El Camino planning session lost in the weeds

On Thursday, I went to a meeting of the Menlo Park El Camino citizen advisory board. The consultancy hired by the city presented the material they were planning to use in the community feedback meeting this upcoming Thursday. It is supposed to be about defining a vision for Menlo Park. It skipped the vision stuff, and dived down into the details of implementing development plans. To the extent that there was any vision, it was concealed and coded. People were far to polite or politic to describe the visions that were implied by the plans.
There were two parts to the presentation. The first showed three different development scenario – minimal change, moderate change, and maximum change.
The “change” in the pictures, though, was new development and density. The first scenario showed a handful of new buildings, the second a few more, and the third showed more new, taller, bigger buildings, with a bunch of new parking lots too. There was nothing about the character and purpose of the buildings, the design of the buildings, and the way people at ground level will get around among the buildings.
And there was no supporting information to help people make these choices.There was no additional information about the impact on the number of residents, number of workers, how people would be travelling and getting around, impact on tax revenues, impact on schools.
The second part showed different plans for increasing sidewalk width, in three segments of El Camino. Should sidewalks be widened by taking space out of the building lot or the street?
What are the underlying assumptions in this presentation?
There are a bunch of empty and underutilized lots, and the open question is how much community approval there will be to build big buildings on them — not what sorts of buildings, and the character of community created by the buildings.
People want sidewalks. But sidewalks alone don’t make a neighborhood walkable! For a walkable neighborhood, you need a bunch of destinations that are close enough that people care to walk from place to place. And you need people who live and work close enough to walk, or to have a destination that is compelling enough that people will drive there and get out of their cars and walk around.
Community input is not being framed to solicit a vision for the city. Instead it is being framed to get citizen input on implementation details.
And even this input is missing a few important things. There was a Stanford representative on the panel. He said, “some of the lots are going to be occupied soon.” He didn’t say by whom and for what purpose. Ok, thanks.
What’s missing from this picture? The kinds of input we citizens can have on the process, other than being “pro-development” or “anti-development.”
Fortunately, several people on the panel raised the concern that the things that citizens we being asked to weigh in on were at the wrong level level of detail, and missing key information that will help people formulate opinion. I don’t know whether the consulting firm got the point, or if they did, have time to make the changes that would spark a more meangingful public conversation.
There were also some interesting clues about the points of view in the community. One man on the panel scoffed at the idea to add more sidewalks, since El Camino is noisy and nobody wants to walk anyway. A man in the audience talked about improving nightlife in Menlo Park, and creating more of a village.
There are at least three contrasting visions for Menlo Park:
* maximal suburbia. Minimal new development, maximal new parking lots, and expand the roads for faster traffic. Pay homage to the needs of pedestrians by adding flyover bridges and walkways, but don’t make anything anybody would walk to
* urban village. Add mixed use, transit oriented development that draws people to live, work, and play, and walk or bike when moving around town. Be a place that people want to come to.
* whatever developers can get away with. Build buildings, as big as possible, wherever they will fit, however you can get approval for them.
It would be interesting to have this conversation, but it’s pretty well hidden in the cross-section diagrams of sidewalks.

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