The MP City Council Changes Downtown Street Closures Again and Extends the Trial Into 2021. Is this Enough? | Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park | Dana Hendrickson | Almanac Online |

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By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: My wife and I moved to central Menlo Park in 1985 where we have raised two sons. A retired high-tech executive, I now actively participate in local and national community service programs. I am the founder and director of Rebuil...  (More)

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The MP City Council Changes Downtown Street Closures Again and Extends the Trial Into 2021. Is this Enough?

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2020
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On September 8, 2020, the Menlo Park City Council approved significant changes to BOTH the city’s temporary closures of lanes on Santa Cruz Avenue and the temporary regulations that permit restaurants in all parts of the city to create new outdoor dining areas in public parking spaces and on sidewalks. The goal is to make the changes by October 1, 2020. (Note: retailers can also take advantage of these permits and public spaces.)

I encourage residents and business owners to watch the video of the September 8 council meeting in order to better understand not only how the specific Council decisions were made but also to observe how the Council reaches its decisions.

This is the link to the meeting video; this agenda item starts at 3:08 (hours: minutes).

The following is my summary of what I witnessed and some of my impressions. Council members are welcome to clarify their positions or correct any misunderstandings that I may have. Simply comment on this post.

Key Changes

1. The lanes on the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue will be reopened on ALL the blocks between El Camino and University. This will enable one-way traffic for the entire length of downtown. The lane closures will be removed on the two blocks between Chestnut and Evelyn, and Amici’s, Roma and Ann’s Coffee Shop have agreed to relocate their street dining areas from the lanes to street parking spaces.

2. The lane on the south side of Santa Cruz between Doyle and Curtis is currently closed and used by Bistro Vida and The Left Bank for outdoor dining areas. This lane will now be opened to bicyclists and pedestrians on weekdays to improve the safety of bicyclists, especially Hillview students. This lane will be closed on weekends between 4PM Friday and midnight Sunday to allow outdoor dining and other activities.

3. Both the reconfigured lane closures and the temporary outdoor dining permits will be extended to at least the end of February 2021. There is no fixed end date for either element of this temporary program. Instead, the Council will continue to review it and make changes as needed.

Some Key Positions Expressed by Council Members

Catherine Carlton

1. Authored the motion to re-open the entire length of the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue.

2. Does not see the value of continuing to maintain the lane closure on the south side of Santa Cruz between Crane and Evelyn as she claimed most business do NOT want it, and the closure would continue to impede the “eastbound” traffic flow between University and Curtis.

Betsy Nash

1. Believes Bistro Vida and Left Bank need street dining only in the evenings and proposed that bicyclists and pedestrians be given full access to the eastbound lane between Curtis and Doyle during the day. The restaurants would only use the lane in the evenings and would need to move many tables, chairs, heaters and umbrellas twice-a-day.

2. Opposes opening the lane on the south side of Santa Cruz between Eveyln and Crane even though affected restaurants and retail businesses support this action. Nash wants the lane to be available in order to maintain a “public space”. Nash made no suggestions as to how this space might be used. (Drew Combs agreed). Nash said she would not support Carlton’s motion to open the North side if this lane was also re-opened. (Carlton accepted this condition)

3. Doesn’t want the city to share any of the costs that individual restaurants might incur to either improve or winterize their outdoor dining areas. (Note: Staff said city funding would be limited to barriers and street planters.)

4. Concerned about how to ensure owners their investments would be worthwhile but did not identify how to do this. Asked staff to research ideas.

5. Claims that strong community support exists for closing all of Santa Cruz between El Camino and University but provided no proof. (Ray Mueller asserted this was not the time to be addressing that issue and all agreed.)

Ray Mueller

1. Believes the loss of in-the-street dining would a significant setback for both Bistro Vida and the Left Bank. Did not understand that permits actually banned this use but the city had not enforced this provision because it had not been identified as a big issue.

2. Claims the Menlo Park street closure and new outdoor dining permit regulations have had a significant positive impact and that Menlo Park has done a better job than some other Peninsula cities. He did not provide any examples to support this view.

