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In Menlo Park, a clash over design details but agreement that the mermaids must go

By Maya Horowitz | 22 Oct 2013

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Mermaid sightings in Menlo Park are about to plummet.

The Mermaid Inn Motel, sandwiched between Cook’s Seafood and Safeway, has been a fixture on El Camino Real for decades, offering affordable rooms in pricey Silicon Valley. Half a dozen mermaid statues adorn the property and a painting at the front desk promises “Rooms for a Song.” Now, new management promises something else: a major renovation, along with a name and image change.

BPR Properties, a Palo-Alto based hospitality company, acquired the 39-room motel in December 2012 and has submitted plans to the city of Menlo Park to turn it into a boutique hotel, with an exterior and interior facelift, a new rooftop patio and redesigned pool, and eight additional guest rooms. At a meeting last month, the city Planning Commission voted 6-1 to give conditional approval to the proposal and lauded BPR’s goal of catering to a more upscale clientele.

“You’re going to have a … completely different class of customer and hopefully much higher occupancy,” Vice Chairman Ben Eiref said.

But some commissioners felt the proposal did not go far enough to achieve the “village character goal” set by Menlo Park’s El Camino Real Specific Plan, which was adopted in 2012. Their deliberations chiefly concerned aesthetics. That the proposal calls for slightly fewer than one parking space (0.8) per guest and does not comply with the Specific Plan’s open space policy was mentioned in passing.

Commissioner Henry Riggs decried what he perceived to be a plain design scheme created by “cold” colors and a stone frontage wall. Saying he worried the renovation would look “very 2013,” Riggs even suggested adding a red velour couch. Commissioner John Onken wanted to make sure the inn’s current signage — “a big dopey motel sign,” as he called it — would disappear.

Before gaining final approval, BPR must come back to the city with new ideas for the building’s exterior and signage. When reached for comment, the company declined.

A couple of commissioners fought for requiring BPR to pay to widen the sidewalk in front of the motel. Tony Carrasco, a consulting architect for BPR, countered that expanding the sidewalk would be very expensive and an unfair request of a company that “has paid an enormous amount of money for this property.”

After the commission dropped that idea, Vincent Bressler criticized his colleagues for “backing down from what we hoped for.” He added, “This is one of our first big projects under the specific plan. What are we doing here?”

Longtime Menlo Park resident Elizabeth Houck attended the Sept. 23 meeting and expressed a fondness in her heart for the Mermaid Inn. She hates to see the commission “salivate over the fact that there will be a little bit more TOT,” referring to the local tax that hotel and motel guests pay. Last year, Menlo Park voters approved a measure to raise the tax from 10 to 12 percent.

When it comes to the Mermaid Inn, Houck advised the commissioners not to “get all excited about [eight] more rooms.”

Listen to reporter Maya Horowitz explain the story behind the story on KZSU Stanford’s “Peninsula Report” radio show with host Eliza Ridgeway:

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