Almanac

News - September 25, 2013

Menlo Park commission continues review of specific plan

by Sandy Brundage

As the Menlo Park Planning Commission prepared to continue its review of the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan on Sept. 23, they had some added community input to consider.

Commissioners took a series of straw votes on Sept. 10, the first day of their review, to evaluate what aspects of the specific plan merited further consideration for modification.

The straw votes indicated that the commission does not want to throw the specific plan out, given the five years of analysis that led to its creation, but did identify several areas to tweak. Those include ways to give the city more control over proposed projects and the proportion of specific uses, such as housing versus office space, and possibly ways to incorporate funding mechanisms for desired infrastructure improvements.

One project proposed under the new specific plan rules has highlighted the need to at least reconsider those aspects. Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga have indicated they want to build an eight-acre mixed-use complex along 300 to 500 El Camino Real — a project that meets the baseline criteria of the specific plan without triggering public benefit requirements or review by the city beyond architectural features.

The latest design for the Stanford Arrillaga complex consists of 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments. A public plaza to be designed in conjunction with the city at Middle Avenue would incorporate two car lanes, along with a pedestrian and bicycle path at Middle Avenue and El Camino Real leading to a future railroad track undercrossing.

The Sierra Club and Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition that has criticized the Stanford project, submitted a list of their desired revisions to the specific plan in advance of Monday's Planning Commission meeting.

Focused on El Camino Real and the area surrounding the Caltrain Station, the changes include capping the amount of general office space at 25 percent of the baseline floor area allowed in a project (10 percent for medical offices); dropping the maximum height allowed in southeast El Camino Real to 48 feet with facades capped at 38 feet; and incorporating an infrastructure fee based on square footage. The groups also propose implementing a transportation demand management program along the length of El Camino Real.

The Sierra Club and Save Menlo also suggest fine-tuning the specific plan's definition of "open space" to ensure it refers to shared community areas and clarifying the process of determining public benefits if a developer wants to exceed baseline requirements.

As far as height and density allowances go, however, during the straw votes on Sept. 10, five commissioners said they were "favorably disposed" toward the density and floor area ratios — the scale, in other words — of buildings allowed under the specific plan. Katherine Strehl and John Onken abstained since they are recused from voting on certain zones of the specific plan.

The specific plan allows buildings up to 60 feet on the southeast portion of El Camino Real, to accommodate four-story commercial or five-story residential buildings. All other building heights in the plan area are capped at 38 feet, or two-story commercial and three-story residential units.

The Almanac went to press before the Sept. 23 meeting. Check our website at almanacnews.com for an update on what happened. Once the Planning Commission finishes evaluating the specific plan, which may take several meetings, it will send any recommendations to the City Council for review.

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