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'Village Character' vs. Revenue?

Foes of city's El Camino/Downtown Plan predict congestion, say costs will outweigh benefits.

A 20-year plan to reconfigure Menlo Park's downtown drew as many speakers at last night's council meeting, with residents arguing over the city's character, purpose and future.

The El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan details a metamorphosis for the area which, once fully realized, could pump millions of dollars into the General Fund.

Opponents say the change would come at a cost to the  character of Menlo Park. And some doubted the optimistic revenues projected in the newly released financial impact analysis.

Still in draft form, the Specific Plan dates back to 2007 and could take 20 to 30 years to build out in entirety.

“The whole appeal of Menlo Park is it’s small town characteristics,” said Menlo Park resident Phyllis Butler to the council. “Please appreciate the charming little town you have now.”

While some said development would inevitably change the quaint atmosphere of Menlo Park, others, including Sramana Mitra, saw numerous benefits.

“We want to see a city where entrepreneurship thrives,” said Mitra, the founder of One Million by One Million, a global initiative which aims to help a million entrepreneurs earn a million dollars by 2020, in hopes of creating 10 million jobs.

Mitra presented a four-point vision for a more beautiful and trendy city, none of which sat well with Butler and others.

“I’m kind of appalled to hear Menlo Park being called the entrepreneurial capital,” she said. “That’s not what I moved to Menlo Park for.”

Many spoke in praise of Menlo Park's "village character."

Such is the number one interest of locals, said former commissioner and 20-year resident Patti Fry, a veteran of several workshops that drew public reaction.

“I really ask you to consider if this is what the residents view as village character,” she said.

One speaker asked the council to pay attention to the visions of younger generations who are Menlo Park's future.

“I’ve been to most meetings,” Anne Moser said. "Overwhelmingly, the speakers have been middle-aged and older folks. The plans are not for just now and the people who live here now.”

Others predicted onerous traffic problems.

The impact on parking and traffic conditions would become “too severe to counter any benefits,” said Charlie Bourne, Vice Chair of the Transportation Commission, who said he spoke solely as a Menlo Park Citizen.

Of 57 streets studied, Bourne said, the development would have adverse affects on 40 streets, the worst being El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue.

“We would have used up or committed all of our traffic impacts for any other projects,” Bourne said,

Lawrence Zaro, Property Manager on Santa Cruz Avenue, also commented on the congestion.

But more importantly, Zaro said, the public should have more opportunities to contribute to the discussion.

“It should really be up to the vote of the people when you dedicate that amount of money and that amount of time,” Zaro said.

Planning Commissioner Vince Bressler recommended that the council find a way to more actively engage the public.

Bressler volunteered himself to serve on such a committee if created by the council.

Councilmember Andrew Cohen said he felt uncomfortable making any final decisions at this point.

He asked the staff to consider the formation of an ad-hoc committee to produce a voice for the public by the Sept. 20 meeting, suggesting as members Fry, Bourne, planning commissioner Henry Riggs, and Green Ribbon activist Adine Levin.

Mayor Richard Cline balked, saying waiting until the 20th to seat a committee would cause a delay in the reviewing process. Cohen couontered that waiting until the 20th to seat a committee would cause delay since the process itself would lack the necessary public input.

The council asked staff to consider several recommendations including concerns of bike and pedestrian safety, traffic on El Camino Real and height regulations for new buildings.

The discussion will continue Sept. 13.

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