Almanac

Viewpoint - April 24, 2013

Editorial: City has bargaining chips on Stanford project

The protracted debate over the Stanford/Arrillaga application to build up to 450,000 square feet of offices, housing and retail space on eight acres at 300-500 El Camino Real, the gateway to Menlo Park's downtown, is well under way and now the City Council must decide its position.

Last week the council formed a two-member subcommittee to devise a strategy to resolve the reservations many residents have expressed, including at last week's council meeting. We hope the subcommittee members, Kirsten Keith and Catherine Carlton, succeed in convincing Stanford to reduce the size of the project and to devise a way to substantially reduce the traffic impact it could have on El Camino Real and surrounding neighborhoods.

The council subcommittee does not go into these negotiations without bargaining chips. In fact, just because Stanford has submitted a tentative design does not mean the city is powerless to change portions of the specific plan. It is not until a detailed plan for Stanford's development is submitted and accepted by the city's Planning Department and a building permit is issued, that the city can't alter the project. So, at this point the city can:

• Accept Stanford's latest plan, which decreased the amount of high-traffic-generating medical office space but roughly maintained the overall size of the project.

• Support the two-member committee appointed last week to see if Stanford will make more changes that would reduce the impact of the project.

• Or consider either slightly changing the stipulations of the specific plan or making major changes, which would require the council to approve a moratorium that would stop all activity on Stanford's application until the moratorium was lifted.

According to a city staff report on Stanford's plan, a moratorium needs approval of four of five council members (which could be a challenge with member Ray Mueller unable to vote on this project) and could last 45 days or up to 22 months if necessary. By enacting a moratorium, the council would give itself the time necessary to go through the complicated process to change parts of the specific plan, including time for noticed hearings by the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Although it appears that Stanford will submit a detailed project proposal, it has not yet pulled a building permit. City Attorney Bill McClure said that from a legal perspective there are no vested rights for a developer until a building permit has been issued and an applicant has taken action on the permit. That is when courts have said a builder is entitled to proceed. All work that occurs before a permit is issued is considered "soft costs" that a developer cannot recover if rules are changed.

Clearly, the best course for Stanford and Menlo Park is for the two sides to resolve their differences in an amicable way, without moratoriums or other procedural roadblocks. But despite Stanford's recent move to reduce medical office space, the overall size of the project remains the same. For example, will the project produce hundreds of unwanted cars and trucks on the six Allied Arts streets that are most likely to suffer by virtue of being across the street from such a huge development. Some way needs to be found to mitigate that traffic impact, and even the impact of pedestrians, including school children, who will need to cross from the east to west side of El Camino Real at Middle Avenue. We also would like to see a more detailed plan about how Stanford would facilitate construction of a bike/pedestrian tunnel at Middle that would connect Linfield Oaks and Burgess Park to El Camino Real.

It is highly unlikely that opponents of this project are going to get all that they want before this project is approved. It would take a major effort by the council to pass a moratorium. But we hope Stanford responds to at least some of the opponents concerns. We believe most Menlo Park residents truly want to see improvements made on this very visible property at the southern gateway to the city. But that doesn't mean a developer can ignore public reaction and offer an out of balance project. The City Council does have the power to stop an overzealous plan if it acts relatively soon. With that option on the back burner, we hope Stanford, and John Arrillaga, who has given so generously to Menlo Park, will be willing to reduce the size and impact of their project.

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