Almanac

News - August 6, 2014

Specific plan initiative supporters critique consultant's analysis

by Sandy Brundage

The backers of an initiative to change the Menlo Park downtown/El Camino Real specific plan have released their take on a consultant's analysis of the initiative.

Lisa Wise Consulting carried out the $148,420 analysis at the city's request. The contractor was selected partly on the basis of having never before worked for Menlo Park or developers, such as Stanford University and Greenheart Land Co., with a stake in the outcome.

The initiative, championed by grassroots coalition Save Menlo, will be on the Nov. 4 election ballot. It seeks to restrict the amount of office space in any individual development to 100,000 square feet; limit total new office space to 240,820 square feet; and cap 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.

Voters would have to approve changes to the initiative as well as projects that would exceed the non-residential development caps — requirements that Lisa Wise Consulting concluded could make investment riskier while making the specific plan area less attractive to developers. Among other "unintended consequences" should the initiative pass, Menlo Park could see "a dampening or complete stoppage of future nonresidential development in the ECR/D Specific Plan area as developers invest elsewhere" in cities that don't have such a requirement, according to the report.

The initiative's supporters have now responded with a critique written by a group composed of four former planning commissioners, seven former council members and other interested parties, according to initiative co-sponsor Patti Fry.

The group contends that the "most glaring" deficiency in the LWC report is its failure to consider whether the Stanford and Greenheart mixed-use projects fit the intention of the specific plan.

Other criticisms levied at the analysis:

• The report obfuscates or overlooks some positive impacts of the initiative; the group proposes that its initiative would increase net revenue within the specific plan's boundaries by capping office space.

• The report "blames the Initiative for uncertainties inherent to the Specific Plan "and those uncertainties put the city at risk of legal liability with or without the initiative.

• The report overstates the impact of the initiative on the specific plan and staff costs and describes a shift in jobs from office to retail/hotel as a limit on job growth.

• Contrary to the report, the initiative's authors state above-ground space could count towards open space requirements for residential developments in some zoning areas.

• The report fails to characterize as a benefit a shift in commuter traffic away from downtown Menlo Park if developers decide to build office space elsewhere.

The initiative's backers hope their analysis makes the city take a second look at the consultant's report.

"Even though we collectively know more about Menlo Park, its history, and zoning ordinances than the authors of the Wise report, our critique of the Wise report should not be construed as a competing report," initiative proponent and former councilman Heyward Robinson commented. Instead, the group's report is an analysis of the consultant's work and its deficiencies, he said. "City staff is ultimately responsible for the report and its accuracy. Staff has the in-house expertise to evaluate our critique and revise the report as necessary. They should use this expertise to do a thorough, in-depth analysis of both the report and the criticisms of it."

City Manager Alex McIntyre said Lisa Wise Consulting will be responding to the critique.

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