Decision on Bohannon in hands of voters


This is an expanded version of a previously posted story.

By Sean Howell

Almanac Staff Writer

Whether or not there's a contested City Council election this fall, Menlo Park voters can expect to be subjected to plenty of campaigning before then.

In part, they can thank the council itself, which at its June 15 meeting voted 4-1 to approve the Bohannon (Menlo Gateway) development project, subject to a citywide vote. A simple majority will be all that's required to grant the necessary approvals to the Bohannon Development Co. for the office/hotel project, a nearly million-square-foot development near Bayfront Expressway and Marsh Road.

The project will join on the ballot a voter-led initiative aimed at scaling back public pension benefits for new city employees. The council is also considering asking residents to increase the city's tax rate on hotel guests.

The council made the decision on Menlo Gateway with the support of both the Bohannon Development Co. and several prominent opponents of the project, amid fears that a voter-initiated referendum effort could put the project in limbo for up to a year. The council members did so despite concerns that failing to approve the project themselves would make them appear weak and exacerbate their reputation, deserved or not, for delay and indecision.

"I don't believe that every single thing should go on the ballot, nor do I think it makes you a 'weenie' if you put something on the ballot, knowing that you could be causing the city to lose the benefits of something that you would otherwise get," former council member Gail Slocum said at the meeting, warning that a drawn-out referendum campaign could somehow jeopardize the project. "It doesn't make any sense for someone who supports this project to oppose something that could help save it."

Councilman John Boyle, the lone dissenter in the vote despite his avowed support for the project, said that putting it to a popular vote would turn a complicated land-use decision into a political campaign — one that could damage current council members in the upcoming election, where three of five seats will be up for grabs, including Mr. Boyle's.

"This will be spun as, 'The council was unsure of their decision, and wanted to send it to the public,'" Mr. Boyle said, adding that the decision put the council on a "slippery slope" in not asking residents to vote on other issues. "This will turn into a very political debate, with lots of slogans and over-simplifications. The opportunity for oversimplification or confusion is enormous."

Mr. Boyle argued that the issue — the subject of hundreds of pages of studies and a slew of public meetings — was too complex for the average voter to grasp.

Councilman Heyward Robinson said he thought residents won't have any trouble grasping the basic issues in play, and said that it will be the city's job to help educate voters in the run-up to the election. He noted that the city will craft the pro- ballot argument, but said he doesn't think Mr. Boyle should be allowed input in writing it, because of his vote against sending it to the ballot.

"I hope we get a very clean and very clear vote that really is on the merits of this, and less on the personalities and politics," he said in an interview. "Let's focus on the known impacts, and the known benefits."

Representatives of the development company feel confident their campaign will prevail. A poll the company commissioned showed that 64 percent of "likely voters" in the November election would support it. If the company saturated the city enough with its message that the project will bring in money for the city and schools (never mind that much of the money would go to school districts outside Menlo Park), its passage would be a "slam dunk," according to the pollster.

Of course, the marketing campaign has already been on for months. The Bohannon company has run a website for the project, sent out periodical "e-newsletters," and placed several full-page newspaper ads in The Almanac. The development company has retained Public Affairs, a marketing firm helmed by Ed McGovern, to spread its message.

"We don't have details about specific tactics, but we do fully intend to continue getting our message out to the community," said Patrick Corman, who handles the company's public relations efforts. Mr. Corman and developer David Bohannon have defended the company's communication work in general, saying it was aimed at stimulating thoughtful dialogue about the project. Project opponents have derided those efforts as a big-money marketing campaign.

Some of those opponents said they would welcome the council placing the project on the ballot.

"There are times when popular democracy is not a dereliction of duty or a weakness," Chuck Bernstein wrote in an e-mail to the council. "This is one of them."

Still, "campaign fatigue" is a concern, Mr. Robinson said. "I was totally burned out by the June election," he said. I was sitting (at the council meeting) going, 'God, do I want to contribute to that?'"

But he argued that placing the project on the November ballot was better than the alternative of an even more drawn-out campaign, in the event of a referendum vote.

"We need to make a decision and be done with it, one way or the other," he said at the meeting.

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Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jun 24, 2010 at 4:22 am

I'm so glad that we elected a city council which can make decisions.

It's too bad that all five seats aren't up for election this fall, but given the council's track record who wants to run? When did we have a council that actually got anything accomplished and didn't cause a lot of controversey in the community?

