Almanac

News - November 27, 2013

Specific plan review culminates in minor tweaks

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Park's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan emerged in one piece following its first review: The council decided to cap medical office space development along El Camino Real and adopted several minor tweaks, but otherwise seemed content to leave the plan in place after concluding its review.

Six years in the making, the specific plan garnered criticism during its first year post-approval as projects designed under the new regulations started coming in to the city.

Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga want to build a mixed-use project that would replace mostly vacant car lots on 8.43 acres along 300 to 500 El Camino Real. The project would involve 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.

A second project, designed by Greenheart LLC, would put 210,000 square feet of office space and 210,000 square feet of apartments, with 13,000 square feet of retail included, on 7 acres located at 1300 El Camino Real at Oak Grove Avenue.

Given the criticism voiced — sometimes shouted — during the past year, the Nov. 19 council meeting was something of a rarity as residents showed up to voice support, rather than dissent. Of about 30 public comments, several made by real estate agents and developers, the majority urged the council to leave the specific plan alone.

Others said that wasn't good enough. Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition organized to oppose Stanford's project, demanded the council cap office space at 25 percent of a building's floor area; limit building height to a maximum of 48 feet; and add a development impact infrastructure fee for new projects. These changes would reduce traffic and improve safety and quality of life, according to the group.

When asked whether the coalition would pursue a lawsuit or referendum now that the first specific plan review is finished, Save Menlo spokeswoman Perla Ni said, "We are planning to send a very clear message to the developers who plan to cash in at the expense of the environment and quality of life in Menlo Park."

Sierra Club member and architect Gita Dev said modifications were needed to ensure new development would create a balance between housing, jobs and traffic.

Mayor Peter Ohtaki indicated he was listening to both sides of the argument. "I'm definitely tired of looking at empty lots on El Camino Real, and want to see something done," he said. "On the other hand, I'm very sympathetic to the issues about traffic and the concerns raised (by everyone)."

During the ensuing discussion between staff and council, the consensus appeared to be that the specific plan has the tools to allow the city some control over new development, with some fine-tuning.

Changes

The major framework of the specific plan emerged intact with one exception: The council voted 4-0 to implement a cap of 33,333 square feet of medical office space for projects with more than 100,000 square feet of buildings along the El Camino Real corridor.

Smaller projects may include up to one-third medical office space, as originally allowed by the specific plan.

Medical offices generate more traffic than any other use, according to staff; they don't generate any revenue for the city.

Councilman Rich Cline, who championed the motion, said that it was inspired by Stanford's original proposal, which included 96,000 square feet of medical offices. "If we'd had that in (the specific plan), Stanford would not have dropped that 'medical beast' on us," he said.

The university later agreed to eliminate medical offices entirely from the project, which Councilwoman Kirsten Keith noted cut traffic estimates by one-third. An in-depth traffic analysis is expected to be released after Thanksgiving for further review.

Incorporating the medical office cap into the specific plan may create some delays for projects currently in the pipeline, such as the Greenheart proposal, staff said, as planners have to divide their time between assignments.

The council also adopted several minor tweaks in line with those suggested by the Planning Commission, including:

• Allowing the city to evaluate proposed renovations of existing buildings within the specific plan area for compliance with criteria such as sidewalk width.

• Letting construction of a pedestrian-bicycle railroad undercrossing at Middle Avenue start regardless of the status of high-speed rail construction.

• Permitting some flexibility in building breaks, parking and setback requirements for parcels in the southeast portion of El Camino Real, which includes the Stanford lots, to allow design of an "optimal" public plaza at Middle Avenue. The university has agreed to participate in a city-led design group for the plaza, which the council felt would address those design elements.

• Creating a study group to consider forming a transportation management association, open to entities within the plan boundaries, to coordinate and monitor traffic-reduction measures.

Funding for infrastructure was a major topic of discussion for both the council and commission, with both agreeing the city should prioritize constructing a downtown parking garage.

However, the council unanimously rejected a recommendation that Stanford pay the entire cost of the Middle Avenue undercrossing after legal counsel said it was too early in the project evaluation process to support that as a requirement.

The university has agreed to make "a substantial contribution" to construction of the tunnel, with the exact amount remaining to be determined.

Councilman Ray Mueller was recused from specific plan discussion due to the sale of property located near the Stanford project site.

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