Almanac

News - July 23, 2014

Battle lines drawn over specific plan ballot measure

by Sandy Brundage

Voters will determine the fate of a grassroots group's proposed changes to Menlo Park's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan in the November election, the council unanimously decided on July 15.

"The initiative would lock the city in a time capsule," Mayor Ray Mueller noted.

Save Menlo's ballot measure would make these changes in the specific plan area: restrict the amount of office space in any individual project to 100,000 square feet; cap total new office space at 240,820 square feet; and require an election to exceed 474,000 square feet of new, nonresidential development.

It 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 any changes to the ordinance.

Council members chose to put the measure on the ballot instead of adopting it. The changes are rife with the potential for unintended consequences, they said, and the voter approval requirement is worrisome.

Councilman Rich Cline described it as "a battle for the soul of downtown." He noted, as did his colleagues, that the initiative would lock the city into its regulations unless a city-wide vote is carried out. However, the specific plan comes up for review at least once every two years and can be changed — and has been; the council voted last November to institute a 33,333-square-foot cap on medical office space for large new projects along El Camino Real.

The measure's proponents argued that the changes are necessary to prevent Menlo Park from becoming one big traffic jam, and to improve the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance by encouraging the development of residential units over office space.

Both the council and Lisa Wise Consulting, which provided an analysis of the measure, agreed that the initiative could have a positive impact on the jobs-to-housing ratio. Mayor Ray Mueller suggested that the question at the bottom of all the debate is whether the community wants a main corridor composed mostly of housing, or whether it wants the vibrancy of mixed-use development.

Speakers on behalf of the initiative challenged the consultant's analysis, but said they felt unheard by the council.

"I was very disappointed that council accepted the Wise report without exposing or discussing its errors, limitations, and overall shortcomings," said former council member Heyward Robinson the day after the meeting.

Although Vice Mayor Catherine Carlton admonished both sides of the debate to stick to the facts, he said, the report gets many facts wrong. "Although numerous errors were noted during public comment, the council chose not to pursue these in their questions or discussion, instead cherry-picking points from the report to support a previously held opinion or position. I'm left wondering why the council commissioned this report in the first place," Mr. Robinson said.

Other speakers urged the council to uphold the specific plan.

"It's a terrible — terrible! — idea to take the power to make zoning changes away from the council," Shirley Chu said.

Representatives of Menlo Park Deserves Better, a grassroots coalition formed to defeat the initiative, vowed to fight an intense battle, saying that the specific plan resulted from years of transparent consensus building by the community. The initiative, on the other hand, was written without any public input or oversight, they said.

Representatives from Stanford University and Greenheart — two developers that each have proposed large mixed-use projects along El Camino Real — told the council that if the initiative passes, their projects have to go back to the drawing board, and they weren't sure what would emerge as replacements.

Steve Pierce of Greenheart also said that the changes would result in a minimum two-year delay — long enough that the company fears a downturn in the currently favorable economy could derail any project. "I think it's a serious risk," he said.

Stanford University's Steve Elliott said the modifications made to its project, including the removal of all medical offices and a commitment to pay a substantial portion of the costs of building a pedestrian-bicycle tunnel, will remain in effect if the initiative doesn't pass.

The council also voted to form a subcommittee composed of Councilman Cline and Mayor Mueller to draft the ballot argument against the ballot measure by Aug. 15.

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