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By Stuart Soffer

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About this blog: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I lived in high-density housing and experienced transit-oriented services first hand. During high school and college summers I worked in Manhattan drafting tenant floor plans for high-rise office buildi...  (More)

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Menlo Saves: Optimizing Outcomes

Uploaded: Mar 19, 2014
(Or, Wrestling with Menlo Park's Specific Plan for El Camino in a Nutshell)

The downtown plan is a case study in conflicting optimizations. We don't need to get lost in the details of the specific plan to understand the fundamental dynamics.

There are three constituencies who want (or should want) to optimize zoning for differing goals:

• Property owners and developers

• The city

• Residents


Property owners want to optimize for profit, typically through up-zoning and altering permitted uses.

City also wants zoning that supports its short-term operations budget and longer term capital needs. Local revenues come from sales, hotel, and property taxes. If Menlo Park acted rationally, the city might optimize zoning to increase housing, as ABAG continues to impose housing quotas on us. Similarly, the city might try to limit new office construction so prevent an increase in future housing requirements. City planners would certainly encourage the construction of hotels given the high occupancy taxes, and also retail stores, as the city retains a portion of all sales taxes.

Residents want to optimize zoning for their own interests, including property values, traffic mitigation, neighborhood safety, and availability of nearby retail, recreational, and entertainment options.

One major complication: a conflict of interest. Because the city charges developers for the staff time required assessing their projects, the staff tends to focus on these projects, overlooking the greater but unremunerated needs of the city as a whole.

In the 7 years of the El Camino planning process, many gave their input to optimize their preferred operating result. But the results didn't necessary capture it all.

You would think that if the city acted rationally, under the ABAG demand, they would push for housing. But they don't. They are paid on an hourly basis to service development applications. At the same time, city staff ignores the revenue derived from residential property taxes and promote zoning that may lower residential property values.

With little to gain and a lot to lose, residents complain that the city is oblivious to their needs. Projects that do enhance the quality of life, like parks and recreation enhancements – require additional taxation in the form of bonds.

The downtown specific plan is so broad in geography, so complex in scope and consequences, that perhaps the whole thing should have been placed for ratification by ballot in the first place – like the Menlo Gateway project.

Comments

Posted by Not following, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 11:13 pm

The Menlo Gateway project was a very specific thing that voters could imagine. The specific plan is simply a plan. If we can't find enough residents to fill city commissions, how can we expect the voters to dig into something like that on the ballot.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

Thanks; this was very insightful.


Posted by Sam Tyler, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 12:14 pm

I think it is important to note that a municipality's interests are more complex that simply worrying about capital needs. municipalities are organized to coordinate and provide basic services for the community. It is well documented that residential uses are consumers of city services, and communities attempt to achieve a fiscal balance by regulating and taxing non-residential uses in order to fund the services desired by the community. That is simplistic yet fundamental economic fact.

I strongly disagree that City staff "tends to focus on these projects, overlooking the greater but unremunerated needs of the city as a whole." Zoning in general, and Menlo Park in particular, have developed a very rigid land use control system known as "zoning". Everyone from commercial builders to local families who want to add a room to their home are all heavily regulated by City ordinances, and it is staff's job to process the various requests to "develop". Coupled with this need to regulate zoning is the need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA. Originally adopted in the early 1970's, CEQA regulations have grown over the years and now represent an extremely complicated requirements that is now driven more by attorneys than planners.

So yes, the City planners focus on proposed projects because that is their role in the development/regulatory process. What seems to be forgotten is the fact that the staff works for the City Council. With regard to the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan, where is the accountability of the elected City Council, who voted to approve this documented and then more recently, voted to reaffirm the document one year later? Where is the accountability of local citizens such who attended public hearings during the adoption process, and then plead ignorance to the process?

I elect my Council to lead our city, not follow a vocal minority or the ever changing winds of public opinion. When the Council adopted the plan, they did so looking to the future of Menlo Park. They recognized that it is better to evolve rather than die.


