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Menlo Park: New mayor lays out pragmatic agenda focused on resident needs and rebuilding

Drew Combs. Photo by Michelle Le.

This year, Menlo Park Mayor Drew Combs isn't proposing a bold new agenda full of big new projects for the city to tackle.

Of his priorities for the new year, he said in a recent interview, "Nothing is new or shocking or hasn't been part of the debate."

Instead, he's staying focused on manageable goals aimed at meeting residents' needs in the near term, he explained.

Combs noted that he's been involved in serving the city for about eight years now, starting as a bicycle commissioner before serving on the Planning Commission for a number of years.

As a planning commissioner, he said, many of the Menlo Park households he interacted with were families who had bought small homes proposing projects that indicated, "a desire to give back to the community and stay in the community," he said. Oftentimes, they thought they'd only live there for a year or so, but then they fell in love with the community, their street or their neighborhood, and decided they wanted to make Menlo Park their "forever home," he explained.

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As mayor, he explained, he plans to remember those people – "a bunch of families invested in the community" – and help them "feel that they have a voice on the City Council."

Thinking about those families, he added, he's interested in taking on quality of life projects such as parks and transportation infrastructure.

One theme of Combs' priorities for 2021 is to focus on shorter-term, smaller projects.

"I appreciate that there are others (on the City Council) that gravitate to big picture projects and ideas...but my focus again is going to families I saw as a Planning Commissioner and what we can do to really help improve their quality of life in this community," he said.

Among the projects he is interested in pushing forward are, for instance, smaller-scale transportation projects like bike lanes and traffic-calming measures. In addition, he said, he's interested at looking at how to improve safety on Valparaiso Avenue between Hallmark Circle and Altschul Avenue, where a teen recently died in a traffic accident.

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As the City Council representative of District 2, he's also talked about how to make improvements to the district's only city park, Willow Oaks Park.

Other big initiatives for the city this year are finding both a permanent police chief and city attorney, and working on the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment to plan for upwards of 3,000 new housing units citywide, he noted.

Once a new police chief is selected, the community and council can start talking about what kinds of reforms should be considered within the police department, Combs explained.

And as the city moves forward through the pandemic's end, Combs said, he's eager to help the city transition out of the pandemic and bring back city services "when it is safe and appropriate to do so."

Figuring out which programs to restore and how will involve many decisions – including some tougher ones, like whether to contract out some services.

He said he's interested in helping downtown businesses survive and discussing what the city can actually do to support them. He added that he's currently more interested in smaller projects, like making aesthetic improvements or adding landscaping over more ambitious projects like a parking garage at the moment.

When it comes to Menlo Park's relationship with its train tracks, he said, grade separations are often discussed as an an important long-term goal. "I don't think we should lose sight of it," he added.

At the same time, the idea of quiet zones, or creating some kind of change at specific rail crossings to reduce the noise impacts of Caltrain, is another idea that could be pursued in the shorter-term, though he said he wasn't necessarily endorsing the idea.

Another smaller-scale project is to figure out how to move forward with landscaping the area near the U.S. 101 offramp at Willow Road where Caltrans' broadened interchange removed the trees previously there. The city applied for a grant to do some ambitious landscaping there but was denied, Combs explained. But refocusing on what the city can do with the funds it does have is a worthy project, he argued.

"It's not an ideal situation that there is no landscaping there for months, going on years, after the project was completed," he said.

He also noted that the future is always a little uncertain. After all, when he started on the Bicycle Commission (now part of the Complete Streets Commission), he couldn't have imagined he'd become mayor eight years later, let alone that it would be during a pandemic.

"It's not something I could have imagined," he said. "I consider it to be an honor, in a small way, to serve the city during this time."

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Menlo Park: New mayor lays out pragmatic agenda focused on resident needs and rebuilding

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Mon, Feb 8, 2021, 11:45 am

This year, Menlo Park Mayor Drew Combs isn't proposing a bold new agenda full of big new projects for the city to tackle.

Of his priorities for the new year, he said in a recent interview, "Nothing is new or shocking or hasn't been part of the debate."

Instead, he's staying focused on manageable goals aimed at meeting residents' needs in the near term, he explained.

Combs noted that he's been involved in serving the city for about eight years now, starting as a bicycle commissioner before serving on the Planning Commission for a number of years.

As a planning commissioner, he said, many of the Menlo Park households he interacted with were families who had bought small homes proposing projects that indicated, "a desire to give back to the community and stay in the community," he said. Oftentimes, they thought they'd only live there for a year or so, but then they fell in love with the community, their street or their neighborhood, and decided they wanted to make Menlo Park their "forever home," he explained.

As mayor, he explained, he plans to remember those people – "a bunch of families invested in the community" – and help them "feel that they have a voice on the City Council."

Thinking about those families, he added, he's interested in taking on quality of life projects such as parks and transportation infrastructure.

One theme of Combs' priorities for 2021 is to focus on shorter-term, smaller projects.

"I appreciate that there are others (on the City Council) that gravitate to big picture projects and ideas...but my focus again is going to families I saw as a Planning Commissioner and what we can do to really help improve their quality of life in this community," he said.

Among the projects he is interested in pushing forward are, for instance, smaller-scale transportation projects like bike lanes and traffic-calming measures. In addition, he said, he's interested at looking at how to improve safety on Valparaiso Avenue between Hallmark Circle and Altschul Avenue, where a teen recently died in a traffic accident.

As the City Council representative of District 2, he's also talked about how to make improvements to the district's only city park, Willow Oaks Park.

Other big initiatives for the city this year are finding both a permanent police chief and city attorney, and working on the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment to plan for upwards of 3,000 new housing units citywide, he noted.

Once a new police chief is selected, the community and council can start talking about what kinds of reforms should be considered within the police department, Combs explained.

And as the city moves forward through the pandemic's end, Combs said, he's eager to help the city transition out of the pandemic and bring back city services "when it is safe and appropriate to do so."

Figuring out which programs to restore and how will involve many decisions – including some tougher ones, like whether to contract out some services.

He said he's interested in helping downtown businesses survive and discussing what the city can actually do to support them. He added that he's currently more interested in smaller projects, like making aesthetic improvements or adding landscaping over more ambitious projects like a parking garage at the moment.

When it comes to Menlo Park's relationship with its train tracks, he said, grade separations are often discussed as an an important long-term goal. "I don't think we should lose sight of it," he added.

At the same time, the idea of quiet zones, or creating some kind of change at specific rail crossings to reduce the noise impacts of Caltrain, is another idea that could be pursued in the shorter-term, though he said he wasn't necessarily endorsing the idea.

Another smaller-scale project is to figure out how to move forward with landscaping the area near the U.S. 101 offramp at Willow Road where Caltrans' broadened interchange removed the trees previously there. The city applied for a grant to do some ambitious landscaping there but was denied, Combs explained. But refocusing on what the city can do with the funds it does have is a worthy project, he argued.

"It's not an ideal situation that there is no landscaping there for months, going on years, after the project was completed," he said.

He also noted that the future is always a little uncertain. After all, when he started on the Bicycle Commission (now part of the Complete Streets Commission), he couldn't have imagined he'd become mayor eight years later, let alone that it would be during a pandemic.

"It's not something I could have imagined," he said. "I consider it to be an honor, in a small way, to serve the city during this time."

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