3. Reminded other council members that they did not need to address all known issues now as there would be other opportunities in the future when more was known about actual trade-offs.

4. Opposes the City spending money on marketing programs. Prefers fixing downtown city infrastructure, e.g., crosswalks, sidewalks.


Drew Combs

1. Indicated he believed the interests of residents - not just the business community - deserved strong consideration re: street closing decisions and opposed reopening the south side lane between Evelyn and Crane in order to maintain this “public space”. He made no specific suggestions as to how this space might be used.

My Impressions

1. I generally do NOT believe either the lane closures on Santa Cruz or the temporary permit programs have been very successful. Retailers generally hate the closures and claim these have hurt their businesses. Navigating the closures has been difficult for motorists and bicyclists. The closed lanes are generally empty except where Bistro Vida and the Left Bank have installed outdoor patios. The restaurants on side streets appear neglected by the city. (Note: simply supplying ugly K-rail barriers is inadequate.) And many owners have been reluctant to invest in new dining areas because they did not know how long the temporary program would last beyond September.

2. With respect to street closures the City Council has ended up pretty much where I have expected. Before the trial started, I submitted a proposal that would not have closed any streets and instead focused on helping restaurants create outdoor dining “patios” in public parking spaces and on sidewalks. (Note: sidewalks would remain open to pedestrians as is currently required by existing city regulations.) I also mapped all the opportunities and provided photos. Unfortunately, the Council never responded to my requests for an opportunity to discuss this proposal. (Note: This is totally consistent with behavior I have experienced previously)

3. I do not support re-opening the eastbound lane on Santa Cruz Avenue between Doyle and Curtis for bicyclists and pedestrians at any time, as there is a far better alternative that would both improve bicyclist safety and preserve the vibrant existing Bistro Vida and Left Bank street dining areas.

Hillview students do need to traverse this block in the afternoon. Instead, they can be directed to walk their bikes on the sidewalk for about 120 feet along the Bistro Vida and Left Bank dining areas. Many already stop at Starbuck’s in the afternoon and hang out there. Expecting them to walk their bikes a short distance on an uncrowded sidewalk is a reasonable requirement.

Bistro Vida and Left Bank have created beautiful street dining patios that are popular at lunchtime and in the afternoons. These are tremendous examples of what can be done when business owners are willing to invest in Menlo Park, and they should be applauded not discouraged. Deciding to harming owner and employee livelihoods rather than accept a minor bicyclist inconvenience would be an extremely poor trade-off and dedication.

Finally, preserving public space in the lane west of the Bistro Vida street dining area is a good idea. It can be made more attractive and used for purposes that appeal to residents. So why is there a need to keep the section of lane between Evelyn and Crane closed when there is one on a popular block near Starbuck’s, Walgreen’s and Trader Joe’s. Opening the former improves traffic flow which benefits residents entering downtown from the west.

I believe the decision to reopen this lane to bikes and pedestrians was NOT well thought out and no final decision should have been made without first carefully considering practical alternatives. Also, it was not clear that the affected restaurant owners had been consulted by the City.

4. The Council remains too narrowly focused on Santa Cruz Avenue. The problems experienced by restaurants and other types of businesses located on side streets have neither been discussed nor addressed publicly. They only need street planters at curbs and permission to set-up winterized patios. Carpaccio, La Stanza, Café Del Sol and Shiok could all benefit as they lack adjacent street parking spaces.

5. The Council needs to appreciate that each restaurant has important opportunities and limitations that stem from its particular location. This means the city must be flexible in the manner in which it applies regulations, i.e., a one size fits all approach is too restrictive and will unnecessarily harm individual restaurants. Reasonable exceptions should NOT require Council approval; the city manager should have this authority.

