Jul 28, 2014
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New Downtown Parking Rules Raise Questions

Issue is a microcosm of the redevelopment effort, and the town itself.

New Downtown Parking Rules Raise Questions New Downtown Parking Rules Raise Questions

If I never read another article about the downtown redevelopment effort it will be too soon.

The oft-covered issue has outliers on both sides, but as a conclusion nears, the consensus seems to be that Menlo Park residents value and want to maintain the city’s small town charm.  

Oh, and they are also in favor of development that supports existing and new businesses.

Despite the best intentions of most, Menlo Park residents can’t make up their minds. Are we going to be a pro-business community, or do we favor a small town environment? And can the two seemingly competitive ideas co-exist?

The parking plan

New downtown rules, scheduled to take effect next month, are a small scale version of the entire redevelopment issue. And in many ways, residents’ divergent views on parking reflect our city’s unique personality and make-up.

The quick and dirty on the new parking rules is that the city has shortened Santa Cruz Avenue time limits from two hours to one hour. Meanwhile, parking in the plazas will remain free for two hours, and in some lots customers will be able to pay for a third hour and beyond.

The Santa Cruz Avenue change is intended to stimulate parking turnover, and thus more shopping opportunities for new customers. Stores like are expected to benefit most.  

The new paid option seems designed for downtown workers, as well as for persons patronizing businesses that require a longer time commitment, such as a hair salon, or Subway. (Just kidding about Subway, but have you noticed how long the line is in that place?!).

“(The parking plan) provides more convenience and helps to address the business needs in the area,” said city transportation manager Charles Taylor, a key player in the parking process.

A pro-business agenda?

The “business needs” Taylor refers to are the needs merchants have to sustain their businesses. In case you hadn’t noticed, the downtown area has more vacant spaces than an Oakland A’s baseball game in September. The businesses that remain face costly leases and increased competition from online retailers and perky downtowns in neighboring cities.

City council, as we know, has been in Menlo Park. At its core the redevelopment effort is a response to flourishing downtown communities in Burlingame and San Carlos. Menlo Park desperately wants to keep residents from spending elsewhere, and if it can solve the turnover and El Camino Real problems in the process, it’s a win-win.   

But if the redevelopment plan was all about business growth, it would have been resolved a long time ago. What residents clearly want is a plan that balances business development with charm and “.”  With resolution of the redevelopment initiative around the corner (it has been reported that the effort will conclude this winter), we’re about to find out how much sway the small towners in this city have after all.  

What merchants want

When I asked store owners about the parking rules, the response was overwhelmingly... balanced. As with the larger redevelopment effort, merchants seem willing to accommodate some change, but they’re cautious.  

“Downtown and El Camino Real could use some beautification, but the city is talking about closing off the driving lane directly behind us,” said Lynn Macy, owner of on Santa Cruz Avenue.  “That would really hurt.”

Jim Gothers, who along with his wife Lisa owns on Santa Cruz Avenue, shared a similar sentiment.

“I want to encourage more business downtown, and there is a real opportunity for transformation here. But our concern is we don’t want to change the feel of Menlo Park; we don’t want to become another Palo Alto.”

The Gothers have introduced the idea of community fun-runs and other group activities to ensure that Fleet Feet walks the line between pro-business residents and small towners. But in general they see the parking changes as having a net positive impact on their business.

“We get customers who are frustrated by the two hour plaza parking rules,” said Gothers. “They might visit our store and then go to lunch, but when they come back they have a ticket, and we’re the source of their frustration. The ability to purchase more time will help our customers.”

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks the new parking rules are good for business.

One downtown worker told me she thinks people will shop elsewhere if they’re restricted to a single hour for shopping on Santa Cruz Avenue.  With just 60 minutes to spare, a customer might visit the bank and grab a sandwich, but skip the pharmacy because the meter is low.

“One hour isn’t enough,” offered Macy.

Stuck in the middle

Parking is the latest issue to divide Menlo Park, but once upon a time residents argued the merits of lane expansion on Sand Hill Avenue, too.  And more recently, was on the chopping block. Maybe the business v. small town debate is just a part of our town’s DNA.

“We have the same goals,” noted Gothers, “our means of getting there are just slightly different.”

That’s Menlo Park in a nutshell. We’re excited about the future, but we’re holding on to the past.  For 80’s kids, it’s like we’re Mark Zuckerberg and Marky Mark all at once. It isn’t the worst predicament in the world, but in talking to residents, you can tell it’s a discussion they’re used to.

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