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Menlo Park: Commission focuses on Middle Avenue plaza

As they debated and discussed their way through a third night of reviewing the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, the Menlo Park Planning Commission took a closer look at how to ensure the community gets the sort of public plaza on Middle Avenue that it wants.

The plaza, which was incorporated into the specific plan, is also part of a proposed eight- acre, mixed-use development by Stanford and John Arrillaga along 300 to 500 El Camino Real that includes 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.

The current proposal would put car lanes within the Middle Avenue plaza for site access; the university has agreed to work alongside the city in designing the plaza. Stanford has also said it will make a "substantial contribution" to construction of a pedestrian and bicycle crossing under the Middle Avenue railroad tracks to allow easier access to Burgess Park.

In a letter to the city sent Oct. 4, Stanford's associate director of real estate development, John Donahoe, said the driveway will be put alongside the Middle Avenue plaza -- not through it. Access to parking underneath the complex is critical to making the apartments and retail viable, he wrote, and vehicular access was included in development of the specific plan at several points, including the environmental impact report.

He asked that decisions regarding the plaza's design wait until the city completes a traffic study, expected to be finished by year's end.

At this point the Planning Commission has not made any formal recommendations regarding the specific plan, but has taken a series of straw votes regarding possible modifications.

A straw vote taken during the Oct. 7 meeting went 4-0 in favor of the Planning Commission using architectural review to reach a satisfactory design and layout of the plaza. Commissioners Katherine Strehl and John Onken were recused; Commissioner Ben Eiref was absent.

Although he supported the informal motion, Commissioner Henry Riggs at first suggested an alternative that stated the commission would not compromise the plaza for the sake of driveway access, saying that he "would not expect that you've seen the best (design) and would not accept that we have seen the best. "

The second straw vote, at 2-2, proved more problematic, with Commissioners Vince Bressler and John Kadvany voting that the commission should be able to modify building breaks in the southeast El Camino Real section of the specific plan to facilitate creating a satisfactory design for the Middle Avenue plaza and any associated vehicular access as well as the bike and pedestrian undercrossing.

Commissioners Katie Ferrick and Henry Riggs dissented.

"I don't want to mess up the building breaks in the whole section," Ms. Ferrick said, while reiterating her support for the undercrossing.

The Planning Commission's specific plan review will continue at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 28, with a focus on traffic and mobility as well as pedestrian and bicycle crossing improvements throughout the specific plan area. Any formal recommendations the commission then decides to make will go to the City Council for review and possible approval.

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