Almanac

Viewpoint - May 11, 2011

Editorial: Downtown between a rock and hard place

Menlo Park's already controversial downtown plan got even more so with the recent release of the draft environmental impact report on the project.

Traffic projections for El Camino Real must have surprised some project supporters, who may not have been prepared to see estimates of an additional 13,385 daily car trips, including 899 during the morning commute and 1,319 during the evening ride that came with the label "significant and unavoidable environmental impacts."

Menlo Park Transportation Commissioner Ray Mueller observed, "Our city streets are already quite congested" during commute time.

The trouble with this and other findings in the draft EIR is that the city is under pressure from many residents to "do something" about the blighted area where empty automobile dealerships now stand. The plan envisions mixed use commercial and residential development along El Camino and raising allowable building heights 8 feet. If the entire plan is thrown out, it would set resolution of this problem back years and at least a portion of the $1 million fee paid to the consultants would be wasted.

When it comes to the areas of Santa Cruz Avenue and adjacent streets, projections of more traffic also threaten to stymie any decision-making about how to balance plans for two parking garages and other amenities with the concerns of citizens, merchants and property owners who fear the city's downtown charm will be lost.

The plan envisions redesigned parking plazas and two new parking structures plus wider sidewalks and more trees, which only adds to the fear of some residents and merchants that the old ways will be sacrificed.

Residents have had plenty of opportunities to comment on the plan at numerous public hearings. Adjustments have been made to accommodate many of the hundreds of suggestions offered.

It is clear that not all of the proposed changes will be adopted, and more importantly, few, if any, changes will be made until a developer shows interest in a project that falls within the new guidelines. For example, work on a parking structure could not begin until a design has been approved by the city and a financing plan put in place.

It is our hope that everyone interested in improving the outlook for Menlo Park's downtown will approach this plan in the spirit of compromise. It would be a tremendous setback to see the entire plan scuttled, along with the $1 million invested.

The first Planning Commission hearing will be held June 6 at City Hall, and the public review period of the impact report runs until June 20.

Visit tinyurl.com/plan-42911 to review the draft EIR.

Comments

Posted by fact checker, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Commissioner Mueller's first name is Ray, or Raymond.
The head of the FBI is Robert Mueller.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 31, 2011 at 1:49 am

Combine this additional traffic from the downtown plan with the additional traffic from the planned expanded Stanford Medical Center, expanded shopping center and new Stanford housing and we are really screwed!


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 31, 2011 at 6:01 am

If your objective is solely to minimize traffic then why not zone all of Santa Cruz Ave as a pedestrian mall? Less traffic and a lot fewer surviving businesses.


Posted by Denver example, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 31, 2011 at 8:24 am

Peter's idea might actually be good for businesses. Look at the thriving mall in Denver. It is fun, lively. We could try 1-way streets on Menlo and Oak Grove to improve traffic flow, and possibly add much needed bike lanes, too.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 31, 2011 at 8:36 am

A Denver style Mall - Wow - what a great idea!

Web Link

I would make Oak Grove and Menlo Ave both one way streets and have Santa Cruz between El Camino Real and University be totally pedestrian with a dedicated and defined bicycle lane.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 31, 2011 at 11:37 am

Peter etc the concern mentioned is for El Camino traffic and your pedmall does not resolve that in any way.

The traffic section of the report does not encompass any additional traffic from the Stanford projects which will be significant. Nor does it encompass CalTrain and or HSR impacts which would potentially close several RR crossing streets pushing the traffic from the streets to streets which retain crossings. Nor does it encompass additional trips to a Palo Alto or Redwood City HSR station for HSR trips.

As to the development plans on El Camino and RR track region nothing can be planned as to any building on eastside El Camino or on either side of tracks until CalTrain HSR land needs are determined for track right of ways and for overpass/underpass right of ways.

The report seems to pass over the HSR/CalTrain issues by stating "The future configuration of the proposed HSR line within the Caltrain right-of-way is unknown; however, the Specific Plan's proposed improvements would apply regardless of the final rail
track configuration. It is assumed that HSR would generally fall within and follow the existing Caltrain right-of-way. Expansions of the right-of-way could be required". The report makes no mention of land takings for under/over passes for grade separation of streets and rail.

In other words the report needs to be reworked and nothing should be approved for eastside El Camino development until CalTrain/HSR issues are resolved.


Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on May 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm

This morning, I was driving south on El Camino Real through Atherton (toward Menlo Park). It was about 9:30am, well after the morning rush hour.

Just after the intersection of Isabella traffic came to a dead halt. It took me almost 20 minutes to go the next 1/2 mile. There were no accidents, traffic light malfunctions, or other reasons for the traffic to stop. As I came up to Valparaiso, traffic picked up and started to flow.

