Almanac

News - August 13, 2014

Menlo Park: Greenheart complex draws kudos, questions

by Sandy Brundage

During their recent discussion of the environmental impact report and architectural features of Greenheart's proposed 420,000-square-foot mixed-use project on El Camino Real, several Menlo Park planning commissioners said they thought the project demonstrated that the city's controversial specific plan is working the way the community wants it to.

Greenheart's project includes two three-story office buildings with 210,000 square feet of commercial space, and up to 220 apartments, with some below-market-rate housing, on its nearly 7-acre site at 1300 El Camino Real, off Oak Grove Avenue.

The commercial space would include at least 188,000 square feet of offices and 22,000 square feet set aside for commercial use, preferably retail, but that depends on the market, according to the developer. One option would be more offices. The residential building would dedicate 7,000 square feet to retail.

Ninety-five percent of the on-site parking would be provided by an underground garage with entrances off El Camino Real and Garwood Way.

The underground parking arose as a point of discussion during the Planning Commission meeting on Aug. 4. An initiative to change the specific plan is going before voters in the Nov. 4 election. If adopted, the initiative would cut the amount of office space allowed in the Greenheart development to 100,000 square feet, about half of the current plan.

The commissioners asked how that would affect the garage as well as transportation demand management for the project.

Greenheart representative Steve Pierce replied that the parking would likely have to shift to above-ground, given that the expense of building a garage would not be offset by the remaining office space, which brings in the highest rent among the possible uses (retail, housing and office). He estimated that it costs more than twice as much to put the parking underground.

That leaves less open space for a 2-acre public plaza in the complex, he said, and leads to fewer potential on-site patrons for the retail. "We wouldn't be tweaking the project. We'd be reinventing the project" if the initiative passes, Mr. Pierce said.

The company may then look at larger, regional-type retail or look at building more, larger housing units, both of which change impacts to traffic and schools, he said. As for encouraging public transit, he said, "People don't take trains to retail."

Commissioner Drew Combs, who is running for a seat on the City Council this year, asked whether sticking to the base level of development instead of going for the bonus level would make losing half the office space feasible.

"Probably not," Mr. Pierce said, adding that without the bonus level, Greenheart would likely move the parking to the surface.

Commissioner Katie Ferrick said she thought the project demonstrated that the specific plan "got it right" in terms of bonus levels and public benefit, as the revenue generated for Greenheart by developing at the bonus level allows construction of the underground garage, which in turn leads to the large public plaza.

According to the city staff, a third-party consultant will analyze various mixed-use scenarios to estimate the value to both the developer and Menlo Park. This analysis will be used in negotiating the public benefits to be derived from allowing the bonus level. Commissioner John Kadvany encouraged the city to consider negotiating for revenue from the developer as the public benefit in light of the possibility that the commercial portion of the site could include less retail.

Commission Chair Ben Eiref pressed Greenheart to not make that portion flex space. "(The amount of) retail should not be variable ... my perception is that the market for retail is on fire right now."

The commission, while praising the site plan and architecture, emphasized that the project is going to have to sell itself to the public.

"We kind of have to pat the specific plan on the back and say job well done," Commissioner John Onken said, but noted that the "lump of office," while necessary, will be disagreeable to some members of the public.

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