http://almanacnews.com/print/story/print/2013/09/04/editorial-another-look-at-downtown-plan


Almanac

Viewpoint - September 4, 2013

Editorial: Another look at downtown plan

After hearing months of strong criticism that despite conforming to the city's new El Camino/downtown specific plan, Stanford's mixed-use project of up to 459,000 square feet at 500 El Camino Real would ruin Menlo Park's quality of life and generate unacceptable traffic in the nearby Allied Arts neighborhoods, the City Council appeared to get the message last week.

And that message is the plan needs to be revised, which the council will consider after the Planning Commission completes its review, which begins Sept. 9. A parade of speakers before the council Aug. 27 were nearly unanimous that the new specific plan approved just last year is already in need of changes. City Attorney Bill McClure told the council members that they can revise the plan and that the revisions would apply to the Stanford development proposal. The university would have to pull building permits and begin construction in order to qualify the project under the current specific plan, and that is unlikely to happen before the specific plan review, Steve Elliott, Stanford's managing director of real estate, acknowledged.

Council members, including Mayor Peter Ohtaki, appear to be moving toward revising the plan and trying to complete the review work in the next several months. Kirsten Keith and Catherine Carlton made up the council subcommittee charged with attempting to make the Stanford project more acceptable to Menlo Park residents, including an ad hoc group calling itself Save Menlo.

Ms. Keith said the two were involved in 18 meetings among the interested parties, and did manage to bring back significant concessions from Stanford, including the elimination of medical office space. The council approved a cut-through traffic study of the Allied Arts neighborhood, which Stanford has agreed to fund. The university also has agreed to do more work on the Middle Avenue plaza and contribute funding for a tunnel under the railroad tracks from Middle Avenue to Burgess Park.

These are encouraging developments, as is the fact that all four council members who can vote on the issue — Ms. Keith, Ms. Carlton, Rich Cline and Mayor Peter Ohtaki (member Ray Mueller is recused) — appeared to hear residents' concerns and said they are ready to revise the specific plan. According to the city attorney, the council's revisions will affect the Stanford project, if the council does so before the city issues building permits under the current plan. And if it can muster four votes, the council could invoke a moratorium, which could stop any development from going forward.

In light of the size and density of Stanford's proposal for 500 El Camino, we hope the council will revise the specific plan to make sure the Stanford project is much more compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods. The cut-through traffic study and willingness of Stanford to work on a bike/pedestrian tunnel are good first steps. Size and mass of the permitted project and possible public benefits in return for approval should be high on the list of revisions considered by the council.

Ms. Keith noted that the El Camino/downtown plan is the city's first specific plan, and that it is a learning process. Many residents, including the City Council, were shocked by the size of Stanford's initial proposal. And to its credit, the university has made significant concessions from where the project began.

More important is the height and density of what will be permitted on this eight-acre parcel. Certainly Stanford owns the land and deserves to develop the property. But whatever is built must not overwhelm El Camino Real and nearby residential streets with traffic. That will be the major consideration for the Planning Commission and the City Council as they move ahead with revising the specific plan.

Comments

Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 4, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Thank you Editors for an excellent perspective on the review of the Specific Plan.


Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 4, 2013 at 6:18 pm

In the review of the Specific Plan is should be remembered that almost all of the land involved is privately owned and those owners will only develop/improve their properties IF they are allowed to do so in an economically beneficial manner. For example, soccer fields would not be an economically viable use of private property.

The Specific Plan states:
"The El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan establishes
a framework for private and public improvements on El
Camino Real, in the Caltrain station area and in downtown
Menlo Park for the next several decades. The plan's focus
is on the character and extent of enhanced public spaces,
the character and intensity of private infill development and
circulation and connectivity improvements. It includes a
strategy for implementation of public space improvements,
such as wider sidewalks and plazas, and other
infrastructure improvements.
The overall intent of the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific
Plan is to preserve and enhance community life, character
and vitality through public space improvements, mixed
use infill projects sensitive to the small-town character of
Menlo Park and improved connectivity. As discussed later
in more detail, the Specific Plan reflects the outcome of an
extensive community outreach and engagement process.
 Encourages infill development of vacant and
under-utilized lots along El Camino Real through
increased intensities, coupled with strict building
modulation and ground-floor setback and building
profile requirements that both attenuate the mass
and scale of larger buildings and create wider
public sidewalks;"


Posted by Reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Editor - thank you for supporting the need for a thoughtful and thorough review of the Specific Plan. It's the first for Menlo Park, and early projects are helping us all learn how it works and what might need some tweaking, both for additional design flexibility and for a more predictable process for us residents to be able to influence large projects.

I note that on the same page, there is a misleading letter to the editor from a sitting Planning Commissioner who says that the front of the Stanford project is only 2 stories. Really? The facade limit is 38', about 3-1/2 stories of residential! The buildings can be 5 stories.


Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 5, 2013 at 7:32 am

Figure E26. Mixed Use Residential Projects in El Camino Real South-East (ECR SE) District specifies that the first three floors be set back 10-20 ft and the 4th and 5th floors be further set back at a 45 deg angle from the line of the lower floors.

Figure E27. Mixed Use Commercial Projects in El Camino Real South-East (ECR SE) District specifies that the first TWO floors be set back 10-20 ft and the 3rd and 4th floors be further set back at a 45 deg angle from the line of the lower floors with no fifth floor permitted.

In both cases "Setback shall be sufficient to provide a minimum 15-foot wide sidewalk with a minimum 10-foot wide clear walking zone and a minimum 5-foot wide furnishings/planting zone."


Posted by Reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 5, 2013 at 7:53 am

Thanks to Peter for clarifying the rules.
It's my understanding that the front facade can be 38 feet tall. To put that into perspective: most of Menlo Park's residential neighborhood properties have a height limit of 28 feet (we know because of our own remodel). That's to the top of the roof, above the 2nd story.
So for the district where the Stanford project is, it seems that there could be a flat wall 10 feet taller than the height of most homes, and 15 feet from the street.


Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

Reader - a better comparison is to look at the 4 story building on ECR at Roble - that facade would NOT be permitted without a set back of the third and fourth floor.

The building at Ravenswood and ECR appears to be a nice example of what IS permitted in the new ECR-SE zone.


Posted by Sam Tyler, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 5, 2013 at 10:46 am

I think those commenting on heights along El Camino Real, especially those who are comparing the Specific Plan heights to residential homes, is missing the bigger point. El Camino Real is a State highway, and has been, and will always be, a major regional transportation corridor on the peninsula. There are many thoughtful ways to have appropriately dense mixed-use projects within walking distance of the train station, and the Planning Commission and City Council should be pushing toward that end. Comparing building heights along the El Camino Real to residential homes is only appropriate if someone has a "way back" machine to a time long since past.


Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Sam, building height and setbacks are a valid concern for many people so the above exchange is valuable whether you like the proposed development or not. It seems like every opponent uses just about every opportunity to express their general opinion regardless of the specific topic that is being discussed. Am I mistaken? How is this helpful to the entire community?


Posted by reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm

It's my understanding that the building at Ravenswood and El Camino would NOT be allowed by the Specific Plan. It is set back very far and the Specific Plan includes not only a minimum setback but also a maximum setback. Several have commented on this as something that should be modified in the Specific Plan review, to allow more design flexibility.

@ "Sam" - the reason to provide a comparison to residential structures is because that is something most residents understand. It wasn't meant to imply that buildings along El Camino should be no taller than single family residential homes. Although El Camino is a state highway, it is the primary street in the middle of our small town and many believe the buildings should have a human scale. That doesn't mean they can't be tall, but the facade height and the setbacks can help make buildings fit into our community better.


Posted by joe, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Sam writes: El Camino Real is a State highway, and has been, and will always be, a major regional transportation corridor on the peninsula.

The State expects traffic to flow on El Camino and has LIMITED store front development in Peninsula cities such as Mountain View to minimize impacts of development on traffic flow. That is why you'll see old, one story fronts on El Camino.

So this isn't a residential setting but the State also expects developments will not over congest the road.

My take is the El Camino Development at 5 stories will congest the road, will invite CA to solve these congestion & air pollution problems.

That will lead to a bypass/flyover re-connecting Willow Road to Sand Hill.


Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm

"The State expects traffic to flow on El Camino and has LIMITED store front development in Peninsula cities such as Mountain View to minimize impacts of development on traffic flow. "

Really? Please document this assertion. There are lots of counter examples to prove that this is incorrect.


Posted by joe, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Here's a reference to the State's long term policy to control development along El Camino. IMHO, the congestion problems MTView's developments generate will be mitigated by VTA 522 and the conversion of a lane to Bus Rapid Transit between San Jose and Palo Alto.

Web Link

Historically, Caltrans, the state transportation department, has controlled El Camino as a state road and has limited what could be done, she said. But that grip has loosened as cities have pressed back, in part through the Grand Boulevard Initiative involving nearly two dozen cities bisected by the roadway.

"A lot of El Camino is junky junk," French said. "It used to be road houses and liquor stores. Cities regionally are taking back the road."


Posted by registered user, Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Thanks for the reference. It appears that development on ECR is totally unimpeded by the State:

"The segment constitutes the entire Mountain View stretch from the southern limit at Sunnyvale to its northern edge with the city of Palo Alto.

The city's newly adopted general plan has been a major impetus, developers said, with many filing applications in anticipation of the new standards. Under the updated city land plan, residential mixed-use projects along El Camino are allowed to reach densities as high as 1.85 square feet to every foot of land. That's up from a former allowable density of 1.35, a standard that precipitated little developer interest over the last decade. Developers also are being strongly encouraged to include ground-floor retail."