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Letter lost in the mail for 17 years

By Miranda Simon | 12 Feb 2010

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MENLO PARK – Nancy Couperus realized the city was planning to close the street leading to the Sunday Farmers’ market she founded 17 years ago, and build a roofed one to compete with it, when the planning was already well underway.

The roofed edifice was being sketched out in the likes of the Fairy Market in San Francisco, in which individual wholesalers would be present every day of the week, obliterating the small farmers of the Sunday Market.

She had received notices of meetings and workshops talking about a Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan, but paid no mind to it. She knew the city was discussing how to fill up the vacant lots left by car dealerships in El Camino Real Avenue upon entering Menlo Park, and she figured that was what the Council meetings were about.

She found, when she attended a business and property owner meeting that many others, like her, didn’t have a clue about the downtown development plans and were not asked to participate in the development commission.

“Property owners were, so to say, missing in action because they didn’t realize what was happening,” she says.

The plan was to close Chestnut street, the street where the Sunday market sets up and making vehicle access to the Farmers Market impossible.

A rezoning of Menlo Park was being planned to allow for the adding of a story or two to the buildings of Santa Cruz Avenue, to bring some more businesses and residents downtown.

A couple of parking structures to bring some big town vibrancy to the city that adamantly sells itself as a village.

“Back in the 90’s, enough of the property owners opposed to the parking structures [the Downtown Specific Plan is suggesting] because we were convinced it would hurt businesses,” explains Couperus who owns two buildings and rents spaces out to shops on Santa Cruz Avenue, the main road.

When development was on the table, she and her fellow business and property owners played the cards. Needless to say, a grand plan like this one proposed by city council, never managed to take off.

“Anyway, the best ideas have not been developed by the city, but by grassroots,” she says.

Mark Flegel of Flegel Fine Furnishings – one of the oldest and most prominent businesses in Menlo Park, “expressed concern that the business owners are not being shown respect,” and said “the plan must include the important people.”

In a letter to the City Council dated December 2009, the Downtown Property and Business Owners Vision Group – a “loose and informal coalition of business owners,” warned , “if the residents are not fully informed and the current plan moves forward, we believe that there may follow a strong resistance from the community when they come to realize that the things they value about the downtown are threatened.”

And resist they did.

Couperous developed a website, PreserveMPDowntown.org, campaigning against the Downtown Specific Plan and providing links for citizens interested in writing to the City Council.

According to the Almanac, the local weekly, she also helped organize “a loose and informal coalition of Menlo Park residents, downtown property owners, and business owners with stores downtown,” 12 of whom lobbied the City Council to oppose key parts of the plan.

At the Farmers Market, she and other women gave out flyers informing of their campaign to stop downtown development.

This angered many a council member, including former mayor Heyward Robinson who had received Couperus’ endorsement in 2006, when he was first running.

“Nancy only got involved in workshops two and three, and in the second one she left early because she was mad,” he says. “She didn’t go to phase one because she said no one had told her, even though there had been extensive publicity.”

She and her flyers became the topic of discussion in a City Council meeting in December of last year, at which council member Robinson stopped short of calling her a rotten apple.

“The overall germ of the project was to feel like the residents and community was in control,” said Robinson. “All the aspects [she mentioned] are still to be determined.”

But still he recognizes an important portion of the community was left behind in the planning process, “I was talking earlier with other council members and asked them, How did we miss this key constituency?”

The city is still waiting for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and is planning to issue a draft at the beginning of February or April, says Associate Planner, Thomas Rogers.

The anticipated completion date is October 2010, the $1.16 million paid for planning will be covered by the city’s General Fund – sales and property taxes.

“Any future development,” adds Rogers, “depends on owners.”
But both Nancy Couperus and her daughter Jenny doubt the city would go through the trouble of getting the EIR and then not go through with the plan.

“When you elect [council members] you think because they say certain things, they will do what you hope for, in this case, protect local businesses. Now [Robinson is] supporting a plan in which I don’t think the existing businesses are being taken into account.”

Only two of the council members – Andy Cohen and Kelly Fergusson – are receptive to the plight of the Downtown Property & Business Owners Vision Group – but Kelly Fergusson seems to be tilting more towards the Council’s plan anyway.

Robinson says the plan will increase vibrancy but not let go of its small town character. The city will not bring in chain stores, in order to support old businesses – though there is already a Starbucks on Santa Cruz Avenue.

“Menlo Park is a great brand,” he says, “and we don’t want to lose that.”
Nancy sits calmly eating a croissant at a coffee shop close to the Farmers Market with her daughter Jenny. Its a rainy day but she came out, like every Sunday, handed bottles of water to the the farmers, and offered to volunteer. Her husband Jitze, after chatting with a few farmers, joins her at the coffee shop.

“How long ago did we found the farmers market?” He asks.

“17 years”

“Almost half our marriage.”

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