Posted by the ugly truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm

@Sam Tyler: in reality, the city planners do seem to think that they work for the big developers because of the checks the developers write. This bias manifests itself in various ways. Recently, for example, the planning staff has been trying to make the process for adding a granny unit both expensive and complicated. Never mind that facilitating granny unit additions would serve the needs of individual residents and help meet our ABAG housing numbers. Small projects simply don't seem to interest our planners; not big or remunerative enough.

As for the specific plan: many residents were not involved in the process. That doesn't mean they don't care, and it doesn't mean their opinions shouldn't matter. Most residents just don't have the bandwidth to do it all, and work, families, kids' needs (and activities) rightfully take priority. And many of us who did attend the meetings and thought we were being heard -- remember the visioning plan and village character? -- have been sorely disappointed by the gotcha! details embedded in the final plan. Private balconies as open space? Seriously?

I don't blame the council. They are volunteers. They are very part-time. They aren't allowed to discuss issues outside meetings, and to challenge staff during a meeting that's being recorded and broadcast is difficult. But council members have acknowledged that they were misled by the biggest property owner, who indicated that they would build a hotel and senior housing.

The whole point of a thirty-year plan is NOT to let the "changing winds of public opinion" drive development. A thirty-year plan should govern the mix of development for decades to come. Instead, two greedy developers want to grab all the capacity for themselves right off the bat. And they can do that because of loopholes in the plan, which is why the plan needs to be amended with the limits proposed by the ordinance.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:37 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

People need to realize that the two developers who want to build projects represent 90% of the available properties in the Specific Plan area. Why should they not utilize a significant fraction of the Specific Plan projects growth? And why should they growth be phased in over 30 years ?

If you own a parcel and want to build a totally conforming ten room home should you be forced to build it one room each year for the next ten years ?
Of course not.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 11:08 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Stanford owns six parcels on ECR. Under the initiative they could simply submit five 40,000 sq ft projects and leave the northern most parcel vacant thereby avoiding any responsibility for contribution either space to a plaza or funding for an underpass.

Oh, and BTW the five separate projects would each have to conform with the setback requirements of each parcel - the result would be five separate buildings with each maxed out horizontally to the setback lines yielding ugly but perfectly legal boxes. Each of the five projects would be required to have its own connections to ECR.

Just brilliant!!

The sponsors have failed to consider the unintended consequences of their poorly conceived initiative.


Posted by the ugly truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Mar 23, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Far more thought -- and less selfish analysis -- went into the initiative than into the specific plan. The initiative, unlike the specific plan, is geared to the needs of the city as a whole, not to the enrichment of one particular property owner.

Perhaps you want to move to Menlo Park so you can vote against it, Peter?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 24, 2014 at 4:50 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Ridiculous - Menlo Park spent five years in the Specific Plan process with lots of public hearings, drafts and public comments.

The initiative was drafted in secret without any drafts for review and no public comment.

I don't need to vote against as it will fail of its own shortcomings.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 24, 2014 at 5:08 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I will repost my concerns regarding the petition.

A - Process
1 - The petition was created in secret
2 - Without any opportunity for public review
3 - And hence without the opportunity to improve/clarify the initiative to reflect the concerns of those outside the small group that wrote it.
4 - Once the first signature is gathered the language cannot be changed without starting the entire filing process again.
5 - No effort has been or seems to be planned to ensure that potential signers of the petition have even read it.

B - Substance
1 - The initiative is lengthy and covers a number of different issues
2 - Therefore the opportunity for mistakes and conflict are significant
3 - The initiative is a 'forever' document which will, as intended, preclude some changes to the Specific Plan without another vote and will also, as an untended consequence, make it difficult to make any changes to the Specific Plan, particularly given the Priority Clause:
"PRIORITY.
5.1. After this measure becomes effective, its provision shall prevail over and
supersede all provisions of the municipal code, ordinances, resolutions,
and administrative policies of the City of Menlo Park which are inferior to
the Planning Policy Documents and in conflict with any provisions of this
measure."
4 - Some of the language, as noted, does not and cannot accommodate changes in commerce such as banking and medical offices.
5- The initiative would force individuals with adjacent parcels to develop them separately thereby precluding integrated design and shared amenities.

