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Entrepreneurs Say Menlo Park Should Nurture Nightlife

Menlo Park based entrepreneurs tell Planning Commissioners to take culture into consideration when deciding upon how land will be used downtown.

About four years ago, Vikrant Mathur co founded his startup in Menlo Park. His business was small, and he wanted to keep his seven employees in town, so he wouldn’t have to commute anymore. 

But a problem arose when they attempted to find somewhere nearby to socialize after work.

“The place we’re at right now is the most boring place to work," Mathur said.  “None of our employees would think of living here."

All of his employees are 25-30 year old singles who reside in San Francisco or Palo Alto, instead of Menlo Park.

Mathur and other entrepreneurs who attended the Menlo Park Planning Commission meeting Monday night told commissioners that the city has a unique opportunity to change the culture of the city, with the rules that they’re creating for land use within city limits. 

Menlo Park staffers have been developing a draft of a document called , which will outline how land can be used in Menlo Park for the next 30 years.

“It is a clear and action-oriented plan with a detailed framework for public space improvements,” said Thomas Rogers, associate planner for the city of Menlo Park, who is in charge of the project.  

“The intent is to establish a clear long-term plan for the El Camino Real corridor and Downtown,” Rogers said, explaining that it is draft document, not a plan for any specific private development or a final decision on any project.

Monday’s meeting was the fifth one in designed to help the commissioners decide upon recommendations that they would make to City Council. The meetings were an opportunity for the commissioners to ask technical or clarifying questions, Rogers said.

“The reason we did these meetings is because we wanted to politically vet this project," said Vince Bressler, who is Chair of the Planning Commission. 

“The biggest risk politically is that if they start building some pretty big buildings around the , and people don’t understand that’s what was voted on, well, I wouldn't want to be a person who was on the Planning Commission during the process that approved them,” he explained.

Bressler was quite concerned that people may not recognize that the plan includes the ability for developers to build five story buildings on El Camino Real. If and when the plan does get approved, an amalgamation of new retail shops and apartment complexes could prove to be disruptive to Menlo Park’s existing culture.

The City Council has the ultimate authority on approval of the land use regulations outlined in the El Camino Real/ Draft Specific Plan. Each of the commissions in town has had the opportunity to review the document and share what they think should be included in the plan.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the building height restrictions for the area around the Caltrain station be extended south down the El Camino Corridor. Buildings can be 70 feet high, according to the draft of the plan.

"I don't see any buildings around there that are more than three stories high," said Bressler, "Five stories is a lot for this area."

All the recommendations along with feedback from members of the public will be forwarded to City Council next week, Rogers said. Some City Councilmembers such as Kirsten Keith, Peter Ohtaki and Kelly Fergusson opted to attend this meeting possibly to prepare more fully for the August 30th meeting, which is when Council is scheduled to review the plan.

Some of the public feedback received thus far has been positive.

Peter Mason is a Town Council Member in Woodside and a former resident of Menlo Park. He lauded the efforts of the city staff Monday, saying that the city should approve the plan.

“This specific plan is a great visionary effort," Mason said.

“It will create a vibrant commercial district that we’re all attracted to.” Mason noted that he often travels into Menlo Park to go shopping.  

Other town leaders such as Charlie Bourne, , did not support the plan. He spoke as a resident and not on behalf of the commission.

“The Plan would in a negative way change the look and feel of the town we have today,” he said. Bourne said that the approval of has already committed Menlo Park residents to a future of adverse impacts on streets and intersections.

“The associated , parking, and circulation issues are simply too severe to counterbalance any positive benefits that the Plan might provide,” he said.

Other impacts of the plan, specifically the Fiscal Impacts, have not yet been fully analyzed by any of the Commissions. City Staff released the Fiscal Impact Report Associated with the ECR/DT Specific Plan August 16. 

Planning Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to have the city’s Finance and Audit Committee review the FIA for the project and share their insights about it with the City Council. They weren’t the only ones concerned with the financial ramifications of the plan.

Some entrepreneurs such as Sramana Mitra, co founder of 1m1m, said that because of the current cultural environment in the city, many are opting to leave Menlo Park and move to San Francisco.  Mitra said the social in town is not attractive to younger employees, agreeing with Marthur.

She said when goes public, which it is expected to do next year, the people who have invested in the may be looking for homes and places to spend their money. But she said that it's not likely that they will search in Menlo Park, because the town lacks nightlife.

“All these investors that are going to get minted in the IPO are going to move to San Francisco,” Mitra said.

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