Almanac

News - May 14, 2014

Menlo Park: Initiative signatures submitted

by Sandy Brundage

About a dozen people gathered outside Menlo Park City Hall on May 12 to listen to Save Menlo representatives announce that they've collected a lot more than the 1,780 registered voter signatures needed to get their downtown/El Camino Real specific plan initiative on the November ballot.

The grassroots coalition organized to protest the specific plan once a large mixed-use development was proposed along El Camino Real. If a sufficient number of signatures are verified, the City Council may choose to implement the changes or put the issue before voters.

"We hope the council adopts it," said Patti Fry, a former planning commissioner who helped draft the initiative.

Those signing the petition go beyond "the usual suspects," according to Ms. Fry, who said many are new to Menlo Park and had to register to vote first.

She told the gathering that the initiative is a way to enforce the limits set by the specific plan.

"This is not 'no growth'," Ms. Fry said. Rather than an urban downtown with high-rise office buildings, she said, the community wants balanced development with retail, transit-oriented housing, a hotel and maybe more senior housing. "But that's not what's coming forward."

According to the city's summary, the initiative restricts the amount of office space in any individual development to 100,000 square feet; limits total new office space to 240,820 square feet; and caps overall new, non-residential development to 474,000 square feet within the specific plan's boundaries. The initiative would also redefine open space to mean only areas no higher than 4 feet off the ground, thereby preventing balconies from counting as open space.

Voter approval would be needed to revise the ordinance or to exceed the size limits for office and non-residential development. Other clauses appear intended to guarantee the longevity of the measure, with one stating that if any part of the measure is invalidated, the remaining provisions remain in effect, and another allowing the initiative to supersede all conflicting ordinances and policies, according to the city's analysis.

The initiative would impact two mixed-use development proposals already in the works by cutting the amount of office space allowed in each project by about 50 percent.

Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga want to build a complex on the mostly vacant car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real. The 8.4-acre project would involve 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.

The proposed mixed-use complex initially contained medical offices and fewer apartments, but Stanford revised the plan after a series of discussions with city officials and Save Menlo representatives.

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

Greenheart representatives have stated that the proposed modifications to the specific plan, and delays caused by waiting to see what happens with the initiative, would make their project financially unfeasible.

Meanwhile, the city has found a potential consultant to conduct an independent analysis of both the initiative and the specific plan. The staff report for the May 13 meeting identifies the recommended contractor as Lisa Wise Consulting Inc., a company based in San Francisco that has not worked with the city of Menlo Park before.

The city proposes to spend $126,886 on the review, with the option to increase that by $3,408 to add a site analysis of what types of projects could be built under the initiative's proposed regulations.

"My first reaction was (that) we're in the wrong business," Mike Lanza quipped during the press conference when the cost of the analysis came up. An initiative leader, he said he hopes it leads to a regional "push back against pack and stack" development.

Mr. Lanza predicted that with three council seats open this fall, the issue could influence the election's outcome and encourage higher voter turnout than usual. Save Menlo did hire paid signature gatherers, but the number of signatures collected by volunteers was sufficient to get the initiative on the ballot, he said.

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