Editorial: A pair of major milestones for Menlo ParkThree years ago the outlook for passage of a new downtown plan for Menlo Park was break-even at best. And no one had any idea that Facebook might snap up the Oracle/Sun campus near the city's eastern border, bringing its high-tech luster to the city that is now known as the company's hometown nearly every time Facebook is mentioned in the media.
The city has embraced Mark Zuckerberg's creation with open arms, eagerly accepting an offer sheet from Facebook that will be worth more than $8 million over the next 10 years in return for permission to hire up to 6,600 employees at its Willow Road campus.
Even more satisfying for many Menlo Park residents is last week's passage on first reading of a downtown plan that lays out a blueprint for new buildings in the downtown core and along El Camino Real. Thoroughly discussed every step of the way, the new plan will provide a framework to slowly bring new life to the downtown, which saw its last major changes in 1989 when Menlo Center, including Kepler's, took over a space on El Camino Real between Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues.
The new downtown plan came after five years of concerted effort by consultants and the planning department led by associate planner Thomas Rogers. The planning staff and the consultants stayed on course through tedious and often contentious meetings to finally produce a document that the City Council could live with and that will guide future development downtown and on El Camino for years to come.
The work could not have progressed without the strong support of the City Council, including Mayor Kirsten Keith, Rich Cline, Kelly Fergusson, Andy Cohen and Peter Ohtaki. As a resident living near El Camino, Mr. Ohtaki often had to recuse himself, as did Ms. Fergusson, whose husband works at Stanford (the university owns several properties on El Camino Real). Mr. Cohen surprised the public when he abstained from two final votes on the project last week.
It was a whirlwind few weeks for the council, which just last month gave a thumbs up to the Facebook deal. The company is settling in after offering its stock to the public on May 18 for the first time.
The Facebook agreement and passage of the new downtown plan herald a new beginning for Menlo Park that over time will help the city meet its financial obligations and remake its downtown core. It will enable the city to restore the blighted area near the town's southern border that was home to a clutch of car dealers who moved out and left behind empty buildings and parking lots.
Repurposing the dealerships is the key to restoring life to a key commercial area of the city. If developers believe they can be successful building housing units over street level retail with underground parking on these sites, it will be huge step toward moving hundreds of new residents and numerous retailers into valuable space near downtown. If the plan is built out, which could take years, it would bring 680 units of housing and 330,000 square feet of new retail, office and commercial space to the city. In addition, 380 new hotel rooms are permitted by the plan, which could generate substantial transit occupancy tax dollars for the city.
Neither the improvements made possible by the downtown plan nor the Facebook offices will destroy Menlo Park. Instead, they will give the city a more up-to-date appeal that will benefit all residents in the years ahead.