The El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan was sold as a guide for the city's growth over the next several decades, balancing new community-serving retail, restaurants, housing, offices. But now, less than 18 months into the Plan, two major projects propose to build at least 50 percent more new office space than residents were led to expect for the 30-year life of the Plan — in the entire 130-acre Plan area.
This additional office space brings not only more commuter traffic than anticipated, it also means that actual development may never attain the expected retail/restaurants, small-scale offices, hotel, and transit-oriented housing. The Plan has a maximum buildout of 680 housing units that our crowded schools already would struggle to accommodate; this much additional office space puts significant pressures on Menlo Park to plan for even more housing.
The Plan's rules aren't working properly to support the Plan's vision. These first two El Camino Real development proposals caused the local Sierra Club to write to the City Council last November, which said: "...[a] closer examination of the Plan has exposed a misalignment between its goals and the development standards formulae." Specifically pointed out was that the Plan's "limit" of 50 percent office should actually be 20 percent office to align development with the Plan's environmental impact report and its expected office/housing balance. The letter concluded, "the city cannot have it both ways — a jobs-housing balance as articulated and supported by the public process and also 50 percent FAR (floor area ratio) for office. It has to decide which direction it wants change to happen in the downtown and El Camino area."
The Sierra Club gets it right. The Plan's rules are not resulting in the "most reasonably foreseeable" scenario of balanced growth and revitalization for the next 30 years, as defined and analyzed by the city's teams of expensive consultants. Rather than an "invalidation of the Plan," SaveMenlo's initiative honors the Plan by adopting as firm limits the same amount of new office space (240,820 square feet) and total non-residential space (474,000 square feet) as in the consultants' scenario, so residents can be more confident in the experts' predictions of both the environmental and financial impacts of the Plan, positive and negative.
The initiative's new limit of 100,000 square feet of office space in any single development is believed to affect only three sites: Stanford's, Greenheart's and the Cortana (Big 5 shopping center) sites, each about 6 acres or larger, and each well- suited for multi-unit housing to address Menlo Park's jobs/housing imbalance, not worsen it. This provision should provide more certainty to property owners of smaller sites that they could include some office space without triggering costly environmental reviews the Plan was supposed to help them avoid.
The initiative also removes balconies and upper level decks from counting as project open space, providing more ground level open space for livable, walkable new development consistent with our town's desired character. Participants in the Plan visioning process were clear that they did not want the urbanized character of "stack and pack" development of other peninsula cities.
Contrary to some assertions, the initiative does not shrink or alter the total development any particular project can build under the Plan. It does not change the allowable height. It does not change the amount of retail, restaurants or other non-office uses that would make up the rest of the Plan's maximum build-out of non-residential development. It does not change the Plan's maximum build-out of housing units. It adopts Plan definitions to make it clear how office and open space would be counted after the initiative is adopted.
Voter approval is not required for individual projects. However, rather than returning to the old ad hoc project-by-project negotiations when a proposed project would exceed the initiative's or Plan's limits, the initiative requires a vote of residents (not a Council majority) to decide when it's appropriate to modify the initiative's limits, whether that's sooner or later than the Plan's 30-year life.
Initiative supporters are gathering signatures to give Menlo Park residents the opportunity to vote for or against a few new controls so future development might conform more closely to what residents were told to expect. After all, once huge buildings are constructed, they will affect for generations the walkability, livability, and character of our town.