I can only assume the reason for the slow down is the reduction of El Camino Real from three lanes - which exists on most of the peninsula - to the two lanes in Menlo Park. The amount of waste in terms of time, effort, aggravation and gas consumption is truly amazing.

I'm only glad that I don't have to travel down El Camino Real through Menlo Park very often.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Bob is correct - no matter what is planned the EIR traffic data will have to be part of the solution. However I am excited about the way in which Denver Example turned my comment into a very interesting proposal to doing something really different and exciting about the DownTown Plan.

Since almost all of the stores on Santa Cruz have good access to the parking lots behind them turning Santa Cruz into a pedestrian mall between El Camino and University would create an exciting space that would attract a lot of customers and would provide Menlo Park with a signature space. We know from the occasional closing of Santa Cruz for street fairs that the traffic issues are not big and if the stores along Santa Cruz were invited into the mall, rather than having that space taken up by visiting vendors, they could both enliven that space and expand their revenues.

Let's think outside the box !!


Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on May 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm

I think Pedestrian Mall is a Great Idea. It changes the whole feeling of the street.


Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on May 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm

What about people who live in west MP, within a few blocks north or south of Santa Cruz and work east of El Camino . How do they get to work if downtown is a ped plaza? Some people, even those who live in MP, still work for a living and rely on streets to provide throughfares not just to "feel good".


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Scandinavian pedestrian malls are wonderful. Also we could learn from their use of bicycles and bike friendly towns. The town of Lund, Sweden train station bicycles Web Link

BYW if it rains anymore around here we can follow in San Antonio's footsteps with a wonderful downtown River Walk.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm

whorupeople
Most of them take Valpariso, Oak Grove, Middle and a slew of other streets south of Santa Cruz which connect University to El Camino.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm

By the way as to bike friendly Lund we can take a few lessons. The town is 1000 years old with a population about double of MP's and half the land area of MP.

There are 5000 bike parking spaces in Lund, 160 km (99 miles) of cyclepaths, and 45% of commuters travel by bicycle.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 31, 2011 at 5:11 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

WRP asks :"What about people who live in west MP, within a few blocks north or south of Santa Cruz and work east of El Camino . "

Oak Grove would be one way west bound from ECR to University and Menlo Ave one way eastbound from University to ECR.

Traffic would probably flow more smoothly than it does now on Santa Cruz.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Sounds like the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO. My son went to CU. Been there numerous times. It is a great space and with our weather would be fantastic for outdoor dining.


Posted by sadfsf, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on May 31, 2011 at 9:17 pm

i rather see santa cruz ave become an expressway


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 1, 2011 at 5:35 am

It's says a lot for the economic class divide when so much time and money is being spent on trying to "improve" an already nice part of the city while Belle Haven stands neglected.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 7:11 am

Bob:

Santa Cruz Ave and our stretch of ECR would only be considered "nice" if it was 1965.


Posted by Irony?, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 7:45 am

Peter Carpenter's original comment sounded a lot like sarcasm to me:

"If your objective is solely to minimize traffic then why not zone all of Santa Cruz Ave as a pedestrian mall? Less traffic and a lot fewer surviving businesses."

i.e., a dead downtown doesn't generate a lot of trips (or revenue, or services). But then he seems to actually endorse it later? A little confused, but maybe more to the point- there are some elderly landlords campaigning against slightly wider sidewalks and a half-block ped mall on Chestnut street! What do you think they would say about shutting down Santa Cruz totally? I can picture steam coming out of Mark Flegel's ears if you told him that.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 1, 2011 at 8:11 am

peter carpenter is a registered user.

My original comment was sarcastic but the very next poster pointed me in the right direction (A Denver style Mall - Wow - what a great idea!)- let's use this opportunity to take an entirely new approach to Santa Cruz Ave and turn it into a gem rather than an avenue of empty stores.

As for steam coming out of some people's ears - no problem, that will be part of the process. And it is entirely possible that some of the perceived opponents of a pedestrian mall may well turn out to be its strongest supporters. They can look at the income generated by the Denver and Boulder malls.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 1, 2011 at 9:56 am

peter carpenter is a registered user.

How to Create a Pedestrian Mall

by Michelle Wallar

" A Standard Protocol
Through many trials and quite a few errors, cities gradually established a standard protocol for creating pedestrian malls in their cities: The first step is generally to communicate with traders along potential car-free streets in order to educate them about other pedestrian malls and to build a working relationship in which concerns are easily addressed. Secondly, prior to any change in traffic patterns, data is gathered on numbers of window shoppers and actual customers, and then corresponded to times, days and weather conditions. This is followed by an experimental closure, usually during nice weather or Christmas, with parallel data being collected. Only then, if the results are positive, are steps generally taken towards extending the experiment; and if all goes well, making the closure permanent with landscaping and publicity.

