Almanac

News - April 24, 2013

Council names subcommittee to work toward compromise with Stanford

by Sandy Brundage

After a discussion that started on a Tuesday night and stretched into Wednesday morning, the Menlo Park City Council decided to form a subcommittee to help figure out how to make the proposed Stanford-Arrillaga mixed-use complex more palatable to the city.

The council voted 4-0 on April 17, with Ray Mueller recused, to form the subcommittee and appoint Kirsten Keith and Catherine Carlton to serve on it.

Stanford's most recent plan would replace mostly vacant lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real with 25,000 square feet of medical offices, 199,500 square feet of regular offices, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments. Two car lanes would pass through a public plaza at Middle Avenue to allow vehicular access to the site.

Steve Elliott, managing director of real estate for Stanford, said they wanted a project the community would be happy with. While the university had researched building senior housing or a hotel on the lots, it decided the mixed-use complex was more suitable, he told the council.

Asked whether he could guarantee that Stanford would not designate the buildings for academic use — which would allow it to claim an exemption from paying property taxes — Mr. Elliott responded that he wasn't willing to promise that.

"(But) these have always been investment properties," he said, like those the university owns on Sand Hill Road. "The provost thought that will continue to be the intent. ... I would not advise the university to put Stanford offices on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, but I can't guarantee (they won't)."

The subcommittee's goals include facilitating discussion between the city, residents and Stanford University that could lead to compromises that bring the project more in line with what the community wants. It will also help city staff expand a traffic analysis to look at potential cut-through traffic along Middle Avenue and into the Allied Arts neighborhood.

Ms. Carlton said she was worried that bringing the two sides together may be impossible. "My fear is that there are members of the community who will never be happy with this and I don't know how to reconcile that."

Twenty-four residents spoke against the project, highlighting its size, inclusion of medical offices and traffic impacts.

Perla Ni, spokesperson for Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition organized to oppose the project, said the recent changes Stanford made amounted to "re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." She urged the council to remove the Stanford parcels from the boundaries of the specific plan and reinstate the zoning that existed prior to the plan's passage.

Several asked that the height of the buildings be restricted to two stories. The current design has two five-story residential buildings, one four-story office building and two three-story office buildings, according to Stanford, which the new downtown/El Camino Real specific plan allows.

Three speakers expressed support for the proposal and four indicated they would if minor changes were made.

Chamber of Commerce CEO Fran Dehn asked the council to "trust the process; don't undermine the (specific) plan" created through years of public outreach and discussion.

Councilman Rich Cline said that should the subcommittee's efforts prove futile, he didn't mind looking at removing Stanford's parcels from the specific plan boundaries, although he noted the plan does technically comply with the new regulations.

"I need to see a better balance of housing and office use. I need to see a traffic study that shows me there's a way to mitigate traffic," he said, along with a way to help get people who aren't in cars from one side of the city to the other.

He asked Mr. Elliott to explain how the proposal ended up so far afield of what the city and community indicated it wanted during the five-year specific planning process.

"Compliance is one thing. I'll grant you that," Mr. Cline said. "But we were in the same meetings and had the same discussions ... no one said they wanted medical office on El Camino. In fact people said (they did not want it). ... This became a majority of office and not housing, and I think that starts the disconnect" between what the city expected and what Stanford actually proposed.

Acknowledging that "disconnect" was an accurate description, Mr. Elliott said that Stanford indicated that a variety of uses might work, including senior housing or a hotel or medical offices, and never guaranteed to develop any one type of use.

"Would more residential be a deal-breaker?" Mr. Cline asked after further discussion.

Mr. Elliott initially declined to comment one way or another, but later told the council Stanford wasn't interested in adding more housing.

City review of the project is waiting on completion of Menlo Park's traffic analysis, which staff expected to take at least two to three months. The Planning Commission may review Stanford's new proposal in August, which is also when the council subcommittee may return with recommendations, although the exact timing remains to be worked out.

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