Critics often blame the city for the remaining eyesores, but in fact, the city has spent some five years and more than $1 million on a consultant to get local residents involved in creating a new zoning plan for El Camino, as well as portions of downtown and the area near the Caltrain depot. Now the plan is nearly complete, but still must undergo a full round of public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council that will continue this spring.
It's become clear that the city will zone the relatively shallow properties on the east side of El Camino, including the shuttered car dealers, for dense housing over ground floor retail. The buildings are likely to be three and four stories, with small parks in between, and feature underground parking. It is not the type of housing that many Menlo Park residents prefer, but developers say they could not make a fair profit on smaller buildings.
But that concern about profits may be undermined by the recently unveiled project across the street at 389 El Camino, a small, bare lot that once was used to sell small trucks for Anderson Chevrolet. In 2008, after purchasing the property, Matteson Companies tried to win approval to build dense housing there. The first effort, to squeeze 48 condominium units on the 1.23-acre site, was shouted down by residents who live nearby on Partridge and College avenues. They charged that the 60-foot-high buildings were out of character and did not blend with the Allied Arts neighborhood, where walking residents and playing children adorn the quiet, tree-lined streets.
Matteson pulled back, and four years later, was able to produce a plan that not only pleased the city, but the neighbors as well. Matteson's strategy was not unique: after many rounds of talks, the company agreed to significantly scale down the proposal, seeking approval to build only 26 homes, including nine two-story single family homes across the back of the site facing the neighborhood, and 17 townhouses around the rest of the property. Three units will be set aside for the city's below-market-rate (BMR) housing program.
In our view, this project shows that despite claims from developers that they need ultra-dense projects to reach their profit goals, smaller designs can succeed and at the same time prove much more appealing to neighbors and buyers.
It's too early to say whether the Matteson project will impact the zoning permitted in the downtown plan, but we are certain the City Council and Planning Commission are paying attention. Even though it took four years, it is refreshing to see developers, neighbors and the city all collaborate on a project that initially was not given much chance of success. We look forward to seeing these homes under construction and perhaps setting the stage for similar projects on the vacant lots remaining across the street.