Downtown Business Alliance Storms Planning Commission

Menlo Park property owners get rowdy, demand that parking structures be built before any on-street parking spaces are removed. Planning commissioners vote to augment plan with six phrases.

A raucous crowd of business owners took turns lambasting a proposed Downtown parking plan in front of a startled Menlo Park Planning Commission Thursday night.

Calling into the question the value and impacts of two proposed large parking structures, business owners convinced the Planning Commission to vote unanimously to recommend that a third option—the parking lot behind Le Boulanger—be considered in the El Camino Real/ Downtown Specific Plan.

The business owners spoke forcefully about the link between parking availability and customer frequency.

“Parking is the life blood of the downtown merchants,” said Jitze Couperous, an engineer who owns property on Santa Cruz Avenue.

“You are strangling that life blood in your short-term plan,” he said, ”and then there’s some vague arm-waving of, yes, maybe we’ll find umpteen million dollars to build these huge parking structures. I challenge you if you have any engineering blood in your body, or the visceral gonads to put your money where your mouth is, build the parking plazas first, before you remove the on-street parking.”

The crowd that sat in City Council Chambers applauded raucously after dozens of speakers testified against developing land on Santa Cruz Avenue, much to the chagrin of Planning Commission Chair Vince Bressler. After the first speaker received an ovation that would make any professional orator feel validated, Bressler requested that people not applaud, so that everyone who planned to make a public comment would feel equally as able to do so without public scorn.  He was summarily ignored.   

Many of the people in Council Chambers that evening were affiliated with the Downtown Business Alliance, which is a group of Menlo Park business and property owners that coalesced on May 12, 2010, according to preservempdowntown.org, after the city released a draft of its vision for downtown on April 2010. 

Its members are extremely concerned that the plan includes guidelines for creating two 48-foot-tall parking garages on top of existing parking plazas that were paid for by the business owners in the 50s, Nancy Couperous told Patch in September 2010.

“Everyone who was a property owner at that time paid an assessment very month, so that over time, everybody was paying for that parking,” Couperous said.  She is one of the property owners who is credited with mobilizing the members of the Alliance, who in large part would prefer for Menlo Park to remain as it is.

Former Council Member John Boyle has been involved in the process of creating this plan since its inception in 2007, and was one of the few people to speak in favor of developing downtown.  

Boyle said the goal is not to turn Menlo Park into a major urban center, it is to bring the zoning and architectural guidelines into the 21st century.  Boyle said the changes in real estate prices, technology, shopping and transportation patterns in the past few decades must compel government officials to take action in order to prevent the blight on El Camino Real from spreading to downtown.

“Frankly, the so-called Downtown Business Alliance does not speak for many of the merchants,” Boyle said.  “I’ve had many people tell me they felt intimidated and bullied into signing the petition,” he added, immediately receiving a wave of audible disapproval.  

The Downtown Business Alliance members circulated a petition in May 2010 that detailed their preference for the preservation of a “small-town atmosphere” in Menlo Park among downtown business owners.

Commissioners were tasked Thursday with reviewing the El Camino Real/ Downtown Specific Plan to “provide clear and specific recommendations on potential improvements and refinements to the draft plan for the future consideration of City Council,” according to the agenda for the meeting.

Since 2007, city staffers have been developing a draft of the El Camino Real/ Downtown Specific Plan, and are nearing the end of process of presenting it to the commissions in town.

Thomas Rogers, Associate Planner for the City of Menlo Park, emphasized that the plan is not an actual individual private development project, nor a final decision on any public improvement such as sidewalk widening and garages.

“It is a clear and action-oriented plan for the next 20-30 years,” Rogers said.  “It provides a detailed framework for public space improvement, provides a strong foundation for private development through government regulations like height, intensity and density,” he said.

Rogers has gathered feedback from the Transportation Commission, the Environmental Quality Commission, and now the Planning Commission.  He plans to wrap up his presentation circuit on August 22. 

