Almanac

News - June 11, 2014

New group forms to fight specific plan initiative

by Sandy Brundage

An election season without opposing factions is like throwing a party no one is invited to. As it turns out, Menlo Park doesn't have to worry about that this year.

Besides the three council seats up for election in November, a new grassroots coalition has now formed to combat the specific plan initiative proposed by another grassroots group. Save Menlo, meet Menlo Park Deserves Better.

The assortment of residents taking a stand at the forefront of Menlo Park Deserves Better includes several familiar faces, among them former council members John Boyle and Mickie Winkler; planning commissioners Katie Ferrick, Katherine Strehl and former colleague Henry Riggs, also a veteran of the successful Measure L pension reform initiative; and Menlo Park Fire Protection District board member Peter Carpenter of Atherton.

Menlo Park Deserves Better has banded together "to express our collective commitment to defeat the ill-conceived, misguided and severely flawed initiative advanced by Mike Lanza and Patti Fry on behalf of Save Menlo," the group announced on June 3.

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, nonresidential 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.

Voters would have to approve revisions to the ordinance, including actions to exceed the size limits for office and nonresidential development, 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.

Menlo Park Deserves Better representatives said that the initiative, drafted behind closed doors that prevented any professional analysis or environmental review, was an attempt by a small group of residents to subvert the expressed desires of the rest of the community.

During public comment at the June 3 council meeting, Mr. Riggs said the group was there to defend the hundreds of residents who participated in years of "open and honest" process that went into building the consensus that generated the specific plan.

As did other speakers that evening, he questioned the integrity of how the initiative is being presented, calling it "dishonestly sold, badly written, unvetted and not surprisingly rank with unintended consequences that even its writers will regret."

In broad strokes, Menlo Park Deserves Better representatives outlined what they see as some of those unintended consequences — vacant lots on El Camino Real for the foreseeable future; the potential for projects that would generate more traffic and overcrowded schools than those proposed under the current rules; and a dangerous lack of flexibility, since the initiative would require a city-wide vote for most future changes to the specific plan.

Mr. Carpenter told the council that the initiative would delay construction of a new fire station by requiring a city-wide vote before the fire district could merge two parcels, one inside the specific plan zone and one outside, into a large enough lot.

The group also raised questions about the process used by Save Menlo to gather the estimated 1,780 registered voter signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Ms. Strehl said the people who signed didn't necessarily get a clear explanation of what the 12-page initiative was about. The paid signature gatherers "came and asked for my signature and what they stated in terms of what the initiative would do was just flat out wrong; it was a total distortion."

Other people had that experience as well, she said, and signed thinking it had to do with open space, and not with the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan.

Adina Levin, who serves on the Transportation Commission, said she agreed with the validity of some of the concerns underlying the initiative. Large mixed-use projects may take up space that could otherwise be used for housing, and add traffic, she said, but this initiative isn't the right way to address those concerns. Requiring a vote of the people to change tiny little zoning rules "is just an absurd way to run a city government."

Right now the city is waiting for Lisa Wise Consulting Inc. to analyze the initiative. The $148,420 contract includes projecting how the changes would affect the feasibility of development within the specific plan boundaries, along with infrastructure and financial impacts. A preliminary report is expected by the end of June.

Save Menlo says

When asked for its take on Menlo Park Deserves Better's remarks, Save Menlo reiterated what it sees as the benefits of the initiative. According to spokeswoman Perla Ni, the initiative has widespread support, with more than 3,000 Menlo Park residents, drawn from across the city's neighborhoods, and nine former council members signing the petition.

Initiative co-sponsor and former planning commissioner Patti Fry said it lets Menlo Park voters decide the future of their small town and closes what she described as loopholes in the specific plan.

"Our community created a vision of balanced retail, hotel, housing, restaurants, and small-scale offices," she said. "No one asked for large office buildings. This initiative gives Menlo Park residents a voice in their future."

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