Almanac

News - March 26, 2014

Menlo Park to hire consultant to analyze initiative

by Sandy Brundage

"I want it to be unmerciful. I want the comparison to be unmerciful to the (specific) plan. And I want the comparison to be unmerciful to the initiative," Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller said while voicing his support on March 18 for hiring an independent consultant to evaluate a proposed ballot measure that would change the city's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan.

The council voted 5-0 to spend up to $150,000 to hire the consultant. City Manager Alex McIntyre said to avoid perceptions of bias, staff will find someone who hasn't worked with the city, local developers such as Stanford University and Greenheart, or other parties with a stake in the outcome of the evaluation.

"We're going to go far afield to find people who are credentialed, qualified, who have done this kind of work but haven't done it here," Mr. McIntyre said.

Menlo Park's $1.7 million downtown/El Camino Real specific plan was approved in 2012 after five years of study and community engagement.

But after Stanford University proposed building a mixed-use complex on eight acres of empty car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real, community opposition arose in the form of Save Menlo, which has now notified the city of its intent to put a set of proposed changes to the specific plan before voters.

The grassroots coalition is currently trying to collect the 1,780 signatures needed by mid-July to qualify its initiative for the fall election ballot.

Save Menlo's initiative would cap office space in any individual development at 100,000 square feet; limit total new office space in the specific plan area to 240,820 square feet; and restrict overall new, nonresidential development to 474,000 square feet within the plan's boundaries.

The initiative would also redefine open space to mean only areas no higher than 4 feet tall. Save Menlo has stated that one of its goals is to prevent balconies from counting as open space.

In addition, voter approval would be needed to revise the ordinance or to exceed the square footage limits for office and nonresidential development.

Save Menlo member George Fisher urged the council during Tuesday night's meeting to put the $150,000 to better use.

"I have good news. You don't have to do this. You're too late. You refused to do this earlier," Mr. Fisher said, referring to the coalition's demands that the city both review and revise the specific plan last year.

However, the consensus of the council was that, given the importance of the specific plan as the city's blueprint for development for the next several decades, money spent on an independent review of the initiative would be well spent.

"The devil's always in the details," Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said, adding that since the community spent five years going over details of the specific plan — a "very comprehensive document" — it's equally important to understand the details of any proposed changes.

The council also voted to form a subcommittee — composed of Mr. Mueller and Councilman Rich Cline — to collaborate with staff to determine the consultant's scope of work.

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