Almanac

News - August 3, 2011

Amid volatile comments, city may take 'phased approach' to downtown plan

by Sandy Brundage

The third session of the Menlo Park Planning Commission's review of the proposed downtown/El Camino Real specific plan inspired more than two hours of volatile public comment on July 28.

Suggested features of the re-envisioned downtown zone include wider sidewalks along Santa Cruz Avenue, a permanent farmers' market with covered stalls, two parking garages in plazas 1 and 3, and blocking off Chestnut Street to create a pedestrian-friendly paseo.

The crowd ignored Chair Vincent Bressler's repeated requests to stop applauding after each speaker, as one person after another told the commission that the plan threatened their livelihoods. Wider sidewalks meant less street parking, some said.

"Having to walk to a parking garage won't encourage customers to shop," said furniture store owner Mark Flegel. "It will drive them away."

Some speakers, however, such as former councilman John Boyle and commissioner Henry Riggs, speaking as an individual, emphasized the positive possibilities of a more vibrant downtown, one with fewer vacancies than the current 10 to 14 empty storefronts on Santa Cruz Avenue.

Mr. Boyle said that in going door-to-door to talk to merchants about the plan, he'd heard that some felt bullied into signing a petition from the Downtown Alliance, a group of local property and business owners that opposes the specific plan's vision.

"They felt like they couldn't say no to their landlord," he said, and in the background, boos drowned out the applause.

Mr. Riggs said he shared some concerns about the parking garages, but believed the plan could respond. He suggested an incremental approach toward implementation, one that would need support from at least half the owners of property bordering the garages.

The phased approach was one the Planning Commission was willing to run with. It voted 5-0, with Mr. Riggs and Jack O'Malley excused, to temporarily close the section of Chestnut Street closest to Santa Cruz Avenue. Mr. Bressler asked to include seating, landscaping, and food vendors to make the space more attractive.

As for the parking garages, Commissioner John Kadvany suggested Plaza 2 — tucked between Crane and Chestnut streets — as a possible location, an idea backed by colleague Peipei Yu.

With staff estimating a price tag of $42 million to $48 million, who would pay for the garages remains open for debate. Commissioner Katie Ferrick noted that businesses may hesitate to move into downtown if the future would require them to help pay for the structures; the commission then noted that may not be the only model to use.

"I want the John Arrillaga of parking garages," Mr. Kadvany said, referring to the local philanthropist who has donated millions for the renovation of Menlo Park's gym and recreation center.

The commissioners then voted 5-0 again to recommend looking at Plaza 2; preserving street parking while encouraging parking garage use by downtown employees via discounted permits; and to make the height and aesthetics of the garages a priority design consideration.

The Planning Commission continues its review on Thursday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. in council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St. Staff will present an overview of the plan at 6 p.m.

The commission will make recommendations to the City Council, which will decide the ultimate shape of the plan.

Go to tinyurl.com/plan-163 to review the specific plan.

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