Almanac

News - March 26, 2014

To sign or not to sign, that is the question

Menlo Park officials share thoughts on whether residents should sign petition to get specific plan initiative on the ballot

By Sandy Brundage

As Menlo Park waits for a consultant to analyze an initiative to downsize the city's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, the group backing the measure is busy collecting the signatures needed to get it on the November ballot. The timing leaves residents facing a quandary: Should they sign now? Never? Wait and see?

Save Menlo's initiative limits office space for any project within the specific plan boundaries to 100,000 square feet — about half of what developers like Stanford University have proposed building along El Camino Real. Total new office space would be capped at 240,820 square feet, and new nonresidential development at 474,000 square feet, among other changes. It would also require voter approval to exceed those caps.

The group needs 1,780 registered voters to sign its petition by mid-July to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Former planning commissioner Patti Fry, who co-sponsored the proposal, said the signature drive is going well, and that the group has decided not to provide a tally of its progress.

The Almanac asked several community members and officials to weigh in on signing the petition.

Some were measured in their responses.

"The initiative discussion is already helping the city to focus on large projects, their costs and benefits. Some feel the specific plan gives too much away without commensurate benefits, and that the city is losing out. The initiative is one response to that weakness, maybe not the best, but a response nonetheless," said Planning Commission Chair John Kadvany.

Fellow commissioner Katie Ferrick said that while she wouldn't sign the petition, given the great deal of thought that went into devising the specific plan, she won't comment on what anyone else should do.

Colleague Ben Eiref recommended that "residents think hard about the roughly seven years of work and input we all as a community put into the specific plan, the dozens of outreach events, the hundreds of hours of deliberation." Consider the full context of the plan, and the community's broad desire to revitalize the downtown and eliminate blight along El Camino, he said.

He noted that the Planning Commission and City Council already use "architectural review powers to push back on bad designs and guide developers towards good outcomes for the city."

Likewise, Vice Mayor Catherine Carlton said she supports the specific plan process — the kind of public process the initiative bypasses — and thinks the city already has ways to make changes as needed.

"I absolutely support everyone's right to have an initiative," she said, pointing out ballot measures she signed on to in the past. "But this one I'm wary of. I hope everybody's honest and provides accurate information and doesn't twist the facts."

Councilwoman Kirsten Keith simply thanked "the hundreds of Menlo Park residents who participated in a thorough, transparent, public, open, deliberate process for over five years to arrive at the specific plan." Their time and energy help the city grow in a "positive, planned, thoughtful direction."

Others were not so measured with their comments.

"Well, no," said Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs when asked whether people should sign Save Menlo's petition.

"If it gets the signatures, it will end up on the ballot. There will be misleading but false information, like we saw distributed last year (during the review) but more so," he said.

Then, according to Mr. Riggs, the initiative will be voted on by a few people "who care a lot, and may or may not understand it as well as they think, and many people who don't much know or care. What a dumb way to write law governing our town for 30 years."

He emphasized that the city already intends to address concerns related to large projects proposed under the specific plan regulations, and has the means to do so.

Fellow commissioner Katherine Strehl is disappointed that Save Menlo moved forward with the initiative. She doesn't encourage voters to sign.

"In general, I don't support ballot initiatives dealing with complicated planning issues," she said; like others, she emphasized that the specific plan resulted from community consensus.

Downtown property owner Nancy Couperus, on the other hand, encouraged people to sign on.

"The Save Menlo initiative is pretty modest in what it intends to achieve. Hopefully residents will embrace it to bring some sanity to all of the new development that is going to occur," she said.

Office space adds little value to the community while creating parking and traffic issues, according to Ms. Couperus, while retail at least provides services and sales taxes, and more higher-density housing along El Camino Real would fulfill a need.

And still others thought it too soon to comment on whether anyone should sign Save Menlo's petition.

Mayor Ray Mueller, appointed along with Councilman Rich Cline to a subcommittee that will determine the initiative consultant's scope of work, said "it's inappropriate to comment" before getting the independent analysis.

The city has just started looking for a consultant, who must be someone with experience, but who has never worked with either Menlo Park or any of the parties with a stake in the outcome, such as Stanford University. The mayor said hopefully the analysis will be finished before the initiative is certified for the ballot.

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