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Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park

By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: I hope readers of my blog will join me and other members of the Menlo Park community in a collective effort to transform our downtown into a much more appealing place, one where residents enjoy a lot more positive experiences and ...  (More)

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Can Menlo Park Save Its Downtown? Reinvent It? – Part 1

Uploaded: May 11, 2020
What lies ahead?

That’s the big question now on everyone’s mind, including those who live, shop and work in Menlo Park. Last week in the afternoon, I walked the full length of a nearly empty Downtown Santa Cruz Avenue and passed many empty storefronts on my way to talk to several restaurant owners. I have reached a disturbing conclusion: the Covid-19 healthcare and economic crises will likely accelerate the decline of Downtown Menlo Park. Unfortunately, this retail district has remained pretty dull and uncompetitive for decades. But now it’s at a tipping point, teetering and likely entering a slow tailspin. I expect our entire community will pay dearly for its past neglect of our main street. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Am I an alarmist? I believe not. Evidence abounds. Just prior to the pandemic ten Santa Cruz storefronts were closed and all remain empty. Flegel’s recently moved elsewhere. The Oriental Carpet is closing after forty-five years. And the location of the once popular Village Stationary remains vacant. Meanwhile, Redwood City, San Carlos and the Palo Alto Town and Country all rode the huge wave of a robust decade-long local economy, re-invented themselves and flourished. (Note: Mountain View, a truly visionary city, successfully transformed itself decades ago). In every case, city government, local businesses and residents partnered to develop a unique vision for their central retail district and drive its design, planning, funding and implementation.

Meanwhile Menlo Park did almost nothing. In 2012 the City of Menlo Park approved its Downtown/El Camino Specific Plan.

“The overall intent of the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan is to preserve and enhance community life, character and vitality through public space improvements, mixed use infill projects sensitive to the small-town character of Menlo Park and improved connectivity. The Specific Plan reflects the outcome of an extensive community outreach and engagement process.”

It has beautiful, aspirational illustrations of a pedestrian boulevard, several parklets, two central plazas and a new farmers market, and potential benefits are described in tantalizing detail. Sadly, with the exception of a handful of outdoor dining areas NONE of the proposed improvements exist today - eight years after the city approved the plan. No city council assumed responsibility for making these civic investments, ones that would have made our main retail district more appealing for shoppers, diners, walkers and bicyclists alike. So Downtown remains largely a convenient place for residents to run errands and grab a cup of coffee. Think Trader Joes, Draeger’s, Ace Hardware, Walgreen’s, Peet’s and The Coffee Bar. There are some small restaurants. But these must compete with more than fifty in nearby Palo Alto, Redwood City and the Stanford Shopping Center. Even the new Menlo Park restaurants on El Camino appear more popular and successful than those Downtown. Think the Black Pepper, The Tavern, and St James Hotel. And these will be joined by new ones when Station 1300 and Middle Plaza are completed in 2022.

So, what lies ahead for downtown Menlo Park? Both the recession and social distancing measures will continue to harm the local economies of every city for at least the next eighteen months, and perhaps, for three years or more. I expect that neighboring retail districts will rebound. But Menlo Park will likely be the one big exception. It will miss the next economic wave as more stores and restaurants close before then, making the city even less attractive for new businesses. Can Menlo Park avoid this fate? Yes, but only if it can re-invent its planning model and successfully meets two related challenges.

Challenge #1: How does Menlo Park protect its downtown during this combined recession/ health crisis, and avoid severe damages that realistically could not be repaired?

Challenge #2 How does it transform its downtown into an appealing and economically viable retail district that thrives long after this recession ends?

Converting city streets into areas for dining is one short term action that many cities including Menlo Park are now considering. This is a great idea as restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops will need lots of outside seating capacity for as long as social distancing measures remain in-place. However, Menlo Park should not view this action as only a temporary solution. Instead, it is an extraordinary opportunity to explore and experiment with ways Downtown could be reinvented to become a unique place with unprecedented appeal and vitality.

But first consider a cautionary tale. Fact: Menlo Park has not demonstrated the capability to successfully plan and implement any challenging civic project intended to appeal to our whole community. A recent example is the multi-year experiment for a small downtown parklet, first on Curtis and then Chestnut. It was a huge failure. Poorly conceived - why not a European-style plaza? Poorly designed - ugly and no clear purpose. And poorly managed - no one was responsible for ensuring its success. So, naturally it was doomed before the first installation. Big missteps included not using an urban landscape consultant and leaving business and residents out of the entire process. (Many of us tried but were rebuffed). Our city could have learned many important lessons from this bad experience. Unfortunately, no post-mortem was performed so I doubt that it did.

