If you live in Menlo Park, you likely fall into one of these camps:
There’s the Small Towners, who want a downtown that feels “small town,” and not a nouveau cityscape teeming with faux quaint retail stores, four-story buildings and massive parking lots spewing traffic and pollution.
And then there’s the Progressives, who want to revitalize Menlo Park and capitalize on the opportunity to bring more commercial and social activity to the city.
The debate reminds me of the movie Midnight in Paris, playing currently at in Menlo Park, ironically a throwback theater that features a live intro from an enthusiastic and moderately entertaining junior comedian during prior to showing a flick.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, the main character, played by the irrepressible Owen Wilson (of Wedding Crashers fame), is an aspiring novelist who envisions 1920s-era Paris as a magical, creativity fostering period. He inexplicably time-travels to the 20s, only to realize the artists of that age prefer Paris in the 1880s.
It’s a fun flick with smart dialogue and enough laughs and scenery to appeal to wedding crashers and venture capitalists alike. But aside from Mr. Wilson’s eventual realization that his fantasy reality stems mainly from the fact that his present-day life is unfulfilling, the underlying message seems to be that living in the past is not necessarily better than dealing with the future.
Thus the downtown Menlo Park dilemma.
According to Mark , a downtown business owner and co-chair of the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance, “The proposed downtown portion of the Specific Plan will create a congested downtown, a more city-like atmosphere, rather than the small-town atmosphere enjoyed by our residents. I fail to see the benefits of a high-density build-out either for businesses or residents.”
Indeed, the proposed redevelopment, as I understand it, would include massive construction projects, more people and additional traffic opportunities. The bigger components, such as the the twin four-story parking garages, a 4,000-square-foot “marketplace” structure and a mixed-use residential development, would undoubtedly turn the relatively-quiet-after-dark downtown district into a bustling banquet of neon-lit retail chain establishments that would likely invite a preponderance of noisy vehicles, and potentially a fair bit of riff-raff that Menlo Park – thanks to a meager array of kid-friendly stores and restaurants – has thus far managed to mostly avoid.
If you’re in the small-town-Menlo-Park-is-better camp, the thought of out-of-town teenagers and Banana Republics taking over downtown after dark is unsettling to say the least. Town residents in this group would probably feel as Mr. Wilson’s character did, in love with an era that, despite its charm and sparkle, has fallen victim to “progress.”
Meanwhile, the “To heck with the hippies!” Progressives can’t figure out what the Flegels and those of his ilk are complaining about. Certainly would benefit from an influx in foot traffic on Santa Cruz Avenue, though probably not from the teenage shoppers – or the business competition.
Sure there’s going to be more and taller stores, brighter lights, people on the street and traffic downtown. But there should also be a dramatic increase in sales for downtown businesses, and subsequently tax revenue for our cash-starved city.
More parking and a marketplace may also encourage new nightlife in Menlo Park. For residents who lived previously in San Francisco (or San Carlos, for that matter), a downtown area with open-after-dark retail stores and perhaps some live music may be just what the doctor ordered for this otherwise sleepy city. After all, the success of and Music in the Park Wednesdays suggests Menlo Parkers like a bit of the action.
People for progress in Menlo Park can also comment, with complete confidence, that the stretch of El Camino that spans the area included in is in dire need of a makeover. Can anyone disagree? I’ve lived in Menlo Park less than six years, but that’s long enough to wonder how on earth we could have let the massive former auto sales lots become overgrown with weeds and unsightly fences.
Menlo Park residents are among the most affluent, business-savvy people in the Bay Area. Can’t we at least arrange some kind of temporary commercial, nonprofit or education-based establishments in these spaces? I’d settle for a drive-in movie theater that showed bad movies from the 1980s, or a learning center where adolescent youth can teach their parents how to use the latest technology tools, like iPads, Twitter and Square.
I’m not a city planner or a commercial developer, and I don’t stand to win or lose in any obvious way from the decision to stay small town or acquiesce to progress. Valid points have been made by both groups. What does seem clear, however, is that the entire project has taken far too long – and we’re only in the planning stages.
In a community with so many smart people, it should be possible to incorporate key aspects of each camp’s proposals. Some residents and business owners are likely to feel left out, but there’s no reason why the Small Towners and the Progressives can’t co-exist. Walking in the rain in Paris, with a jazz-loving French girl from the present, Mr. Wilson might have agreed.