Council action on Bohannon project surprisingly easy: Let voters decide
The recent vote by the Menlo Park City Council on the Menlo Gateway project proposed by David Bohannon was surprisingly smooth, with all but one council member affirming support for putting the question before the voters.
The 4-1 vote on June 15 might have come as a surprise, given the controversial nature of the project. The council elected to send it to the ballot rather than approve it outright — the procedure for most development projects — because a voter referendum aimed at overturning the project seemed so likely.
Council members' positions have also come as a surprise to a number of their "slow-growth" constituents, some of whom played a large role in running campaigns for four of the five council members.
Resident Elias Blawie spelled out the situation as he sees it in an e-mail to the council, arguing that members of the council majority "really are not seen as supporting the values of their traditional constituents at this point," and that there isn't much that differentiates them from the "pro-development" camp.
The council vote could be seen as a reflection of the growing fragmentation of the city's slow-growth camp. Members of the coalition that supported four of the current council members found themselves arguing against each other over the project, which some see as a bellwether in the fight to preserve the city's small-town feel.
For the council members who support, or appear to support, the project after months of negotiation, however, that support largely comes down to the city's bottom line. With the city projecting deficit budgets for the foreseeable future, with employee costs increasing, with tax revenue stagnant, and with the city beginning to cut services, they say Menlo Gateway may be a rare opportunity to boost revenues — even if the project won't be built for years, if at all.
Once it's up and running, the project is expected to generate approximately $1.6 million annually for city coffers in tax revenue, and could generate more if the city's hotel tax rates increase.
"I have yet to hear somebody come up with a magic revenue-generating tool for the city," Mayor Rich Cline said at the June 15 meeting. "The answer has been, 'cut' (employees). ... It sounds great in theory. It sounded great until I was up here and looked at the books, and realized, we have services bundled in with all this stuff, and it costs a lot of money to live here ... you expect a certain level of service."
Reducing employee costs is exactly what Chuck Bernstein and Mr. Blawie suggested the city do, an argument that their "pro-development" counterparts have been making for years. Mr. Bernstein likened the project to fodder for the "insatiable beast" of city bureaucracy, while Mr. Blawie said the connection between that bureaucracy and the services it provides has been lost.
Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson's support for the project was more tenuous than that of other council supporters, judging by comments she has made in public meetings. She had insisted upon a provision for "windfall" profit-sharing with the developer, but dropped her effort after the Bohannon company agreed in last-minute talks to spend an additional half-million dollars on landscaping. She said the new work would make the site a welcoming entrance to the city, and to Bedwell-Bayfront Park.
Councilman Andy Cohen voted to give the project conditional approval while maintaining that he does not support it, saying he wanted voters to decide. Before the vote, he tried to assess whether the motion would have enough votes to pass if he voted against it. Councilman Heyward Robinson threatened to abstain if Mr. Cohen dissented, and Mayor Rich Cline called the vote, as Councilman John Boyle covered his face with his hands.
At one point in the negotiation process, it looked as though the council was headed toward a discussion of a citywide greenhouse gas policy. While the city recently completed a plan to deal with problems associated with climate change, the city does not have any regulations governing carbon emissions by development projects.
Former council member Paul Collacchi pressed the council to develop such standards and to refine the calculation used in the environmental documents for the Bohannon project.
According to the environmental impact report, the project would generate 13,583 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — a substantially smaller amount than what the project would be expected to generate if it wasn't built to save energy, but a figure that still represents 2.8 percent of the city's total emissions in 2005.
The developer has committed to "offset" some of those emissions through a PG&E program, though it isn't clear exactly by how much, because the method of calculating emissions used in the environmental impact report differs from the language in the development agreement.
Developer David Bohannon was successful in convincing council members that his company should not be responsible for offsetting emissions associated with vehicle trips and solid waste, which together would account for 77 percent of the project's total emissions.
The council tied up several other loose ends in the negotiation process at its June 15 meeting.
The Bohannon company agreed to help finance a study that would require developers to pay a fee for new fire district equipment and personnel, addressing concerns the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has about its need for a tall ladder truck to serve the office buildings, which would be 50 feet taller than any existing city building.
After being lobbied by members of Friends of Bedwell Bayfront Park, the city agreed to set aside $350,000 of a voluntary up-front payment by the Bohannon company to fund capital improvements to the park.
At the insistence of the Environmental Quality Commission, the council agreed to set aside an estimated $150,000 per year in hotel tax revenue to put toward reducing vehicle trips in the city.
The council agreed to limit science "wet lab" occupancy of the office buildings to 10 percent of the total space, over concerns about the city's water supply.
A total of 79 designated heritage trees would be removed to allow for the buildings, including three tall redwoods under which people who work nearby say they eat lunch. The trees would not be removed until building was set to begin, and would be replaced with new trees at a ratio of at least two-to-one, a city requirement.
Belle Haven residents packed the council chambers in support of the project at the June 15 meeting, saying that it would provide a boost to the neighborhood.
Several people criticized Mr. Cohen and Ms. Fergusson for pressing for a profit-sharing agreement with the developer, with one man comparing it to a scene in the novel Dr. Zhivago, when a woman working for the Communist government asks a character to cram more people into his house.
During the public comment period, Planning Commissioner Vince Bressler said he had been "threatened with legal action and public humiliation" by the development company, after refusing to meet with the developer in private. Mr. Bressler declined to elaborate in an interview, but said he brought it up to illustrate his concern about the fact that much of the haggling over the project was not open to the public.
"We have found that there is a $44 million upside potential cash flow (to the landlord and equity investors), conservatively, based on a study the city paid for," Mr. Bressler said. "How can we (give this away)? This is just wrong, and nobody seems to care." Regarding people who chastised council members for the profit-sharing idea, he said, "We're supposed to feel sorry for political insiders who are lobbying to acquire what is essentially public property?"
Resident Morris Brown brought a tape recorder to the podium and played into the microphone comments Councilman Boyle had made during a previous meeting, in which Mr. Boyle explained his reluctance to send the project to the ballot. Mr. Boyle and everyone else in the room listened as his recorded voice crackled over the PA system.
Mr. Brown said he was playing the clip back because he found Mr. Boyle's argument that the project and its implications are too complicated for voters to fully grasp to be "undemocratic."