Almanac

News - June 23, 2010

Big decision on Bohannon in hands of the voters

• Menlo Park residents have been reading and hearing about the Bohannon Development Co.'s "Menlo Gateway" project for years. It isn't over yet, as the project heads to the November ballot.

by Sean Howell

Whether or not there's a contested City Council election this fall, Menlo Park voters can expect to be subjected to plenty of campaigning before then.

In part, they can thank the council itself, which at its June 15 meeting voted 4-1 to approve the Bohannon (Menlo Gateway) development project, subject to a citywide vote. A simple majority will be all that's required to grant the necessary approvals to the Bohannon Development Co. for the office/hotel project, a nearly million-square-foot development near Bayfront Expressway and Marsh Road.

The project will join on the ballot a voter-led initiative aimed at scaling back public pension benefits for new city employees. The council is also considering asking residents to increase the city's tax rate on hotel guests.

The council made the decision on Menlo Gateway with the support of both the Bohannon Development Co. and several prominent opponents of the project, amid fears that a voter-initiated referendum effort could put the project in limbo for up to a year. The council members did so despite concerns that failing to approve the project themselves would make them appear weak and exacerbate their reputation, deserved or not, for delay and indecision.

"I don't believe that every single thing should go on the ballot, nor do I think it makes you a 'weenie' if you put something on the ballot, knowing that you could be causing the city to lose the benefits of something that you would otherwise get," former council member Gail Slocum said at the meeting, warning that a drawn-out referendum campaign could somehow jeopardize the project. "It doesn't make any sense for someone who supports this project to oppose something that could help save it."

Councilman John Boyle, the lone dissenter in the vote despite his avowed support for the project, said that putting it to a popular vote would turn a complicated land-use decision into a political campaign — one that could damage current council members in the upcoming election, where three of five seats will be up for grabs, including Mr. Boyle's.

"This will be spun as, 'The council was unsure of their decision, and wanted to send it to the public,'" Mr. Boyle said, adding that the decision put the council on a "slippery slope" in not asking residents to vote on other issues. "This will turn into a very political debate, with lots of slogans and over-simplifications. The opportunity for oversimplification or confusion is enormous."

Mr. Boyle argued that the issue — the subject of hundreds of pages of studies and a slew of public meetings — was too complex for the average voter to grasp.

Councilman Heyward Robinson said he thought residents won't have any trouble grasping the basic issues in play, and said that it will be the city's job to help educate voters in the run-up to the election. He noted that the city will craft the pro- ballot argument, but said he doesn't think Mr. Boyle should be allowed input in writing it, because of his vote against sending it to the ballot.

"I hope we get a very clean and very clear vote that really is on the merits of this, and less on the personalities and politics," he said in an interview. "Let's focus on the known impacts, and the known benefits."

Representatives of the development company feel confident their campaign will prevail. A poll the company commissioned showed that 64 percent of "likely voters" in the November election would support it. If the company saturated the city enough with its message that the project will bring in money for the city and schools (never mind that much of the money would go to school districts outside Menlo Park), its passage would be a "slam dunk," according to the pollster.

Of course, the marketing campaign has already been on for months. The Bohannon company has run a website for the project, sent out periodical "e-newsletters," and placed several full-page newspaper ads in The Almanac. The development company has retained Public Affairs, a marketing firm helmed by Ed McGovern, to spread its message.

"We don't have details about specific tactics, but we do fully intend to continue getting our message out to the community," said Patrick Corman, who handles the company's public relations efforts. Mr. Corman and developer David Bohannon have defended the company's communication work in general, saying it was aimed at stimulating thoughtful dialogue about the project. Project opponents have derided those efforts as a big-money marketing campaign.

Some of those opponents said they would welcome the council placing the project on the ballot.

"There are times when popular democracy is not a dereliction of duty or a weakness," Chuck Bernstein wrote in an e-mail to the council. "This is one of them."

Still, "campaign fatigue" is a concern, Mr. Robinson said.

"I was totally burned out by the June election," he said. I was sitting (at the council meeting) going, 'God, do I want to contribute to that?'"

But he argued that placing the project on the November ballot was better than the alternative of an even more drawn-out campaign, in the event of a referendum vote.

"We need to make a decision and be done with it, one way or the other," he said at the meeting.

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