Initial Recommendation

I believe that neither temporary nor permanent changes to downtown should be treated simply as a public works project. Instead, both should be guided by a strong team, including an urban design consultant, business owners and well-qualified residents who would advise the Council. The temporary first phase can be planned soon, implemented quickly (when permitted) and then steadily improved. This should not be an expensive endeavor. Planning for the permanent phase should be performed in parallel. And this should not be costly. The cost of the final implementation can be deferred to AFTER the recession has ended and the city financial position has improved. Acting without CAREFULLY thinking things through will do more damage than good. Let's not repeat big past mistakes!

Closing thought

I have tremendous respect for anyone who becomes a Menlo Park councilmember, a role that is extremely demanding and time-consuming. And though it is a mostly thankless one, I have never heard one regret about a decision to serve our city. The council and city staff usually deal with operational items like budgets, staffing, public works projects, regulations, and commercial developments proposals; and city planning processes generally do a good job of supporting them. However, the planning model is not well-suited for complex non-operational projects, e.g., downtown parking, grade separations, and the future shape of downtown. A new approach is needed, , one that helps our city council make much better decisions. Improving downtown during social-distancing measures would be a great place to start.

-----> Recently Moved

-----> Closing

-----> Gone

-----> Gone

-----> Long Gone

-----> Moved

-----> Closed

-----> Closed

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Posted by RanchGal, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on May 11, 2020 at 6:46 pm

RanchGal is a registered user.

Downtown Santa Cruz Ave. has been sad for years. I now shop in Los Altos on Main Street or State Street. It is so charming and cozy. Menlo Park Is loaded with vagrants and boarded up shops. The Menlo Park council failed miserably. Saved the pennies but spent the dollars. I'm usually an optimist but I see no future for downtown Santa Cruz Ave..
Lived here since 1956 and it's been a downhill slide since the 1980's.
It's a total mishmash of architecture with no continuity or charm. Bringing those outdoor cafés into the parking lot it's a total eyesore. And dangerous when you can't see the pedestrian in the crosswalk because of the dining barricades.
I hope for the best but I fear the worst.

Posted by Bakery, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on May 11, 2020 at 9:44 pm

I recently met with a local baker who was looking to move to downtown. They were told by brokers the vacancies downtown because the buildings are for sale, and the owners are letting the leases expire. The family trusts are selling the buildings. That is what happened to Flegels. Flegels had plenty of business: the patriarch of the family passed away the the family wanted to cash out.

Posted by Loraine, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on May 11, 2020 at 11:23 pm

Sorry but Downtown Menlo Park is very boring in my opinion. I believe it needs more appealing shops, better restaurants... It really needs a makeover. But I'm also thinking that online shopping and competition by surrounding cities have helped this area go downhill. Hopefully it can make a comeback :)

Posted by Evan, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 11, 2020 at 11:24 pm

Downtown Menlo Park is sorely in need of a major overhaul. The downtown largely looks like my first memory of it from the late 80s, which is no surprise, because our downtown's physical has barely changed since that time. The majority of surface space is devoted to parking, there's near-zero housing (which contributes to a dead feeling after hours) and street life is pretty inactive.

The current proposal to open downtown to people, by keeping cars in the remaining 99% of Menlo Park, is the best shot we have to give downtown a shot in the arm. And it dovetails with the needs of restaurants to quickly get more outdoor space.

There is still gobs and gobs of parking nearby (1000s of spaces within a 5-min walk in fact), and street life is just what's needed to change the place. Well, that, and more housing and denser builders. Let's pull our downtown out of the 80s!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 11, 2020 at 11:33 pm

Close Santa Cruz to cars and make it a pedestrian mall. This will be unique attraction that Palo Alto and Redwood city don't have. Lots of vibrant restaurants and entertainment could thrive in a walkable tree lined area. Downtown Boulder CO is a great example.

Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 12, 2020 at 6:46 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

Posted by Karenovirus , a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 12, 2020 at 10:14 am

Override the unelected San Mateo County Health Officer and declare that all downtown MP businesses are essential and manned by essential workers!

Posted by Donna , a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 12, 2020 at 12:45 pm

We moved to Menlo Park in 2011, mostly because of all the trees and the friendly community and quaint downtown area. We've always had a sense of pride and ownership in “our“ downtown. We always shop the vendors there before going anywhere else.

Retail rent is high so maybe the city or county can do more to partially subsidized new businesses to attract them and help them get a foothold during the first few critical months?

I'm very concerned that all of the empty stores that used to contribute so much to the color and flare of our downtown will be replaced by boring offices.

