If the group garners enough signatures, the fate of the project could go before Menlo Park voters.
On September 12, the council approved the "Derry" project, which calls for 135 condominiums and 22,525 square feet of commercial space on a 3.5-acre site owned by the Derry family between El Camino Real and the train station.
Leading the referendum campaign are members of a group that calls itself Menlo Park Tomorrow. They say the project is too dense — with too many homes per square feet — and will increase traffic and overburden schools.
"This is a watershed moment in the history of Menlo Park," said Morris Brown, a spokesperson for Menlo Park Tomorrow. "We're talking about two-and-a-half times or so the density of what was intended [for the site] under the general plan."
In an advertisement in last week's Almanac, the group says the project will lead to the "Manhattanization of Menlo Park."
Members of the group include former Menlo Park mayor Jack Morris and residents Chuck Bernstein, Don Brawner and Martin Engel.
Councilwoman Mickie Winkler, who is running for re-election in November, said the Derry project is a "model of a walkable community project." She labeled the referendum effort as a "political attempt to discredit candidates [who support the project]."
The project was initially approved 4-1 by the council August 29 before receiving final approval by another 4-1 vote September 12. Several residents spoke against the project at both meetings.
But no members of Menlo Park Tomorrow spoke against the project at previous hearings, including when the proposal went before the Planning Commission in July, according to city staff — a point emphasized by Councilwoman Lee Duboc, who said the group waited until "the twelfth hour" to criticize the project.
The Planning Commission voted 7-0 to recommend the council approve the project.
Mr. Brown acknowledged that residents should have "followed the project more closely," but said he and others were "blind-sided" by how quickly plans have progressed to build another condo-commercial project adjacent to the Derry project at 1300 El Camino Real, the site of the former Cadillac dealership.
He said the approval of the Derry project sets a precedent that could lead to higher-density developments along El Camino Real — a process he says that is being done in a "piecemeal" manner instead of by using a comprehensive plan.
The group and its supporters have until October 12 — 30 days after the council approved the project — to acquire about 1,800 signatures of registered voters on referendum petitions, said City Attorney Bill McClure.
The 1,800 number is 10 percent of the city's registered voters, the minimum required. If that number is obtained, the council has to either repeal its approval of the project or put the project before the voters, Mr. McClure said.
He said it's too late to get the issue on the November 7 ballot, but it could go to voters in a special election.
The referendum would require a simple majority vote to pass, he said.
Councilman Andy Cohen, the lone council member to oppose the project, said he supports the referendum effort.
Council candidates Vincent Bressler and Richard Cline said they plan on helping with the referendum campaign.
Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, at Tuesday's meeting, said the council is "sending a signal to other developers that [the council] give[s] away high density for free," but she still voted to approve the project.