Viewpoint - May 26, 2010

Guest opinion: A better Bayfront with utilities underground

by John Kadvany

A longtime concern for many Menlo Park city councils, and city development managers, is how to jump-start development in the "M-2" light industrial district where the Menlo Gateway project is proposed.

The proposed hotel, athletic club, and three office buildings, of course, would do a lot to improve the M-2's future. Can anything more be done, especially now that the Gateway project may be close to approval?

One possibility is to take advantage, right now, of the Gateway Bayfront development, which is not expected to occur for several years. What might be planned in the meantime is to move underground the high-voltage transmission lines along the roadway. Not just right at the Gateway, but along much of Menlo Park's waterfront.

Doing so would be another major step, in addition to the Gateway itself, toward enhancing the Bayfront, with the goal of creating a wholly more attractive, waterside boulevard highway. The bordering M-2 area would also be more attractive to developers, investors, and M-2 property owners, sending a clear signal that our city is serious about major improvement and redevelopment there.

The area would be more attractive to mixed-use development, with new housing possible in the Belle Haven area, then local retail, and further M-2 redevelopment. Looking post-industrial is part of what's needed to make the area just that.

Undergrounding is too expensive to expect the Gateway to pay for it as a public benefit. The cost could be some tens of millions of dollars. Most likely a municipal bond would have to be passed, in the same way as we support improvements to our schools, parks and recreation areas.

Would that be worth it? We don't know today even if undergrounding is possible. That remains a basic fact to be established. But if undergrounding is possible, combined with the Gateway, it would provide a foundation for Bayfront redevelopment for several decades.

The Gateway project raises this issue because once dates are set for its Bayfront side, it will be too late to start thinking about such a fundamental Bayfront improvement. It's Menlo Park's issue and, right now, our City Council's.

Steps to make undergrounding happen would be hard and require tremendous leadership from the city. Menlo Park would have to work with our neighboring cities to see what they want to do with their powerline frontage.

There's also Caltrans, PG&E, and electric utility regulators. With resources scarce, and an overburdened Planning Department, it would be a challenge for the city to take on the task, even in its preliminary stages. A private-public collaboration, led by the city and neither delaying the Gateway project nor imposing significant costs, would be an innovative approach to take advantage of this opportunity.

Imagine a Menlo Park with Sand Hill Road on our western edge, and on the eastern side, bordering the San Francisco Bay, a mile-long new boulevard, full of new businesses, many people working and living, and an economic engine revving up to speed.

That's the goal. The first step is to take a little time now to figure out if, and then how, it might happen.

John Kadvany is a member of the Menlo Park Planning Commission.


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