6. The city SHOULD spend money on both helping individual restaurants create attractive outdoor dining patios AND marketing programs that benefit all downtown businesses. Both can draw more residents downtown, especially in the evenings. The City allocated $300, 000 to this program and had spent less than 10% as of September 8. In the past, it has spent about $35,000 on each semi-permanent outdoor dining patio individual restaurants built on Santa Cruz. Fairness would dictate that restaurants on side streets also receive financial assistance. Examples of marketing programs are listed in observation 8c. Both are worthwhile investments that would increase the chances that individual businesses will survive through this winter and next year.

6. The city has not determined what measures most residents would prefer for improving downtown. Instead, the Council shoulders the burden of making decisions based on only anecdotal information. Credible city-wide surveys could be created and performed easily and inexpensively, both now and in the future, but unfortunately these are not currently viewed as valuable.

7. The city continues to collect and rely on anecdotal information about the preferences and concerns of downtown businesses. The Chamber of Commerce should formally survey all of them regularly, e.g., at least every 6o days, either by phone or email, and report to the Council what it has learned, e.g., trends, items that deserve Council attention and its own recommendations. The Council should want this information.

8. Street closures and temporary regulations are “stop-gap” measures that PERHAPS will slow the decline of our downtown but too little attention is being given to reversing this trend. And in reality no one in the city displays any ownership for this responsibility. Instead, overall planning remains fragmented and sporadic. This is a systemic problem that will continually haunt and harm Menlo Park because no one with essential power (or influence) has the will and courage to take it on.

a. The dozen empty storefronts on Santa Cruz are a blight and not transforming their use while they are vacant is a BIG missed opportunity to improve our downtown. Unfortunately, no one seems to be addressing this problem.

b. Too little attention is given to improving the general appearance of downtown (Santa Avenue and side streets). Clean the streets, add plantings and small trees, benches and sculptures to public spaces and install beautiful holiday displays.

c. The closed eastbound lane of Santa Cruz between Evelyn and Crane will remain an eyesore. Why not make it a more appealing and welcoming space? Add amenities. Make it beautiful. And stage regular evening events, e.g., music, featured restaurant dining, wine & beer tasting; dessert tastings, BBQ’s on nights restaurants are closed.

Many cities in the US quickly embraced "street closures" in order to help struggling eating establishments. Their intentions were good. Now I expect a wave of reconsiderations as the negative impacts "sink-in". I believe there are better ways to help downtown businesses, their customers and other residents. Bad weather will arrive in Menlo Park no later than December. There should be an urgency about helping restaurants not only get ready but also to benefit from favorable weather before then. And the help should not be limited to eating establishments.

I hope the City Council acts smartly now!

=> NOTE: Read additional comments on this post at Nextdoor.

Walk Bikes Around the Bistro Vida and Left Bank Dining Areas



These restaurants on side streets need assistance.

La Stanza




Carpaccio


Cafe Del Sol


Shiok



We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Iris, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 4:24 pm

Iris is a registered user.

Regarding 7a: bear in mind that the city does not own the properties downtown. Its power to fill vacant storefronts is limited.
However, more can be done to keep downtown clean and free of blight (e.g., weeds that line certain properties on Menlo Ave.). It would help to require something in empty windows such as attractive "posters", and to levy fines for not keeping weeds clear.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by conscience, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 4:53 pm

conscience is a registered user.

Very disappointed in the MPCC action. Sorry to inconvenience bye riders, but they do have alternative routes besides Santa Cruz Avenue (Menlo Avenue and Oak Grove). We need to keep our downtown alive and help keep our local restaurants thriving during this very difficult time. Some inconvenience for bike riders and pedestrians. Really bike riders and pedestrians, please think of the bigger picture.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 4:53 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

@Iris, you are of course right about building ownership. But that does not mean the City should not work with owners to improve their storefronts.They could be used to display art and other interesting items. This is common in other places with vacant shops. And yes, the city could require owners to meet minimum appearance standards. Thanks for your comment.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Tina, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Tina is a registered user.

HUGELY disappointed in the shortsightedness of the city council.

Do you seriously expect this very complicated traffic pattern to work? For either drivers and/or cyclists?

