Almanac

News - June 9, 2010

What would new plan for El Camino mean for Menlo's development wars?

• If enacted, strict development regulations along El Camino Real could make the process easier for developers and the city.

by Sean Howell

If there's one thing people who have been involved in Menlo Park's El Camino Real development wars in recent years have learned — or should have learned, anyway — it is that they don't want to go through them again.

There are plenty of vacant or disused lots along the thoroughfare, but the process of figuring out what should replace them has often been torturous and unproductive.

One project that didn't comply with the city's zoning laws was approved by the City Council in 2006, then withdrawn after a voter referendum drive gathered the required number of signatures. A different council majority in 2009 approved a nearby project that did comply with the zoning laws, though several council members said they might have preferred to see a larger, housing-based development.

In 2007, the council initiated the $1 million planning process currently under way, so that the city could have a vigorous development debate just once, instead of every time a new project is proposed.

The portion of the plan that deals with the downtown area on and around Santa Cruz Avenue has gotten the most attention, but the plan would also impose rigid guidelines for development along El Camino Real. There would be absolute limits on height and the density, with clear standards for architecture and environmental efficiency, and precise regulations for the public benefits developers would provide. None of those topics is included in the current code; some of them have been the subject of 11th-hour, seat-of-the-pants wrangling by the council.

The proposed plan, created by city staff and consultants, includes both "more specificity, and more expectations" of developers, Associate Planner Thomas Rogers said in an interview. It divides El Camino Real into six zoning areas, whereas the current general plan provides for only one that blankets both El Camino and the downtown area. The new plan indicates what types of uses the city wants where, whereas the current code, over 40 years old, doesn't mention such modern contrivances as yoga studios.

"There will probably be less project-to-project conflict, but you'll still have projects pass through an evaluation process" under the new rules, Mayor Rich Cline said. "There's still going to be an opportunity for people to have a say. ... (But) the plan will give us a measure of control that doesn't exist today."

The city is encouraging people to weigh in now on the plan, saying that changes will continue to be made as it moves toward a council vote over the next several months. Those changes should adhere to the basic guidelines laid out by residents in a series of community workshops, Mr. Rogers said, but there is plenty of room for debate.

A quick check by The Almanac of several local residents and developers indicated that the debate over redevelopment on El Camino Real will be a lively one. People's comments would also seem to back up the city's contention that the plan is "moderate and balanced": Some say it allows for too much development, while others say there's not nearly enough.

Sam Sinnott, a local architect who has worked on land development proposals along El Camino Real, lauded the entire plan, calling it "brilliantly done," though in his opinion it doesn't allow for enough development along El Camino Real.

"To encourage developers to replace over time those existing buildings, and to get the public amenities the city's asking for, requires a little more density," he said. "But it's a step in the right direction."

Vince Bressler, a member of the Planning Commission who aligns himself with the "slow-growth" camp, said he believes plans for more concentrated development around the train station area and along the east side of El Camino, south of the downtown area, will generate controversy.

"My concern is that we're going to over-densify the downtown area and make it really impassable, with heavy traffic," he said. He's skeptical of the assumption that people living in the new apartments would get around without using their cars.

Housing advocate Elizabeth Lasensky, who recently moved from Menlo Park to San Carlos and made it clear that she was speaking as an "outsider," said she thinks the plan doesn't provide for enough housing.

"From the outside looking in, there's not enough housing, and there's not enough affordable senior housing," said Ms. Lasensky, a former member of the city's Housing Commission. "Options for that age group are pretty minimal in Menlo Park. ... As a housing advocate, I would have to say also that there's not enough transit-oriented housing."

Howard Crittenden, a developer who owns both the Guild Theatre building and the former Park Theatre building, said he thinks the plan would make it easier for developers to navigate the city's process.

"I'm excited about the plan," he said. "I would love to see something be put in place, because what's in place now is why Menlo Park is in the state it's in."

Mr. Sinnott agreed that the new rules will be a plus, despite his reservations about some of them.

"I like having a regulation-based ordinance, to be as clear as possible," he said. "If there are hard limits, they're hard limits. What we currently have is a discretionary review process, where a project, even if conforms with regulations, can be denied for any reason. ... It ends up being a very long process."

Several other El Camino landowners contacted by The Almanac for this story either did not respond to or declined requests to be interviewed, with some saying they were not versed enough in the plan to speak about it.

Mayor Cline said he isn't sure the plan will end the raging debates over development along El Camino, but that it will help to focus them.

"What we're trying to achieve is, first, a level of agreement on a broad scope," he said. "On both sides, there's going to be an extreme point of view — on the one side, that we don't need these kinds of (concessions), on the other side, that this isn't progressive enough.

"I'm getting e-mails from (and meeting with) people who are concerned about the plan, and they should be concerned: It's a big deal," he continued. "We should have a dialogue about those concerns. The bulk of the buildings, the massing of the buildings, that's all fair game."

In years past, City Council campaigns have been waged, and won, over issues related to land development in the city center. This fall might bring more of the same, because the council vote on the plan has been delayed until after the election, due to concerns related to the state-mandated environmental review process.

If the city does manage to implement the plan, would residents have to find other things to argue about? A future council wouldn't overturn it, right?

"This has been a community-based, multi-year planning process, we've gotten a lot of input, and we have a lot of documentation (of that input)," Mr. Rogers said. "We hope there would be no support for a council to change the plan in the near future."

Menlo Park's plan

Menlo Park's long-term plan for El Camino Real and the downtown area will be the subject of several public meetings between late July and December. The plan is available in draft form at the city administration building in the Civic Center complex, and is subject to change.

Visit menlopark.org/specificplan for more information, and to see the draft plan in PDF form.

To comment on the plan, e-mail the City Council at city.council@menlopark.org, or Associate Planner Thomas Rogers at THRogers@menlopark.org.

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