The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

Menlo Park City Council Moving Forward with Downtown Plans

by Keith Davis

Following three months of, at times, rowdy public meetings, Menlo Park’s Downtown Specific Plan has been greenlighted to Final Review by the City Council, but not without a comprehensive revision by the Planning Department.

It’s not quite clear what the plan will look like after the revision. The original version proposes a bold collection of zoning changes and public works projects for the area surrounding the intersection of El Camino Real and Santa Cruz Avenue (Menlo Park’s main street), including the area around the Caltrain station. It proposes to increase the downtown’s vitality by making it safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists. The plan proposes increased building heights, decreased building setbacks, and infill development made possible by eliminating the multiple parking lots serving downtown and replacing them with two parking garages. It also proposes two upscale hotels along El Camino Real to help finance the plan. The plan is the result of a four-year community visioning process.

Plan supporters include neighbors seeking a more vibrant downtown, entrepreneurs looking for startup space, and developers eager for Menlo Park to ease building restrictions. In partnership with the Chapter’s Sustainable Land Use Committee (SLU), the Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens Council (MPGRCC) has voiced its support for much of the plan. Opposition is led by a group of downtown merchants, who fear that the plan will damage downtown Menlo Park’s village feel.

If done right, filling in the downtown and railroad station areas with more housing, jobs, and retail will make it possible for people to commute without a car, and even go carless. By clustering future housing and development close to the Caltrain station, this plan gives people the option of traveling between home, work, and shopping sans private automobile, the number one contributor of carbon-based emissions. This plan is well aligned with the goals of the Chapter’s Building Climate Friendly Communities initiative.

We believe this plan is a great start and that it allows retail and other businesses to be more profitable, residents to take ownership over an enhanced downtown, and the region to have improved public health, great transit, and a reduced climate footprint. To help achieve this vision, SLU has been reaching out to community grassroots organizations such as MPGRCC to share information and drum up community participation.

However, it is a difficult fight. As the plan has gone through the planning process, the scale of change has begun to soften. Proposed building heights are dropping, talk has shifted from support for bikes to support for more cars, and the parking garage proposals are being threatened with lawsuits. We will continue to reach out to community members, appeal to decision makers through letters and public comments, and push for a plan that benefits both the regional vision and community values.

Keith Davis has been a Chapter intern since May and is an active member of the Sustainable Land Use Committee.