Very sad to hear that Catherine Carlton can't find it in her power to go a block north to Oak Grove and instead MUST drive the entire length of Santa Cruz, with it's zillion stop signs. Oh the inconvenience.

Catherine, Ray Mueller, Betsy Nash & the rest of the Council needs to take a field trip to Redwood City & Palo Alto, to see what street closures and really supporting both your constituents & local restaurant & retail community should entail. It's quite naive to say that Menlo Park is doing a good job. Our residents are dining outdoors, just in other cities, where it's easier & safer.

Completely agree with "CONSCIENCE'.

As to # 6 above, plus Betsy & Drew's observations/suggestions - Let the community 'WEIGH in" - give us the ability to voice our opinions VIA ONLINE SURVEYS (not phone calls & emails). This is a smart town smack in the middle of a research/technology sector, do an online survey(s)!
1. community survey
2. retail survey

And transparently show us the results/data of the survey(s). So we can vote for Council Members who will appropriately represent us in the next election.

It is NOT SAFE to have restaurants with tables on the sidewalk. Pedestrians cannot safely walk/pass by, with diners eating/drinking & not wearing masks. Bicyclists need to take another route entirely, as they shouldn't be ON the sidewalk, and the road (if eastbound has been closed & tables set up, & westbound is open to vehicular traffic) is not open & available to cyclists.

Please add Refuge to your "needs better support/on a side street" list (across from Carpaccio).


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Logan, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 12:15 am

Logan is a registered user.

I don't tend to believe bloggers when the paraphrase discussions to serve their own argument. Dana weren't you the blogger who wrote against the City Council closing Santa Cruz all together?Sorry, but I am going to rely on how the actual reporters write the story as this Council stood up to you when you told them it was a mistake to close the street. I have asked around and believe the Council told the City people to bring back a different route for the safe routes to school that goes through this area to and from Hillview Middle School so they can close the whole street again. Why didn't you write that?


 +   3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 6:26 am

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

@Logan. You appear to have two concerns about my post. That you do not trust my "paraphrasing" what council members said at the meeting and that I have misrepresented what the Council directed staff to do re: a safe bike route for Hillview students. I will respond only because your comment could actually mislead readers and that is the last thing I want to happen. I do not engage in debate over my motives nor question the motives of those who submit comments. AND I do not expect others to agree with my actual views. I encourage others to share their views and reasoning.

Concern #1: Paraphrasing. I encourage every resident to watch the actual meeting video so they can hear exactly what each council member said. I also invited all council members to submit a comment if they felt I had not accurately represented anything they said. None have. Two council members have contacted me privately since the post and one asked me to change one word - use "most"instead of "all". I made that change immediately.

Concern #2: Safe Bike Route To School. The council discussed what do to about students biking through downtown in the afternoon. Street closures were causing some to ride in unsafe ways and council members are concerned that allowing Bistro Vida and The Left Bank to use the street lane for dining during weekdays would block their passage AND potentially dangerous riding behavior as they avoided this "obstruction". The Council after much discussion decided to limit the times when the restaurants could use this space and asked staff to comeback with ideas that would be more supportive of the restaurants but not jeopardize bicyclists. (Note: I simply suggested that walking bikes on the sidewalk a short distance appeared to be a reasonable solution). I do not recall any council member suggesting Santa Cruz be reopened its entire length to make it more safe for bicyclists. (Note: The bike lanes on Oak Grove were installed to encourage Hillview bicyclists to safely bypass downtown.

Final note: I welcome everyone's substantive comments, as they represent opportunities to clarify anything in my posts for all readers. I generally ignore ones that question my motives.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 6:28 am

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 7:05 am

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

@Tina. Thanks for your comprehensive constructive comment!

There is only one point you made I don't entirely agree with.

"It is NOT SAFE to have restaurants with tables on the sidewalk"

A few MP restaurants on side streets are at locations where sidewalks are the only practical solution for outdoor dining areas because no adjacent public parking spaces exist AND pedestrian traffic is extremely light when the restaurants are open. La Stanza on Maloney is a good example. In these situations, I believe the tradeoff is reasonable. I do agree however, that this is generally not the case on Santa Cruz Avenue.