None of the Commissioners have reviewed the Fiscal Impact Report for the project.

Each of the parking garages, if built, would cost between 21 and 24 million dollars, although how they would be funded has not been finalized, as that would be outside of the scope of this draft plan, Rogers said.

Rogers calculates that adding two parking garages while removing some of the on street parking downtown would result in a net increase of 256 to 536 parking spaces.

The plan includes guidelines for building two garages downtown on parking plazas behind and , which are technically named plazas three and one respectively. 

The Commission recommended that plaza two, which is behind , be considered as an alternative area for placing them, after hearing testimony from Mark Flegel.

“The Downtown Alliance supports two level parking garages on plaza two and adjacent to the train depot,” Flegel said.  “By locating structures on the outskirts of the business district, their construction would be less disruptive to downtown and they would not be the immense, village atmosphere-destructing eye-sores proposed in the plan,” he added.

The Planning Commissioners unanimously voted to amend the section that discusses parking structures with 6 items:  

1) Include plaza two for consideration as a location for a parking structure

2) Encourage permit parkers to occupy any parking structure

3) Look for opportunities for businesses to contribute to the financing of parking structures to their own benefit by providing parking permits at a reduced cost

4) Demand the highest aesthetic standards for parking garages including the inclusion of green space and interesting variations in height or façade

5) Look for opportunities to preserve surface level parking if possible

6) The height of the parking garages should be scaled to exist with adjacent buildings.

Commissioner Henry Riggs recused himself from the process citing a conflict of interest. Subsequently he took his turn at the public podium to speak to the commission as a resident. Riggs offered the parking structure at Cambridge Avenue behind California Avenue in Palo Alto as an “admirable” example of a parking structure, noting that building a 48-foot parking garage is not warranted downtown.

Additional recommendations that the commission voted in unanimously: 

Regarding the Chestnut Paseo:

The Commissioners recommended closing Chestnut on either Saturdays or Sundays, allowing half of Chestnut nearest to Santa Cruz Avenue to be turned into a public space that would have seating and room for meal vendors.  It would be an extension of the farmers market.

They also recommended that the development of the Chestnut Paseo and linked marketplace should be separated into two phases.  The 1st phase would emphasize temporary installation of seating, give room for food vendors, modify landscaping, and invite food carts into the space, with preference given to Menlo Park merchants.  They also recommended that a second phase for permanent installation of these things or complete abandonment of them be an option.

Any recommendations made by the Planning Commission must be approved by the City Council before the plan can be modified.

James Clendenin July 30, 2011 at 08:23 PM
The Specific Plan was produced after 2 years of thoroughly advertised (including multiple mailings) public meetings and workshops. Why is it that the organizers of the Downtown Alliance didn't show up then and present their concerns??? The present "end run" makes a mockery of the several hundred residents, property and business owners who each put many hours into this effort to provide guidance for whatever development takes place over the next few decades.
Roxie Rorapaugh August 02, 2011 at 02:26 AM
This reporting is somewhat biased. I was at the meeting and I spoke, I am a Menlo Park resident not a business owner. The group was not rowdy; they only gave polite applause to people speaking. I know the commissioner didn't want us to, but some of the speakers were nervous and deserved to be acknowledged for standing up. Also, went ahead and gave small applause even for those who supported the plan. The only person who did not get applause was making personal attacks and unfounded accusations; he did get a few low boos--but nothing big. I've seen karaoke singers stand up to much worse. There were many speakers like myself, residents who are not against change, but see the plan as a terrible, bad for the environment and the citizens of Menlo Park. The original three workshops the planning department constantly refers to were only workshops, they were not even held on city property. I did not want to attend because of personal beliefs about where the workshops were held. However, these workshops were to be just the start of the process--hence the title "DRAFT El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan". Most residents know, like I did, that there would be other opportunities to give our input, as we are doing now.


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