The plan to re-imagine the downtown/El Camino Real areas of Menlo Park began five years ago, in 2007. "We need to do something," said one participant in the series of workshops that followed.
Now, in 2012, that "something" that needs to be done has taken what may be its final shape for the next three decades.
One man behind the plan, Thomas Rogers, the city's associate planner, has the unenviable task of shepherding the process through meeting after meeting. He had nothing but praise for the effort of commissioners and council members who reviewed the plan.
"Menlo Park is lucky to have that kind of dedication, as well as expertise -- they all really understand the details, as well as the overall concepts," he told the Almanac.
The city staff was also happy with turnout at community workshops. The level of participation impressed other cities, he said, noting that "getting 150 people to a discussion about land uses, building standards, and circulation improvements is a great feat!"
Mr. Rogers received the Golden Acorn public service award from the Chamber of Commerce last year for his work.
He said that if the specific plan is approved as hoped, he'll still have plenty to do.
"Even if it is approved by the council, there is the potential of a referendum or CEQA lawsuit, both of which have happened in Menlo Park before," he said. "We've set up a transparent, public-oriented process, so I hope the risk of either of those is low, but you never know."
According to the final draft, if the downtown/El Camino areas are built up to the plan's full specifications, it could amount to approximately 330,000 square feet of additional retail and commercial development, 680 new housing units, and 380 new hotel rooms. The draft equated that to 1,357 new jobs and 1,537 new Menlo Park residents.
Mr. Rogers outlined the key revisions made to an earlier draft of the plan, now found in the final draft:
* Maximum building heights lowered from 60 feet to 48 feet in the areas immediately west and east of the Caltrain station.
* In the station area, and along southeast El Camino Real, maximum facade heights decreased from 45 feet to 38 feet.
* Along El Camino Real, to the north and east of Santa Cruz Avenue, building heights can reach 48 feet, but only in exchange for additional public benefits.
* Height of downtown parking garages is limited to 38 feet.
* New building break and facade modulation requirements to prevent developing a monolithic street front.
* A new category for bike lane improvements in areas where lanes are desired in the future but not feasible right now due to constraints such as parking.
* No expanded sidewalks or curb extensions (otherwise known as bulb-outs) along central El Camino Real. Curb lines remain the same to allow the possible addition of car lanes in the future, although the plan doesn't advocate going to six lanes of traffic. Going to six lanes would delete about 40 parking spaces, according to the city's analysis.
Mr. Rogers pointed to three changes meant to address the concerns of the Downtown Alliance, a group of downtown property and business owners worried about the plan's impact on the local economy. The revised specific plan suggests:
* Testing Santa Cruz Avenue sidewalks and central plaza, the Chestnut Street paseo, and market place improvements before full installation.
* Not allowing development on parking plazas, except for a small section of the market place area.
* Including parking plaza 2 (off Oak Grove Avenue and Chestnut Street) as a potential garage site.
Nancy Couperus, co-founder of the Downtown Alliance, said it will take some time to examine the final draft. She said the revisions listed by Mr. Rogers were suggested by the Planning Commission last fall and then accepted by the council.
"We were glad at the time that the commission did hear our concerns and that these modifications to the plan were made," she said in an email. "These were all very positive developments."
The Alliance remains concerned, however, about the impact of the proposed market place and partial closure of Chestnut Street on neighboring businesses and the weekly farmers' market, as well as whether the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church plans to expand.
"Even though we've been assured that no development plans are being contemplated, the purchase by the church of the five properties along University Drive from Santa Cruz Avenue to Oak Grove still makes us nervous," Ms. Couperus said. "If adequate parking is built on the church property and not on a public parking plaza, however, those fears will be mainly allayed."
She did not comment on the possibility of a lawsuit. The Downtown Alliance hired the Shulte, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP law firm last year to evaluate the draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the specific plan. At that time the attorneys concluded the report was flawed in eight areas, which will doubtless be scrutinized further with the release of the final EIR, which the city released alongside the final draft of the specific plan on April 19.
El Camino Real
Whether just passing through or spending some time in Menlo Park, people usually wind up on El Camino Real at some point. The specific plan aims to encourage mixed-use development along the corridor, particularly in the empty car dealership lots, without making the city look like a metropolis -- thus the restrictions on building and facade heights.
One of the first things people notice about the local stretch of El Camino Real is the traffic. While discussions investigated whether to expand the road to six lanes, the specific plan describes the "preferred configuration" of Menlo Park's main artery as four lanes with on-street parking and bike lanes.
The plan recommends a westbound bike lane on Ravenswood and Menlo avenues, and declares adding lanes on El Camino Real in the same area as well as from Encinal to Valparaiso avenues "feasible." However, south of Ravenswood and Menlo avenues, the curb's not wide enough, although that might change as properties undergo development.
Just like riding a bike down the main corridor, crossing the city's streets on foot can be a hair-raising experience. Although the revised plan doesn't include bulb-outs at El Camino Real's intersections with Oak Grove, Santa Cruz, and Ravenswood avenues -- for now -- it would try to make getting across the roads safer with high-visibility crosswalk and sidewalk upgrades, such as countdown timers, and grade-separated crossings above or below railroad tracks. New "public spaces" such as tree-shaded paseos, plazas and parks would let pedestrians stroll from Fremont Park to the Caltrain station area or the Civic Center.
Santa Cruz Avenue
Pocket parks also pop up off Santa Cruz Avenue, near University Drive, Oak Grove Avenue, and Crane Street, along with a central plaza at its intersection with Chestnut Street. The specific plan suggests a market plaza located at parking plazas 6 and 7 next to a paseo, off Chestnut Street. According to the revised draft, the market place is meant to complement, not compete with, the farmers' market, and could be used for everything from a band shell to restaurants to food stalls.
The specific plan proposes wider sidewalks that still allow parallel street parking to contribute to the ability to enjoy a walk through downtown Menlo Park. Bicyclists aren't quite as lucky; the consultant's analysis concluded that bike lanes between Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues, with the exception of University Drive, won't work. Removing 94 to 97 parking spaces could allow installation of lanes along Middle Avenue and north and south of University Drive.
The revised plan spells out five types of land use, and 10 zoning districts, for the downtown/El Camino Real area. With a prevailing theme of "mixed use," the new regulations allow development of retail, residential, office, and public service facilities, for example. The zones allowing the most development are found at the southeast end of El Camino Real, with intensity decreasing moving north.
The plan seeks to limit development in two ways: capping the size of specific types of uses such as non-retail or office; and setting density limits for new construction or conversion of office space, especially medical and dental offices.
Other mechanisms attempt to protect local independent businesses from competition by larger chains. The plan proposes limiting both the size of particular businesses and the number of potential locations for larger operations. It also restricts ground-floor mixed-use development to mainly retail and restaurants.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to review and makes its recommendations on the final draft of the specific plan and its environmental impact report on Monday, April 30. The meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the council chambers in the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St. The documents are then expected to go before the City Council on June 5 and June 12.