Environmental report: Road to spiffed-up downtown Menlo Park would be far more clogged


There's no getting around it -- no package of mitigating measures to call upon: A developed downtown area as envisioned in Menlo Park's downtown specific plan would adversely affect local roadways and already congested intersections significantly, resulting in substantially more clogged streets and dirtier air.

These and other effects of development outlined in the specific plan are listed as "significant and unavoidable environmental impacts" in the draft environmental impact report released Friday, April 29.

The plan -- developed with the help of city residents, staff and consultants over a many months-long process and unveiled last year -- calls for a revamped downtown area that would encourage mixed-use commercial and residential development along El Camino Real, increasing the allowable height of buildings by 8 feet.

It also includes redesigned parking plazas and two new parking structures off the Santa Cruz Avenue area west of El Camino, and amenities including widened sidewalks and more trees.

In addition to unavoidably worsened air quality and traffic congestion, the draft EIR identifies as "significant and unavoidable" impacts the increased generation of greenhouse gas emissions and noise levels.

The EIR also lists mitigation measures that will be required to turn other identified effects of development into "less than significant" impacts. The bulk of these mitigations are found in the section dealing with transportation, circulation and parking. Those issues are likely to be among the most controversial as the review process of the specific plan moves through the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Transportation Commissioner Raymond Mueller said a key concern for him is the traffic study showing a total of 13,385 more car trips per day into the downtown area under the development scenario outlined in the specific plan. That increase includes 899 more car trips during the morning commute, and 1,319 more car trips during the evening commute.

"These numbers alone are significant," Mr. Mueller wrote in an email to the Almanac. "Our city streets are already quite congested" during commute time, he said.

He is "uncertain and concerned as to whether the draft EIR has also taken into consideration the cumulative traffic impact from the (planned) Stanford Hospital expansion, and other developments taking place around the city, in its total traffic projections," he said.

Associate Planner Thomas Rogers, who is overseeing the specific plan process, said the traffic studies did take into account planned projects within the city -- including the 1300 and 389 El Camino Real projects -- as well as projects, such as the hospital expansion, outside Menlo Park.

Growth outside the city, he said, is accounted for with a 1 percent annual growth factor -- a figure based on "what we've observed in growth" over the last few decades. That period includes the massive residential and commercial development by Stanford along a widened Sand Hill Road, he noted.

Mr. Mueller isn't taking a stand against the project, he said. "I just am uncertain how we as a city can deal with the increase in traffic, and am looking forward to hearing other's thoughts on the issue."


Visit Draft EIR to see the document online. The public review period for the draft EIR runs from May 5 to June 20. Submit comments to Thomas Rogers at or to the Community Development Department, 701 Laurel St., Menlo Park, CA 94025, or fax to 327-1653. The report goes before the Planning Commission on June 6.

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Posted by bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

Leave downtown buildings as is. Add a parking structure or two with parks on the roofs. And most important change El Camino back to three north lanes and three south through Menlo Park

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Several years ago, a large number of Menlo Park residents affiliated by calling themselves "Residentialists." That meant that the primacy of the quality of life of the city's residents should be the highest political priority of our elected officials.

Indeed, we voted for Kelly Fergusson, Andy Cohen and Rich Cline to help sustain those values. It also meant resisting development and the intense financial ambitions of those who sought high-density, high-rise residential increases; the pro-developer advocates. We now see how well that's turned out.

Since then we have been relentlessly plagued by pro-growth politicians and their profit seeking supporters in the developer community.

Perhaps it's a function of being an old codger, but "livability" does not have to mean growth. It can also mean leaving things alone and fixing what we already have.

As Ray Mueller puts it so clearly, we are on a path of being inundated with traffic like we've never seen before. We are surrounded by developers and massive development projects.

It would seem to me that the value of Menlo Park lies not in the intention of constant expansion, but of resisting that expansion, of inhibiting traffic rather than facilitating it, of keeping buildings at their current height rather than pursuing ever high structures and its concomitant citification.

What's so wrong with keeping our city at 30,000 occupants rather than growing to 40,000? Why is that so inherently bad?

Those of us who want to live in high-density urban environments would have moved there.
We're here, presumably, because this is the kind of city we want to live in. Why must growth be shoved down our throats and against our will?

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Posted by Here We Go Again.
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 3, 2011 at 9:33 pm

I could leave this earth, return 100 years from now, and I believe I would see the same ol' argument, again, and again, and again. No Marty, I am not a profit seeking politician or a profit seeking supporter. MAJORITY of us are very, very, very tired of looking at the mess your group has left us, years and years of mess. Derry Project (still run down stores and an abandon car wash) - 5 years old now? Movie Theater (abandon, and from time to time graffiti covered)- 6+ years, Matteson Property - abandon, empty lot - 5+ years, Downtown Santa Cruz Avenue 14+ vacant stores, car lots (abandon and looking worse every day) 5+ years. Why does this have to continue? Why, with a town of 30K inhabitants many of which pay very high taxes, should we continue to put up with this unsightly mess? No one wants a HUGE development, with high rises and concrete structures and all the other stuff your crew has threatened would happen, we just want an improved commercial district without your ridiculous interference, period. Enough is enough, please use some common sense and stop the roadblocks to IMPROVEMENT.