Out of thirty-two German cities with pedestrian zones, none accomplished their vision in one step. They implemented their respective plans step-by-step. The common pattern was to shut down a congested area, then as public support grew and financial resources became available, individual foot-streets were connected to form a traffic-free zone. City planners learned a great deal from these initial street closures.

Planning the experimental closure is of utmost importance for a successful attempt. It is important to link public and private transport with pedestrian precincts. Streets cannot be too long nor too far from tram stops, railway halts or car parks. They also should not be so wide that meandering is not possible. These streets should not just be mere roads closed to traffic, but creatively transformed-paved with colorful bricks, lacking curbs and filled with greenery. Basic tools in the initial decision making process are traffic data and zoning plans. The cost can differ widely depending on size, location, need for new street equipment or additional transport facilities (i.e. improved public transport, ring roads, fringe car parks). (For arguments against alternate paving facilities, see our "Traffic Calming: Taming The Beast Or Feeding It?" as published in the journal Population and the Environment, Spring 1992. -ed.) If you think that some type of pedestrian-only area would be an asset to your community, find like minded people and research these many success stories. Educate the community and build relationships among storefront managers/owners and pedestrian advocates. There is low risk to a business's profit with experimental closures although they allow the community to experience what it might be like to close a street to automobiles. Such experiments give everyone a more practical idea of what would and would not work with such a closure and also allow people to feel more comfortable with the potential change. Many street closures have been highly successful in the past, and perhaps your community will be the next success story. "


Posted by bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm

So Menlo voter
And how would you describe Bell Haven? You live there or shop there often? We need to set some priorities - spend the time and money where it's truly needed or satisfy the Menlo voter types whose only concern is aesthetics and their need for more boutique parking.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Bob:

Is there a lot of business in Belle Haven? Are tehy generating lots of tax revenue. Do they have teh potential to generate a lot of tax revenue. If they do it's probably not more than a healthy down town would generate.


Posted by Denver example, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 1, 2011 at 3:52 pm

A lot more of MP money is spent on Belle Haven than any other part of town. I think much of that has been an important investment, but please don't suggest that it is neglected. Not at all.
I have wondered if 1-way streets on Menlo and Oak Grove might lessen traffic congestion at their intersections with El Camino, and possibly facilitate El Camino traffic.
Why don't we try some of these things? Now. It would be very helpful for the community to come to grips with the benefits or pitfalls of vague concepts before plans become final. It is plain stupid to approve plans and then try them.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 1, 2011 at 7:30 pm

A Santa Cruz mall sounds intriguing. For it to be successful would mean having stores, shops and restaurants that people frequent during the day as well as in the evening -- ones that don't close at 6 pm. It would also mean making the city more business friendly.

Not an insurmountable task if people are willing to give it time and attention. Other cities along the Peninsula have revitalized their downtown areas and made them more welcoming; Menlo Park needs to do the same.


Posted by Member, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 8:16 pm

I used to take my Mom to restaurants in Redwood City near the movie theater. No more: they've expanded the sidewalks into the parking & now it's too far for her to walk. We now go to Menlo Park. Parking isn't always easy, but with many dining options, we're bound to find a spot close to a restaurant. Besides being a beautiful town, great with great restaurants, the parking is free!

Please consider the effects of eliminating easy parking for Seniors. If you don't want their business, go ahead and create a pedestrian mall. Downtown San Mateo is very Senior friendly, that's always another option should Menlo Park change.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

Easy pedestrian access and adjacent parking are two essential features of the Santa Cruz mall proposal. Almost every Santa Cruz business has direct access to the parking lots behind them and the closest spaces in those lots could easily be reserved for handicapped patrons. I suspect that the result could be made even more senior friendly than the current parking configuration.


Posted by Lyman Jones, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

Let's turn the closed down auto dealerships into dorms for homeless people. Most of them don't drive so there would no additional traffic impact on El Camino.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

Lyman suggests:"Let's turn the closed down auto dealerships into dorms for homeless people"

Don't get too excited about this idea. The Fire District, which rents one of the former auto dealerships, wanted to use it as a temporary fire station while rebuilding Station 6 on Oak Grove. Menlo Park wanted $400,000 of improvements before the building could be temporarily occupied by three firefighters. Needless to say the rebuilding of Station 6 is on hold.