C - Impact
1 - The initiative, even if not passed, will signal to any interested party that Menlo Park's planning process and established rules cannot be relied upon and they will make their investments elsewhere.
2 - The initiative, even if not passed, will delay moving forward with the Specific Plan.
3 - The initiative, even if not passed, will send a chilling message to the Planning Commissioners, the City Council and the planning staff that their efforts to have an open and inclusive process can be thwarted by a small group of disgruntled citizens.

I am sure that others can add concerns that I have overlooked.


Here are just two specific examples of why this initiative is fundamentally flawed:

1 - Medical offices are defined as

"3.3.2. As adopted on July 12, 2012, the ECR Specific Plan's Appendix
includes the following Commercial Use Classification for "Offices,
Medical and Dental": "Offices for a physician, dentist, or
chiropractor, including medical/dental laboratories incidental to the
medical office use. This classification excludes medical marijuana
dispensing facilities, as defined in the California Health and Safety
Code." The foregoing Commercial Use Classification is hereby
adopted by the voters.

2 Financial institutions are defined as:
3.3.3. As adopted on July 12, 2012, the ECR Specific Plan's Appendix
includes the following Commercial Use Classification for "Banks
and Other Financial Institutions": "Financial institutions providing
retail banking services. This classification includes only those
institutions engaged in the on-site circulation of money, including
credit unions." The foregoing Commercial Use Classification is
hereby adopted by the voters.

And neither of those definitions can be changed except by "a majority vote of the electorate of the City of Menlo Park voting "YES" on a ballot measure proposing such repeal or amendment at a regular or special election."

Well what happens when the world changes and financial institutions no longer engage in the on-site circulation of money (we are almost there today) or when medical marijuana becomes a prescription drug (and cannot be dispensed anywhere in the Downtown Specific Plan area)?

This is why a 12 page initiative, written in secret, never presented for public comment and revision, and locked in forever is NOT the way to plan the orderly evolution of a city and why City Councils, Planning Commissions, professional staff and lots of public input are a much better way to proceed.

The irony is that Save Menlo is proposing an initiative whose language has never been presented for public comment and which they want to be binding over all other city ordinances for thirty years. They have not even posted the proposed initiative on their own web site. No public discussion, no opportunity for revisions or corrections - just take it or leave it. Correcting even a single error in the initiative ( and a 12 page document produced in secret without public input and review is likely to have a number of both errors and policy misstatements) would require another expensive ballot measure:
"the voter adopted development standards and definitions set forth in Section 3, above, may be repealed or amended only by a majority vote of the electorate of the City of Menlo Park voting "YES" on a ballot measure proposing such repeal or amendment at a regular or special election."

Save Menlo wants to substitute their judgement and their choice of words for a multi-year, deliberative, iterative process including scores of open forums, Planning Commission meetings and Council meetings, all with public input, that produced the current Downtown ECR Specific Plan. Hopefully the wiser citizens of Menlo Park will neither sign the petition to place this initiative on the ballot or vote against it if it does make the ballot.


Posted by Sounds OK, a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks,
on Mar 24, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Think of how Bolinas in Marin County handled the scarcity of water in its small town. The residents voted 2 members of the water board and the newly elected board members joined the sitting board members and voted to discontinue water hookups. Not a one has been issued since 1971. The town's growth was stopped; water conservation is followed and the residents are in charge. 2 law suits were filed. One by property owners who wanted to add dwelling units and the other by developers who said the water hook ups were an anti-development scheme. Both lost.

Is there anything wrong with a town taking control of its destiny? We property owners are not paying property taxes to allow developers to make changes to our town so that they can make money. These big property owners need to learn to play nicely. Our council needs to learn that they were elected to serve the residents, not the developers. It's all so simple and reasonable. Stop demonizing residents.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 25, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

No water hookups was a great strategy for Bolinas for two reasons:

1 - they did not have access to any more water

2 - they did not want any growth

I doubt that the voters in MenloPark would make the same decision but you have probably given Save Menlo the strategy for their next initiative.


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