Response from city officials and developers to a potential ballot initiative on the Menlo Park downtown/El Camino Real specific plan ranged from lukewarm to "let's talk about it."
Jim Cogan, the city's economic development manager, said he's worried the initiative is a step backward. "My professional opinion is that it's a bad thing for Menlo Park. It will stifle investment in the downtown improvements and likely mean that the property owners will miss out on the financing necessary to redevelop the vacant car lots."
Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition organized to protest the specific plan once a large mixed-use development was proposed along El Camino Real, has until mid-July to collect the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 signatures needed to put its initiative on the ballot for the November election.
The initiative proposes changing the specific plan's definition of open space to mean only space at ground level, and not areas such as balconies; capping office space development at 100,000 square feet per project, or 240,820 square feet total; and requiring voter approval for any project that would exceed the cap or result in total non-residential development within the specific plan area exceeding 474,000 square feet.
The changes would cut by 50 percent the amount of office space allowed in two mixed-use development proposals already in the pipeline.
Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga want to build a complex on the mostly vacant car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real. The 8.4-acre project would involve 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.
Jean McCown, assistant vice president of government and community relations at Stanford, said the specific plan resulted from six years of thorough public outreach, and provides significant benefits for Menlo Park, including a way to revitalize El Camino Real.
"The initiative would not only change the plan's provisions, it would make it burdensome to adapt to desired changes to the area in the future by requiring a public vote to alter any of the initiative's requirements. I question whether this sort of restrictive initiative is the best way to plan for and respond to the future needs of the community," she said.
While the university is still evaluating the proposed changes, she said the revised open space definition is inconsistent with the definition used in the rest of Menlo Park as well as almost every other city in the Bay Area.
"If the initiative qualifies and goes on the ballot, the voters will decide whether these are wise policies," Ms. McCown said.
A second project, designed by Greenheart LLC, would put 210,000 square feet of office space, 210,000 square feet of apartments and 13,000 square feet of retail on the 7-acre site located at 1300 El Camino Real and Oak Grove Avenue.
Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller has an idea: Why not hold a public hearing to compare the initiative with the current specific plan?
"What I don't want to see happen is for this to devolve into a mailer and insult war. It could. Frankly, (disagreements over development projects have) in the past."
The city could hire an independent consultant, sooner rather than later, Mr. Mueller said, to analyze the initiative and then hold a hearing to allow the public as well as staff to comment. Since the specific plan was evaluated through a public process for years, the initiative should also be studied and debated in public prior to a city-wide vote.
"I feel like my job as mayor is to make the conversation as substantive and as cerebral as possible," he said. "I do think right now there's a genuine disagreement. I'm not critical of Save Menlo at all. Their concern is understandable."
"And on the other side, I think staff and council who have supported the plan have worked very hard in years of open public process and their position is understandable as well. I also understand the frustration (of developers) who have property rights. And we will try to resolve the issues the best that we can in the interests of the city's residents, in a manner that is both dignified and intelligent."
He said that personally, he thinks there are many benefits for the upcoming projects, particularly Greenheart's proposal, that he was excited about.
Projects already in the pipeline won't be put on hold until the initiative is decided, according to City Attorney Bill McClure, since there's no certainty that the measure will qualify for the ballot, let alone pass. If Save Menlo gathers enough signatures, he explained, the council can then either adopt the measure as an ordinance or put it on the ballot.
Still, the move introduces uncertainty on the part of developers worried about securing funding. Both the Stanford and Greenheart projects wouldn't break ground before November, leaving their proposals vulnerable to changes in the specific plan regulations.
Greenheart representatives weren't available by the Almanac's deadline to comment on the ballot initiative, but had previously said that small tweaks to the specific plan would add delays of six months to a year and a half.
The last two projects approved for the parcels Greenheart now owns ran out of time as the economy nosedived; the company doesn't want to see history repeat itself.
"That's our greatest fear," Greenheart principal Steve Pierce had told the Almanac. "We have a great market right now."