Guest opinion: City missed chance for housing near transit
Original post made by Richard Hine, editor of The Almanac, on Oct 15, 2009
By John Boyle
Last week, the Menlo Park City Council approved a major new development for the former Cadillac dealership site at 1300 El Camino Real. I was the dissenter in the 4-1 vote.
Despite my vote against this project, I agree that there were many supportive arguments:
• This parcel has been empty for far too long.
• The developer had worked hard over many years to produce a project that followed the general guidance he was given by the current council majority.
• City staff and the Planning Commission recommended approval based on current council policy guidance.
The proposed project (110,000 square feet of office/retail space) is attractive and will contribute to our downtown in a number of positive ways.
However, I believe that this project was unacceptable. Despite being in a prime downtown location that was adjacent to the train station and other public transportation, it didn't include any housing. Locations like this are exactly the type of places that Peninsula cities are embracing what's known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
Such projects recognize the value in developments that include both jobs and housing near public transportation. Appropriately-sized TOD projects can respect the "small town feel" of places like Menlo Park, while at the same time delivering the environmental, traffic, affordability, and downtown vitality benefits that come with downtown housing.
Projects that include housing inevitably run into opposition, usually from neighbors. We've seen it with nearly every other housing-oriented project ranging from a previous apartment project at this same location to the recent Habitat for Humanity proposal in Belle Haven. The issues are real: traffic, school impacts, density and mass vs. small town feel, and more.
But the need is also indisputable. Without a growing housing supply, prices will continue to soar well beyond affordable levels for all but the very wealthy. And pushing housing to other regions simply exacerbates traffic, pollution, and CO2 issues.
In this case, the developer needed a zoning change to enable some small changes to height and parking density. As part of our agreement to make those changes, we should have insisted on the inclusion of housing. The developer outlined one alternative that included a modest housing element (36 units), but he clearly preferred the version without them. We should have required him to choose the housing option.
As a compromise, I proposed we grant the developer an approval of the project "as is," but with a condition that he essentially delay it for up to a year, while he would work with the city to develop a new proposal that would leverage the evolving new Specific Area Plan for our downtown. We'd have benefited from this "test case" of a real development being defined in parallel with our proposed new downtown zoning and other guidelines.
The developer would benefit by being able to take advantage of what will likely be more generous zoning allowances vs. the current rules defined decades ago. If we were unable to work out a new plan that matched up well with the evolving Specific Area Plan, then the developer could simply reactivate the approval of the current project. In reality, he's not likely to be able to start construction for close to a year anyway, due to other conditions that were imposed and still have to be worked out.
We missed an opportunity at 1300 El Camino, but we have an opportunity to improve the situation going forward. We are several years already into the process of creating a Specific Area Plan for our downtown. It is critical that we finish that work in a timely manner ' and with full participation from everyone in our community. This week's council meeting will focus on this project. I invite you to join us and to share your views.
John Boyle is a member of the Menlo Park City Council.