Menlo Park's future now has blueprint
Change is coming to Menlo Park, but slowly. Five hours of discussion on June 5 after five years of analysis led to Menlo Park's approval of the framework for a new vision of development downtown and along El Camino Real. The impact of that decision will likewise take some time to become clear.
About 40 residents commented for and against the final version of the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, with the balance tilting toward approval.
"This is the longest process I've ever been a part of," said Dexter Chow, owner of Cheeky Monkey Toys on Santa Cruz Avenue. "It's time to move forward and attract new business by showing we have a unified plan for the future."
Richard Draeger, of the eponymous grocery store, said he supported many aspects of the plan, while remaining concerned about some optional elements that could lead to competition from food trucks in the paseo and loss of parking. He suggested the city form a task force to recruit complementary businesses such as an Apple store.
Representatives from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District told the council that some of their concerns have been resolved, and that discussions with the city continue. Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he was pleased that the district would now be included in meetings regarding water infrastructure.
The City Council generally voted unanimously, with Kelly Fergusson and Peter Ohtaki recused from portions of the discussion related to El Camino Real.
The council asked staff to add language creating an advisory downtown parking task force, made up of a council member, transportation commissioner, and three business representatives, that would meet monthly.
Certain elements of the specific plan, such as the trial installation of wider sidewalks, could incrementally remove 11 to 59 parking spaces downtown, according to staff. The plan also allows two parking garages to be built, perhaps funded by a parking district, although that remains to be decided in the future. The garages could absorb all-day employee parking to free up short-term spaces in the shopping district.
Council member Andy Cohen inexplicably abstained from a vote to accept the plan's environmental impact report. He later told the Almanac that he couldn't support "the immense giveaways that the consultants built into this plan" but that he would do everything he could to make the plan succeed.
He also abstained from a motion to approve the floor area ratio levels at which public benefits will be required as set in the specific plan, with a review scheduled for next year. Ms. Fergusson had asked her colleagues to lower the trigger level, arguing that doing so would increase the city's bargaining power with developers. The council voted 3-1-1 to leave the levels as is, but to evaluate the effect after one year.
Most of the changes suggested by the Planning Commission were approved by the council, including adding a bicycle-pedestrian crossing of El Camino at Middle Avenue as a priority on the public benefit list; allowing smaller side setbacks along northeast El Camino Real; and permitting a contractor to certify that new buildings meet LEED environmental standards.
The council did, however, reverse the commission's decision to delete bulb-outs from the plan. The council voted to add them back in as an option; the bulb-outs allow sidewalk segments to extend into the street, providing a haven for pedestrians.
The council also approved a $1.13 per square foot fee for new development projects within the plan area. Staff estimated that would allow the city to recoup the $1.7 million spent on preparing the specific plan.
Now that the framework's in place, when will Menlo Park residents start seeing changes? Not for some time, according to Associate Planner Thomas Rogers. He said most public space improvements — the trial installations of pocket parks and a Chestnut Street paseo, for example —will probably go through the city's capital improvement program after further discussion.
"There may also be some opportunities for the Santa Cruz Avenue sidewalk extensions to be considered separately if adjoining businesses want to sponsor them," he said, similar to how San Francisco proceeded.
A second reading of actions taken on the specific plan is scheduled for the June 12 council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St.