove to Los Gatos to walk around the downtown--lots of fun little stores, nice mix of retail. I have lived in MP for over 20 years, and I don't remember the last time (other than the annual street fair) that I strolled the length of the street. Sure, I go to TJs and Draegers, and occasionally to Walgreens, but all those rug stores and banks just don't make a very appealing streetscape or provide much amusement for a casual shopper.

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Posted by no longer new guy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 16, 2007 at 4:26 pm

Ha, so we want a better downtown. (Who is we...)

(We) could have had a BevMo wine tasting store. (would have driven more business to everyone, but was fought by the status quo... who wants to preserve their premium prices.

So what's next, what will bring us a better downtown. We know what we want, or seem to be able to list it, but in reality we have little power to influence this.

What we could do: (read: what I want) is to have the town actually clean the sidewalk and street. Tear down the ugly wood lights and benches, replace them with larger seating areas, flowers.

But alas the town has no money, right! so nothing will get done.

Hopefully someone (with enough money) can open something that will drive new business, and turn the downtown around. (those thrift shops will have to be burned down someday, no one will rent that space afterwards because that smell will never go away.

How many more banks and rug shops can one street support anyways?

(I really thought I could find something positive to end on, but writing this has made me sad, BevMo could have changed things a bit I think.)

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Posted by Monica
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 16, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Wow, great comments, everyone. I thought I was alone in quietly loathing the rug store and snooty children's store (that place is a joke). You all are spot on in your assessments, I think.

There's no reason why our downtown can't be as good as Palo Alto's. I could go on and on about this, but I would like to point out that affordable dining establishments are far too few in MP. Example: Shiok is one of the very few places to eat with nice ambiance that serves wine where one can escape for less than $100. Wouldn't it be nice to have some more places like this? (Love the gelato place idea.)

I also second the motion that the STREETS ARE DIRTY.

And that TJ's is indeed the crown jewel. Yes, parking is annoying sometimes, but strangely the Walgreen's lot is *much* worse than the TJ's lot. But I also agree with the person who pointed out that compared to an "actual" urban environment, parking really isn't so bad in MP.

On a positive note, there are a couple new vendors at the farmer's market, including the amazing lettuce stand.

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Posted by Monica
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 19, 2007 at 11:04 am

It might be too late for downtown mp.

The "merchants" banded together to reject a very good idea: bevmo

bevmo would have brought foot traffic and sales taxes. One of the key opponents isn't even in downtown!!!

I don't mind walking to Palo Alto for a real downtown feel. Forget MP because they forgot us.

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Posted by Shopper
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Apr 22, 2007 at 10:42 pm

Santa Cruz could use more stores that catered to families with young kids (a few more Cheeky Monkeys and Manny's Shoes). But really, how many times in a lifetime do most of us feel the urge to buy a $1200 stuffed giraffe?

By the way, while we're giving downtown the extreme makeover, can we do something about those "art" shows that kitsch up the sidewalks and snarl traffic? We don't need to drive our retail customers out of town.

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Posted by Polly Anna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 23, 2007 at 1:50 pm

Gah! If I have to see one more photograph of an evocative doorway in a foreign land at those sidewalk "art" fairs!

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Posted by ajn
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:45 pm

ajn is a registered user.

I am a former resident of MP but do visit several times a year. Its such a surprise every year seeing the different upscale stores, and few in them with shoppers with the $300 baby strollers. I agree with the expensive store..i.e. the $500 linen shop for one, too many banks and furniture stores that aren't affordable. its nice to know that Draegers, Baskin Robbins, Su Hong and Trader Joes are still there..and POSH of course. How about bringing back Manny's shoes too!!! and the sports store.

It would be nice to get that 'hometown' feeling again..At least at Anne's Coffe Shop you can get a nice breakfast and still keep the change and people know your name too.

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Posted by The Peripatetic Observer
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Apr 30, 2007 at 4:55 pm

I wonder why the merchants and property owners don't form some sort of assessment district that would tax members for maintaining the sidewalks and landscaping, and keeping the area clean. The downtown area is hopeless unless something's done about the dirty streets and sidewalks, and the shabby, rundown look of some of the buildings. (Check out the awnings on some of those buildings. We're supposed to be enticed into stores that put out such "welcome mats"?) I thought there was an assessment district at one point, but maybe I'm thinking of a different community.

Regarding parking, I usually don't have a problem finding it because I don't mind walking a few blocks if a particular lot is full. But one thing that really concerns me is the possibility that the city will use the newly renovated parking plaza bounded by Santa Cruz, Middle, Evelyn and Crane as a model for future renovation projects. That is the most horribly designed lot imaginable -- for drivers and pedestrians. And I would imagine for the merchants in that block, too. I would bet that some people, after having to adjust their cars into a space with a succession of forward/reverse/forward/reverse gear shifts would just not want to bother with it. What could the engineers have been thinking when they drew up that horrid plan?

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Posted by Dee Rob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 11, 2007 at 12:35 am

This series is really interesting to read as an outsider who just moved here, and who came from an urban neighborhood on the other coast.

I wonder how many people are jaded by the every day and forget to appreciate what they have. In other words, I like the downtown. When I lived in San Jose, we would drive up here to stroll around.

How can people simultaneously b**** about the high-end stores and completely trash the thrift stores? Is it a matter of only being able to enjoy what you want? A vital downtown to me has a mixture, and as a window-shopper, I can appreciate both.

And, for everyone who can't find parking, I'm just scratching my head. Maybe the ideal would be a drive-thru downtown?

One question, though, why does everything close sooooo early here?

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Posted by long time Menlo Park resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 11, 2007 at 1:29 pm

It seems like parking garage (similar to the ones that have been built in recent years in downtown Palo Alto) would provide a great boost to the retail and restaurant environment in downtown Menlo Park.

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Posted by Squirrell
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 7, 2009 at 10:13 am

I've lived in Menlo Park since I was born and I don't think that Santa Cruz Avenue is Menlo Park's downtown, hence it is in Menlo Park.

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

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