A shift in tone marked the latest Menlo Park City Council meeting on the Menlo Gateway development proposal, and it doesn't bode ill for the developer.
Council members asked probing questions and deliberated over the terms of a potential agreement with the Bohannon Development Co. at their April 6 meeting. They directed city management to refine those terms as the proposal makes its way through the public process, concluding with a final council vote scheduled for mid-June.
But it seemed telling that, with the council discussing negotiations for a zoning change that would increase allowable building height from 25 to 140 feet at a site near Marsh Road and Bayfront Expressway, the issue of the size of the nearly one million-square-foot office/hotel project didn't come up. At the council's most recent previous meeting on the project, in November of last year, several council members asked the Bohannon Development Co. to cut the number of vehicle trips to and from the site by half, suggesting that they would scale back the project if the goal couldn't be reached.
It wasn't reached -- the company has pledged to cut trips by 17 percent -- but no council member entertained the possibility of lopping a few stories off the three 140-foot-high office buildings to meet it, at least not in public.
Why not? Are council members afraid that decreasing the size of the project would also diminish the chances that it would be built, or unwilling to trade revenue for reduced traffic?
The near-capacity crowds in the council chambers whenever the project's on the agenda, and the fact that three of five council seats are up for election in November, might have something to do with it, said Councilman Andy Cohen, who is not up for re-election in the fall.
"When you look at it, the city has negotiated in an atmosphere that is heavily pro-project, as a result of (developer David) Bohannon's outreach," Mr. Cohen said in an interview. "And I don't think that's gonna change. He packs the meetings, it's far away from downtown and west Menlo, and in this economy, (City Manager Glen) Rojas is searching for future dollars, just to keep from having to cut services. So I don't see much resistance on the council, and maybe this partly explains their unwillingness to attack the size of the project at this late date."
Councilman Heyward Robinson, who is up for re-election, said in an interview that he had been pretty well convinced after the November meeting that the project as currently proposed is an all-or-nothing proposition.
"I had extensive discussions with Bohannon and his team (after the November meeting), I talked to (city) staff, and one of the things that was clear was that the alternatives that were presented were non-starters, as far as this project goes," he said. "They made it clear that it's this project or nothing."
Mr. Robinson also said he was heartened by the Bohannon company's efforts to cut vehicle trips and greenhouse gas emissions.
"Dave and his team spent a lot of money and hired first-rate people to take our requests seriously," Mr. Robinson said. "The question for us is, is it enough? Because clearly there are impacts, I still have concerns about the congestion."
Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson said that it was too early in the public process to discuss building size, traffic and other environmental considerations, and that decisions about whether the city will tolerate the environmental impacts will be made in future meetings.
At the meeting, she asked whether transmission lines running along the city's waterfront land and cutting through the property could be sent underground, and said that the project's layout does not mesh with the city's plans for nearby land.
Keeping the power lines as is would "set a precedent that makes it exceedingly difficult to have a visionary, vibrant plan for the Haven (Avenue) area," she said. "A precedent that can't be undone."
At the council meeting, project critics focused their comments on the city's analysis of how much the zoning concessions will be worth. They said the city's estimate of the annual income generated by the buildings may be too conservative, and that as a result the city may not have bargained for enough money.
Council members generally said they trusted the work of the city's consultants, but Ms. Fergusson asked management for more analysis of the issue.
"We want to make sure we're not leaving a bunch of money on the table, or that if we are, at least we're doing it with open eyes," she said in an interview.
The city's negotiators had pressed for a revenue-sharing deal with the Bohannon company, but the company thought potential investors would not agree to it, according to City Attorney Bill McClure.
With political considerations and the city's financial outlook sure to weigh on the council's decision-making process, Gerry Andeen, who served on the council in the early- to mid-1980s, spoke at the beginning of the meeting to provide a little perspective.
"What you decide this evening is going to affect the future of Menlo Park for a long time, and you will certainly remember it," he said. He noted that his political mentor, Ken Cooperrider, was bothered for the rest of his life by his vote in favor of a 90-foot building on the corner of University Drive and Valparaiso Avenue.
Mr. Andeen wasn't trying to imply that he's opposed to the project, he said in an interview. Only that "we're about to make some pretty big decisions that will affect the community for a long time. ... Sometimes it's just nice to get up and say, 'Hey guys, be careful of where you're going.'"