On the second day of reviewing the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, the Menlo Park Planning Commission indicated a desire to take a closer look at how to ensure developments proposed under the new regulations will contribute to funding infrastructure improvements to benefit the entire community.
With a 7-0 straw vote on a motion made by Commissioner Katie Ferrick on Sept. 23, the panel signaled that it wants to move in the direction of composing a recommendation that the City Council investigate whether a formula versus a fee approach proportional to the size of a proposed development would prove more effective in funding infrastructure prioritized within the specific plan, including pedestrian under-crossings and parking garages.
Commissioner Vince Bressler pushed for setting a formula as well as lowering the threshold at which developers would have to provide public benefit, citing the eight-acre Stanford Arrillaga mixed-use project on El Camino Real as evidence for the necessity of adjusting the threshold. The project as proposed under current specific plan regulations would not trigger any public benefit discussions.
Staff reviewed previous times that public benefit has been discussed by Menlo Park and walked through why the specific plan opted not to use a formulaic approach, perhaps taking 1 to 2 percent of the project's construction value, which had been proposed in 2006 and 2008. No other city was found to be successfully applying a formula to calculate public benefit; what did seem to be working was a negotiated process such as the one incorporated into Menlo Park's specific plan, they said.
Which was not to say the idea could not be revisited again, staff noted, adding that it could provide a mechanism for creating a public benefit fund as well as certainty for developers as to what would be expected.
Other planning commissioners, as well as staff, suggested that they did not support lowering the threshold for public benefit, given that the threshold was set at a point where the city believed it would encourage development after years of little activity along El Camino Real.
Commissioner Henry Riggs compared the new regulations to loosening overly restrictive barriers to development rather than up-zoning.
"You don't expect a thank-you for releasing a chokehold," Mr. Riggs commented.
Attempting to grab more money for public benefit should take into consideration that building within the El Camino Real zones of the specific plan already carries heavier costs because of the requirement to provide on-site parking, he said, which makes one- to two-story buildings financially unfeasible since the lot sizes force the parking to go underground -- an expensive proposition at an estimated $30,000 per car space.
As midnight approached, the commission opted to continue the specific plan review to a third meeting. Topics to be taken up include public plaza design and, as suggested by Commissioner John Onken, whether there's a way to ensure that projects comply with the specific plan when renovating existing buildings instead of constructing new ones.
The Almanac will have expanded coverage of the Sept. 23 meeting in next week's print edition.