Posted by Longtime Menlo Parker, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on May 12, 2020 at 1:14 pm

Add Penzey's Spices to the list. Before the shutdown I heard they had either lost their lease or were letting it run out, and were planning to move out of MP.

Posted by Longtime Menlo Parker, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on May 12, 2020 at 1:17 pm

Prospect Vintage - an adorable tiny store that used to face the parking lot of Draeger's - is also permanently closed. I talked to the owner in February, and the landlord had raised the rent, making it too expensive for them to stay in that space.

Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 12, 2020 at 3:32 pm

@Bakery I do not know the status of the individual leases on the vacant Downtown storefronts. However, I have other concerns. The former business development manager for Menlo Park told me many times that attracting new businesses, ones that would actually improve Downtown, was extremely difficult. Prospects thought it was too risky to come to a retail district that had so little foot traffic. Also, lease rates are extremely high. So our wanting a "better mix" of shops and restaurants is not sufficient. Businesses must want to be here, and they have many more attractive alternatives.

The fact that property owners are now more willing to sell is a good thing but developers will not invest in a property that does not offer acceptable returns and risk. And few will start new projects in a recession.

Posted by Manlo Punk, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 12, 2020 at 8:15 pm

Yup, the town was dying before the virus struck and now it does not have a chance unless there is a major overhaul.

We walk to downtown PA well before the virus struck. Bummer cause we are spending money outside our county, but there is no comparison.

Get it together MP. All the cities around you have.

Posted by C'mom, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 13, 2020 at 6:37 am

It goes in cycles folks, and ours will return. The good news is that we have a strong community ready to shop and spend. If you own a building, losing tenants is not a good thing and you will ultimately need to sell or find a tenant who will meet a need and have economics that can sustain it in the long term. New stores will open in the new developments and many will pull business away from downtown. Downtown rents will need to decline to remain competitive, and they will. The most critical piece of infra structure is a parking garage -- it is essential. There is not a single successful downtown on the peninsula without meaningful parking structures and easy parking. MP has awful parking and it just needs to be remedied with decisive action by the council. The city can take a number of steps to beautify the area, facilitate more creative building options, etc., but ultimately the market will drive the rest of the outcomes. It is simply how it happens, and it will.

Posted by Local, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 13, 2020 at 7:44 am

My impression is that the rents are too high and a lot of the building owners are intentionally running out the leases in order to sell - is there any truth to that? Seems like there's actually plenty of interest from businesses we want to attract - places like CoffeeBar, Camper, etc - but the rents are just ridiculous.

I like our downtown. We moved here from the Cal Ave area of PA and I feel our downtown has so much more to offer in the way of staples - grocery stores, dry cleaners, pharmacies, all the amenities you really need in a walkable downtown. I don't think we necessarily need to get fancier, as you've seen some local downtowns get �" we just need better occupancy.

Posted by Menlo Voter., a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on May 13, 2020 at 8:22 am

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

A couple years ago I talked to a very successful south bay restaurateur who has multiple thriving restaurants (or did before Covid). I suggested there was great need for good restaurants in MP. His response? "I've looked. Rents are waaaaay to high and it's dead at night." Restaurants are a low margin business and it doesn't take much to make them unprofitable. When greedy landlords jack up the rents, they leave. Retail business isn't much different.

I've suggested for years that we should close Santa Cruz Ave. and turn it into a pedestrian mall like the Pearl St. Mall in Boulder. Of course, that requires vision, dedication and the strength to tell the "no birds" to shut up when they object to any change. None of that has been in large supply, so nothing gets done.

Posted by C'mon, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 13, 2020 at 12:12 pm

What growth we have seen has primarily been on one of the side streets, while many on Santa Cruz struggle. That is find by me and just as convenient. I think the idea of closing off SC is a useful one to consider, but the rents will still make the evening liveliness an issue. Good to consider. The real estate owners will ultimately make decisions best for them, and empty storefronts are not of much value for them long-term. We should not think of this challenge as a SCA issue. Rather it is a wider zone, north and south and across El Camino, that will serve the residents. Lots of competition for the SCA restaurant and store owners so they will need to respond at some point. this is a great town and a new downtown area will emerge

Posted by Really?, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 13, 2020 at 2:08 pm

Do the majority of Menlo Park people really want a lively downtown? Menlo residents want grocery, hardware and drug stores, but may not want a lively downtown that attracts more traffic.

Posted by neenee, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on May 13, 2020 at 2:31 pm

neenee is a registered user.