But I try to avoid the word "never".

:)


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Tina, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 11:20 am

Tina is a registered user.

@Dana,
I look at this discussion with 2 key issues top of mind:
1. Safety (diners, restaurant staff, TO GO purchasers, pedestrians, & cyclists)
2. Sales - how do we (city of Menlo Park & citizens) creatively help our local restaurants & retail establishments increase their sales - under the new Covid-19 constraints?

We love La Stanza (and Refuge & Shiok) & we have been big supporters of their TO GO program during the pandemic.

However, 2 tables on the sidewalk flank La Stanza's front door, and people have to go past these diners in order to go in/out to pick up their TO GO food. We have masks on, but diners don't. Not sure about others, but this makes me quite uncomfortable when I go to pick up a food order.

No one can walk on the sidewalk at La Stanza because of the tables, so you have to walk in the street. I've got to believe the city has potential safety/liability issues for pedestrians in this situation.

So, why not close that lightly used side street from Santa Cruz to the parking lot & let La Stanza appropriately space tables in the closed street, and put pedestrians (and folks picking up TO GO food) back onto the sidewalk? (You could do the same for Refuge, Shiok & others on side streets, as you're correct, they do need more support/creativity because they aren't on the main Santa Cruz drag)

If you go to Redwood City, say to Nick the Greek or LV Mar - they have tables set up in their own little enclosed patios IN the closed street. Allowing pedestrians to safely walk down the sidewalk with masks on, visit retail stores, and/or pick up their TO GO food. While diners, eating/drinking without masks, are in their own, more contained areas.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 17, 2020 at 12:47 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

@Tina. I too would prefer to close Maloney to traffic in the evening and recommended this before the trial started. No council member responded so I don't think they agree with us. Asking pedestrians to walk in the street would be reasonable. Even if the City only closed just the southbound lane, that would benefit La Stanza and Phil's and still allow one way traffic. Unfortunately, the Council has NOT shown any interest in considering such options for restaurants on side streets

So, I and others are now helping La Stanza's owners create an attractive and safe sidewalk patio. That is really their only immediate alternative. And I believe it can be configured to mitigate the actual and perceived COVID-19 risk for customers who use La Stanza's take-out service and their outdoor patio.

Even with an open street there is very little pedestrian and motorist activity on Maloney on most evenings. That is fortunate. :)


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Iris, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 9:11 am

Iris is a registered user.

When safety is concerned, it is crucial to look at from what and for whom.
For pedestrians: safety concerns because of close encounters with people who are not wearing masks, safety from automobiles, safety from falls when getting on/off sidewalks when not at an intersection. The current design flunks this in numerous places because diners are within a few feet of where pedestrians must walk on the sidewalk, and too close to people waiting in line for take out. examples are mentioned above by several of us.
Pedestrians: safety from autos and trucks when forced to walk in the street because of numerous situations listed above. Probably, with opening partially on additional blocks and with new eating bulbouts, this will be worsened (e.g., near Ann's and Stanza).
The current design is not at all pedestrian friendly. If you doubt this, try walking from El Camino past University (i.e., west of University) on each side of the street at several times of day.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 11:12 am

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

@Iris. There are no perfect solutions that will satisfy everyone so I believe acceptable compromises and trade-offs should be made.

Examples:

1. Waiting areas for take-out customers and diners who want a table can be separated from pedestrians and dining tables.

2. Pedestrians can walk on sidewalks on the opposite side of the street if they are uncomfortable passing by sidewalk diners, i.e, use a different route to their destination. They can also use the back entrances of shops.

3. Pedestrians can chose to shop when restaurants are not busy.

Everyone needs to be willing to accept some personal sacrifice and can do so without jeopardizing their safety. Some small loss of convenience seems reasonable to me.

Note: most sidewalks are not busy in the evenings when restaurants are popular and many do not even open during the day.


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