El Camino Real has a deep history of change in California, and it’s about to change again. Stretching back farther than the establishment of the State of California, El Camino was originally named “The Royal Road” by the Missionaries who used the route as a connection between their 21 Franciscan missions. Since then, the route has been repurposed to serve the needs of the people, and the Grand Boulevard Initiative says the time has come again.
El Camino has evolved into somewhat of a “strip mall” winding through the Peninsula, without many areas of consolidated dining, entertainment, and recreation options to serve as evening destinations for citizens. In fact, some stretches have abandoned stores and empty lots. The Initiative seeks to change that by creating developments along the El Camino Real corridor that are multi-story, mixed-use, and accommodate all popular modes of transportation, with a special focus on being pedestrian friendly.
The Grand Boulevard Initiative’s stated purpose is that, “El Camino Real will achieve its full potential as a place for residents to work, live, shop and play, creating links between communities that promote walking and transit and an improved and meaningful quality of life.” Envision multiple developments along El Camino similar to the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View, or San Jose’s popular Santana Row, with retail at street level and condos above – that is a simplified explanation of what is being advocated by the Initiative.
Due to the fact that El Camino stretches through 19 cities, and participation in the Initiative is entirely voluntary, without guidance the cities could end up implementing plans of all different styles and priorities. To help address this potential problem, the Grand Boulevard Initiative provides ten guiding principles for cities to consider including housing needs, parks and open space, environmental sustainability, and preservation of an urban community ambience. Sixteen of the nineteen cities involved in this plan are already in the process of implementing guided projects in their jurisdictions.
For example, Menlo Park is in the process of reviewing two project proposals that are in line with the Initiative’s guiding principles. One of the projects, located at 500 El Camino Real, is an 8.43 acre parcel of land located at Middle Avenue that used to be car dealerships. Stanford University, the owner of the site, has proposed the redevelopment of this property into approximately 170 housing units, 200,000 square feet of office space, and 10,000 square feet of retail space. Also under consideration is a proposal put forth by the Greenheart Land Company to develop 1300 El Camino Real, a 6.4 acre site between Oak Grove Avenue and Glenwood Avenue. They want to build a project of similar size as the proposed 500 El Camino development.
Some local residents object to the Grand Boulevard Initiative. These residents raise concerns about the impact of development on the quality of life in the neighborhood. They fear large developments will increase traffic, worsen the housing deficit, increase noise and air pollution, and result in loss of open space. One well-known group, Save Menlo, is comprised of Menlo Park residents whose purpose is to “reinforce the community’s vision for Menlo Park by promoting a balance of uses and open space.” To date, Save Menlo has succeeded in putting an initiative to limit office space within a development in the El Camino corridor to 100,000 square feet, so as to “make room for more balanced development uses such as retail or housing.”
While the Menlo Park projects might be limited and delayed, most cities on the Peninsula are actively engaged in approving projects in line with the Grand Boulevard Initiative and defending those being challenged by local opposition. Which side will prevail, and what the redevelopment of this famous route will look like, still waits to be seen, but it is certain that in 10 to 20 years, The Royal Road will appear quite different to those traveling up and down the Peninsula.