I have always loved Menlo Park downtown just the way it is - it has everything you need to shop - I don't wanna end up with a Palo Alto scenario where it is so frantic you can't just stroll the street and enjoy yourself

The rents are too high and COVID-19 will take care of that but also putting all those dining tables out in the parking spaces which I believe Left Bank started is ridiculous, dangerous and an eyesore. just let them eat in the restaurant like days gone by. Don't clutter the sidewalk with tables and chairs

Posted by Invest or Bust, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 13, 2020 at 4:16 pm

Lack of nightlife and high rents drive a self-fulfilling prophesy. One strong nightlife anchor destination would open up demand for other similar businesses.

Get a pack of 3-4 to go in next to each other and you now how a destination. But I totally understand that it's risky and expensive to go first.

I've seen out of this world restaurants in other countries and cities. We don't have anything comparable even in Palo Alto, San Jose or the like. Lack of imagination and funding, I'm sure.

Posted by Invest or Bust, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 13, 2020 at 4:22 pm

Sorry for my typos above. I agree with the comment above that most MP residents don't want nightlife or traffic. A segment of the population does, for sure, but I can envision the protests already!

High commercial rents, sleepy wealthy town... not the best factors to earn a high ROI.

Why do the landlords keep raising rent? Surely it's better long term to have paying tenants than to be continually looking for new tenants with unoccupied buildings.

Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 14, 2020 at 10:19 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

Posted by No Easy Solutions, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 17, 2020 at 8:28 pm

@Dana H: FYI, the last two photos are of the same store. However, do agree there are lots of closed store fronts on Santa Cruz. Miyo was one such place, but looks like a tenant has already reclaimed that space.

Posted by No Easy Solutions, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 17, 2020 at 9:20 pm

We have lived in Menlo Park near downtown, since 2005. Downtown has so much potential, but never seems to reach that potential.

I'm a proponent for turning downtown santa cruz into a pedestrian mall as it'll differentiate us from other downtowns. However, it is not enough just to close the street to cars, it has got to be a destination.
1. Significant public space or plaza with prominent public art, such as an amazing water fountain, skating/ice rink or pavilion for entertainment.
2. Build a public market on city property that offers competitive rent to attract smaller mom and pop retail business. Most of the current downtown space is utilized by offices vs retail as they can afford the rent. The public market could be own/operated by city or joint venture.
3. Parking structures that offset loss of parking space and to handle influx of new traffic.

However, in reading how some pedestrian malls have failed while others have succeeded, a common theme for success is that it needs city accountability, vision, and leadership, especially for the un-glamorous part of on-going management and maintenance. A good read for those interested is how Santa Monica revitalized their Third Street Mall/Promenade.

Posted by Dana Hendricjkson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on May 18, 2020 at 9:54 am

@No Easy Solutions.

I agree with your overall assessment which I believe is that Menlo Park needs not to simply try to restore our downtown but instead reinvent it. I think the failure of most city pedestrian promenades can be attributed to two factors.

First, cities were trying to protect their downtown shops from strong shopping mall competition and that was for many reasons a huge losing proposition starting in the 70's. Now even MOST malls are losing to online sales - think Amazon and hundreds of new clothing businesses like Thread-Up. A traditional pedestrian mall that attempts to preserve a general shopping experience has little chance of success. (Note: specialty stores and service-oriented businesses can still perform well)

Second, the lack of sufficient foot traffic kills pedestrian promenades. Successful ones have either lots of workers, college students or local housing within a convenient walking distance OR are located in a popular year-round tourist destination. Unfortunately, Menlo Park currently lacks these essential ingredients.

Perhaps, there is a different model for a Menlo Park pedestrian-friendly downtown. And now is the time to start exploring this possibility. I will explore this idea in a new post soon.

Thanks for your thoughtful and constructive comment!

Posted by good idea for Menlo Park, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on May 18, 2020 at 11:54 am

good idea for Menlo Park is a registered user.

There are large projects underway that will add hundreds of new homes on El Camino and additional projects with housing nearby. There WILL be more foot traffic before long.

I believe the City Council is considering closing off Santa Cruz Ave downtown, at least for a while. That should be a good experiment, and it may help restaurants in this time of required physical distancing.

I encourage moving forward on a parking garage in the area where the greatest regular demand is (e.g., in the portion of downtown between Chestnut and El Camino Real). That area will continue to have the highest demand because of the large developments, including the new Guild.

Posted by, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on May 21, 2020 at 11:39 pm is a registered user.

It has lovely, optimistic outlines of a person on foot road, a few parklets, two focal squares and another ranchers market, and potential advantages are portrayed in enticing point of interest. Web Link

Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 27, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 27, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.

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