What will it take to transform downtown Menlo Park into a vibrant and beautiful hub for shopping and social activities? Whatever, the answer, Menlo Park should not try to directly compete with either the nearby Stanford Shopping Center or downtown Palo Alto on their terms, but rather develop its own unique appeal. One approach is to emulate the successes of other small cities that have built pedestrian streets in their central districts. Burlington Vermont, Boulder Colorado, Charlottesville Virginia, and Salem Massachusetts come to mind. Both Burlington and Salem have been rejuvenated by their pedestrian-only business districts. A similar solution for Menlo Park woud require multiple well-integrated private and public investments and a well-orchestrated community effort.
- A four-block pedestrian street between El Camino Real and University Avenue
- Adequate parking nearby
- An appealing mix of stores, restaurants, cafes
- Attractive public infrastructure, e.g., places for outdoor dining, benches, seating areas, landscaping
- A space that supports public events, e.g., farmers market, street fairs, entertainment
The Menlo Park downtown lacks enough appeal to compete with nearby alternatives. The Stanford Shopping Center( SSC) is one of the most successful high-end malls in the country but the rents are so high few businesses can generate enough revenue to make it worthwhile. Downtown Palo Alto is following in the steps of Mountain Views by becoming a “restaurant/cafe/coffee house/bar destination and again rents are a HUGE problem for other types of businesses. Palo Alto and to a lesser degree Mountain View also have many workers downtown. And finally both SSC and Palo Alto benefit from being “associated” with Stanford and are vibrant (fun), attractive and fun places to simply stroll and “window shop” and “people watch”. Menlo Park does suffer a geographical disadvantage being so close to the alternatives but that does not mean we should accept defeat. I believe we could compete if we made downtown Menlo Park a beautiful place where people want to stroll, visit a variety of small shops that cannot afford other places, sit and socialize in pleasant spots, view some interesting sculpture, dine on attractive patios, and enjoy outdoor weekend and evening entertainment. We simply need to ask our residents for their ideas and show them possibilities. Finally, I do not believe our downtown plan precludes consideration of this idea. If we settle for incremental improvements downtown our city will become even less competitive and enjoyable.
Key Success Factors
Creating a successful downtown pedestrian street will not be easy and without significant risk. That said, there are many reasons to believe it has great promise.
Church Street Marketplace – Burlington Vermont
Pearl Street Mall – Boulder Colorado