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

Council members in our areas, in particular, are going the way of all politics.......nowhere.
The COUNTY OF SAN MATEO is representative of our Country's total economy and our politics.
Unless you have the money of a Meg Whitman, you are obsolete and nobody has respect or cares to listen to you.
The future looks even more bleek given the issues on which we touch which meet with mostly apathy unless it deals with progress like uniting the state with things like HSR.....meantime, there is just a lot of bitching.

Like this comment
Posted by Ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm

"This will be spun as, 'The council was unsure of their decision, and wanted to send it to the public,'" Mr. Boyle said.

No spin needed. It's exactly just that! Our elected council is too fricken chicken to make an important decision. What a waste of valuable time with presentations, meetings, deliberations, yada yada yada. They got greedy trying to share in the Bohannon project's potential profitability, and when their lame negotiation tactics failed, they decided to wash their hands and put it to the will of the people (Pontius Pilate style)
James has it right. Three seats that are up need 3 new council people who can and will do the job they have been elected to perform.

Like this comment
Posted by get it straight please
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 24, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Dear Ol' Homeboy

There are 4 members of our Council who voted to support the project, certify the EIR and Amend the General Plan. They in fact *did* make an important decision. And this coalition of 4 crosses "party" lines too. They have found that the benefits of this package outweigh the impacts. Given this town's prior history, that is significant. I agree with Gibboney's editorial -- after making that decision, it was wise for the Council to choose to get it affirmed by the voters since it is one of the biggest developments ever, and requires a General Plan Amendment. Also, proactively putting i ton the ballot was the least cost alternative - a referendum was certain, and a drawn out referendum process would cost over $50,000 at a time of budget deficit, And proactively framing a positive debate should help elevate the discussion about sustainable growth in Menlo Park, which will pay dividends far beyond this one project.

It was the right decision on both the substance of the project and the process, and the Council should be commended for moving forward strongly now.

Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

All you will see in this forum is old no growthers and tea baggers.

Don't even waste time in this forum trying to get accurate information.

Like this comment
Posted by Or Consequences
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Jun 26, 2010 at 9:19 am

It appears that neer-do-wellers widely participate in this forum as well as evidenced by the inane and fatuous postings of "Truth" who continuously spews nattering nabobs of negatism.

Like this comment
Posted by We're waiting, Hank
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 26, 2010 at 10:46 am

Where are you? Ms. Slocum has weighed in and we look to your response. "Get it straight" has to have been authored by one of Bohannon's consultants and it smells of Slocum. Of course, sending this project to the voters was the right thing to do, especially with the referendum threat hanging in the air. However, isn't is pathetic that the city's planning decisions are being influenced by such a devious crowd?

There's a bigger issue here. How can this city approach planning honestly? Spending a million dollars on the downtown study may protect the council as it tries to look to the future with the yapping dogs from the 1950s undermining the progress.

Would an updated general plan be the answer? In the four years that this council has been sitting, there has been no action to put the long and arduous process of updating the general plan on the agenda. Piecemealing approvals for development has its downsides and yet, property owners shouldn't have to wait for the council to do their job. I don't believe this council is anti business or anti property rights but, if it would put its pedal to the metal and codify the city's overall plan, we could ignore the referendum gang and give developers a fair playing field, In the meantime, the council needs to govern.

The city is between a rock and a hard place.

Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 28, 2010 at 8:51 am

Ah, my fans miss my acerbic wit. Gail is licking her wounds from prop 16. So we should take it easy on her. NOT!

Paul Collacchi has extensive transportation experience. Gail Slocum does not- unless you count driving a Prius to the CALTRAIN station. She is very myopic when it comes to urban planning. She only wants zero net carbon footprint. Nothing else matters.

Paul, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the gridlock that will most certainly occur if this project is approved unless Bohannon addresses the increase in traffic. The Field of Dreams quotation "Build it and they will come" is truly appropriate in this situation. Only they will come in automobiles. And most likely, increases in vehicular traffic were not used in the footprint calculations that Gail so highly exults.

Bohannon agreed to reduce vehicle trips to and from the project by 17 percent below those guesstimated by the EIR. How can he control or even reduce that?

I am not saying that the project should be killed but traffic should be more seriously addressed for this project to move forward. One possibility would be to contribute to extending the Bay Front Parkway to Seaport Boulevard in Redwood City. Gail has her carbon offsets. We need traffic offsets too.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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