A group of local residents, called Save Menlo, has said it will challenge the city's Downtown/El Camino Real Specific Plan, despite the plan's five-plus years of public hearings and approval by the City Council. If Save Menlo can procure at least 1,780 signatures from registered voters, its initiative will either be adopted by the council or placed on the November ballot.
During its first annual review of the specific plan, the council made only minor tweaks to the regulations. But Save Menlo believes the plan favors large developers like Stanford and Greenheart LLC, which have each proposed major projects on El Camino that they are legally entitled to build under the specific plan's rules.
The result is Save Menlo's proposed measure to limit office space for an individual project to 100,000 square feet, and cap total new office space allowed within the specific plan's boundaries at 240,820 square feet. The initiative would require voter approval for any project that would exceed those limits, or result in total non-residential development exceeding 474,000 square feet.
Regardless of whether Save Menlo can get enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, the mere announcement of its campaign worries developers, who need to get financing and building plans finalized. The ill-fated Derry project that would have occupied a portion of the Greenheart site at Oak Grove Avenue had to contend with the likelihood of a down-sizing initiative, and finally settled the dispute just before the housing market crashed in 2008 and financing dried up. The project was never built.
To avoid that outcome, Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller suggests the city hold a public hearing to compare the specific plan with the initiative. Saying he did not want to see the question turn into a "...mailer and insult" war, he proposed that an independent consultant be brought in to analyze the initiative and then hold a hearing, allowing the public and city staff members to comment. Just like the specific plan, Mayor Mueller said, the initiative should be studied and debated in public before a vote of city residents.
Although it is a long shot, negotiation could be another way to resolve the issue. The city and Stanford have tried before to work with Save Menlo, and were unsuccessful. But if Save Menlo would be willing to bargain with the developers, perhaps it could achieve some of its goals. Stanford already responded to earlier criticisms about its project by eliminating medical office space and making other changes. A negotiated solution would avoid a contentious November election.
Otherwise, the city will be preoccupied all summer with an intense discussion on the merits of the specific plan, the guidelines that most residents had hoped would avoid this type of dispute. The whole point was to create certainty for developers as well as the community. The city may as well have not bothered spending five years on the plan if it is now faced with an initiative that will dramatically change what type of development is permitted.
Not surprisingly, Jean McCown, Stanford's assistant vice president for government and community relations, said she believes the specific plan provides benefits for Menlo Park and El Camino Real.
"The initiative would not only change the plan's provisions, it would make it burdensome to adapt to desired changes to the area in the future by requiring a public vote to alter any of the initiative's requirements. I question whether this sort of restrictive initiative is the best way to plan for and respond to the future needs of the community."
On the other side former planning commissioner Patti Fry, who co-signed the Feb. 19 notice that informed the city of the signature drive, said Save Menlo tried to convince the council that the specific plan is flawed, to no avail. Rather than "passively wait" for what Save Menlo thinks will be the damaging impacts of new, large office complexes along El Camino Real, she said, "residents have chosen to reach out to voters in the hopes of establishing their own remedies."
She described the initiative's revisions as modest changes that would support the goal of promoting renewal consistent with Menlo Park's character.
"No one asked for huge office buildings more suited to an office park. Residents asked for a vibrant and sustainable mix of uses: transit-oriented housing, retail/restaurants, hotel, and small-scale offices," Ms. Fry told the Almanac.
If the initiative reaches the ballot, voters will decide whether to invalidate the specific plan, and whether they want larger or smaller mixed-use projects on El Camino Real. And if the answer is "smaller," developers will either have to build 50 percent less than intended, or drop out and think about building elsewhere, which would push Menlo Park's downtown development plans back to square one.