The City at its best in stopping progress and essential improvements.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 2, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Peter:

I don't know what improvements they wanted on the building, but I suspect it's not the city that requires it, but the building code. It's been a long time since that building was built and I can guarantee there is virtually nothing there that is to current code. If it was being used as a car dealership it probably would not be required, but you're talking about a change in use and that's what usually triggers the requirements. Fire houses, even temporary ones, are considered essential structures and as such have to be built to extremely high standards. Other examples of essential structures are hospitals, police stations, etc.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 2, 2011 at 12:25 pm

"Fire houses, even temporary ones, are considered essential structures and as such have to be built to extremely high standards."

Not true, often firefighters are housed in trailers while their fire stations are being built/rebuilt.

MP just has no interest in being constructive and creative when it comes to solving problems.

But this is another topic.

Back to the Downtown Plan - with an outdated fire station that would not meet modern building requirements.


Posted by Don't giv into FEAR - Find Compromises!, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I suspect Peter Carpenter must not have been at any of the several lenghty and very well attended participatory community meetings with the consultants including traffic engineers and planners. At those meetings the idea of a pedestrian mall was discussed and preliminariloy analyzed. It just doesn't work for all of Santa Cruz Ave because Santa Cruz Ave is a main arterial in Menlo Park and the other two parallel streets can't accommodate the displaced traffic.

But they also looked at and I believe included a couple of such changes to two of the perpendicular streets.

Stepping WAY back, though, Peter and others are right that some degree of traffic impacts are unavoidable in order to address the mounting concerns about ECR as well as the lack of real foot traffic on Santa Cruz to support merchants.

I would like to see traffic data rerun for a scaled back version of the plan that doesn't go to 5 stories east of ECR, bu limits the max to 3 stories with a possible set back 4th story in some east of ECR locations to allow for senior housing. Simarly, good to rerun it to show effects if we don't allow 4 stories anywhere immediately west along ECR, but keep it to 3 stories, then tapering down to 2 stories along Santa Cruz downtown, with a possible density bonus to a set back 3rd story for properties closer to the train station side of downtown if they provide more afforable housign or other public benefits. And the parking structures really do need to proceed -- it's darned hard to find parking during the day downtown anymore.

There is a solution in here - and it would be a crying shame if a relatively small group of fear-mongers who hate any type of change were to derail all the excellent work the community has done to seek solutions to well-known problems that make others kind of chuckle under their breath about Menlo Park's downtown.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm

"It just doesn't work for all of Santa Cruz Ave because Santa Cruz Ave is a main arterial in Menlo Park and the other two parallel streets can't accommodate the displaced traffic"

I challenge that conclusion. There is no apparent reason that Oak Grove and Menlo Ave, as one way streets, could not accommodate the traffic. Please provide contradictory data.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Perhaps "compromise" would stand a better chance of finding compromise if they didn't belittle others with different opinions as minority fear mongers. What percentage of Menlo Park residents actually attended the lengthy meetings? Is their pre-EIR opinions the only ones that matter now? Heaven forbid others disagree and challenge the ideas of the political elite, and make them defend them. It's easier to call people names then address their arguments I guess. Too bad, because the a real debate might serve the public better than throwing stones.


Posted by Irony?, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 3, 2011 at 10:13 am

Thanks for the clarification, Peter. I might be oversimplifying things a bit, but- while it seems like the Denver/Boulder examples are definitely attractive and successful, a key reason they work is PEOPLE. There are just way more workers/residents/visitors around those locations, definitely more than Menlo Park currently has, and I think still way more than would be possible under the plan? You can have the nicest benches, brick walkways, etc. but if there aren't people around to enjoy them it can turn into a wasteland. Chicken/egg, definitely, but even if we get a bunch of new buildings that look like the Kepler's building, I don't see it turning into a Denver or even Boulder. My $0.02, anyway!


Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Is there anyone reading this forum who lives on either Oak Grove or Menlo Avenue. If so, a question I would be interested to hear your answer to. How would making those two streets one way affect your daily lives, positively or negatively? Same question if anyone is a business owner on those two streets. I don't know the answer, but am curious.


Posted by denver example, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 5, 2011 at 10:37 am

Thanks to Hmmm for pointing out the inappropriateness of labeling others, particularly when ostensibly promoting compromise.
I am unaware of any but the most cursory review of 1-way streets or of closing Santa Cruz.
Irony? says that People make the difference. People will come, as they did with Cafe Borrone and Keplers when there is something interesting and alluring and it's comfortable to hang out there. There is no reason to think that we have to add downtown and El Camino residents to make it better.
The plan currently just makes Menlo Park look like other towns. To compete well for people to want to come to Menlo Park when larger towns like Palo Alto and Redwood City and Stanford are nearby, it needs to be different. That's why I suggested a pedestrian mall. These are very popular in Europe, even in small towns.


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