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Posted by menloshopper
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 4, 2011 at 5:59 am

Martin's point is valid that implementing all the options possible in the draft Specific Plan may not be desirable. But it's not all or nothing. The City can adjust densities, building sizes, and the rest in its approval process. The Specific Plan includes as much as possible not because 'doing everything' makes sense, but because that makes it easier to select and combine options with the information provided in the EIR. This is the task now facing the city at large. The EIR also will make assumptions about regional growth over the coming decades no matter what Menlo Park does. So you have to be careful about connecting cause (Downtown changes) and effects (traffic). Unfortunately the Almanac article doesn't help on that score. It also isn't obvious that 'Downtown' probably includes El Camino Real in addition to Santa Cruz Avenue.

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Posted by Reader
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

The last entry's points are well taken, but for the final point. If you read the draft eir it clearly shows the traffic cited in the article is not from growth, but from the project. It's really important everyone reads this thing before picking up positions. Downtown is the heart of our city. We all should work on being informed. Glad tha Almanac got this out in front of everyone quickly. Everyone in the city should read the Draft EIR. This is one plan that is going to have an effect on our property values, one way or the other.

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Posted by Reader
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 4, 2011 at 7:46 am

Read Table 4.13-6.

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Posted by stick to facts
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 4, 2011 at 9:05 am

I am tired of the conspiracy theory blame game articulated by Here We Go Again who has linked together a number of unrelated events and blamed some "group" for causing them.
The facts are that the owner of the theater defaced it himself, and tried to get exceptions from city rules for development he wanted.
The empty storefronts on Santa Cruz are likely due to the recession and high rents charged by landlords. Downtown is zoned for retail; there is nothing but economics stopping new retail tenants from moving in. El Camino's vacant lots are primarily Stanford land, and Stanford hasn't even come forward with a proposal. Projects on other vacant land (like Derry and 1300 El Camino) have been approved; the project owners just have to take the next steps.
Take a look at the project at Watkins and El Camino - built and still empty. Doesn't this say a lot about the fact that economic conditions play a huge role?

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Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Dear City Council members,
Menlo Park's downtown has been dying on the vine, while Palo Alto and Redwood City are thriving as a result of steps taken by their respective leaders years ago. You are never going to make everyone, including me, completely happy with all the specifics of whatever plan you adopt. But please, adopt something now and get the redevelopment process finally moving. Thank you!!

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm

A major problem with the vacant commercial store fronts, offices and other properties around Santa Cruz Ave - the triumvirate of families Flegel, Draeger and Beltramo. If they don't like the tenant type, whether it be possible competitor or just a realtor who wants to open an upstairs office, they put up obstacles including complaints to Menlo Park permitting bodies. Appearances indicate they have agreed to help each other to enforce their unwritten rules about downtown for quire a few years.

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Posted by positive change
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on May 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Unlike downtown Palo Alto, where a small number of local developers own almost all the property, there are many different owners in downtown Menlo Park. That makes it harder to agree on and implement a plan. From the research Jennifer Bestor conducted, it seems that a significant percentage of the owners don't live in the area and pay very low property taxes. They have little incentive to renovate. Some of them may be letting their property remain vacant in hopes that they can rent it for more money in six months rather than accept a lower rent now.

No one, not residentialists or anyone else, wants to see a downtown with a lot of vacant storefronts. But I am not sure that any plan will remedy that. We just have to wait for the economy to pick up a little more and make sure we provide a hospitable environment (ie the planning dept shouldn't force would-be store owners to jump through too many hoops). Meanwhile, I think we should try to maintain a vision of what we want our downtown to be, rather than affecting an attitude of "we're so desperate for business that we don't care what anyone does as long as it involves a wrecking ball."

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Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 4, 2011 at 7:21 pm

positive change -

It would seem that with "many different owners in downtown Menlo Park" (unlike Palo Alto with very few landlords) that there would be MORE competition for rents, not less. Certainly not every one of those small landlords shares identical economics such as carrying costs, cost basis, taxes, interest rates, cash needs, etc.

If Palo Alto is, in fact, dominated by just a few large landlords, they could easily conspire (informally, of course) to keep rents high.

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Posted by peter carter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 4, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I have an acquaintance who owns several of the downtown Menlo Park buildings. He lives out of state and has not even visited his buildings in 20 years. He says that he has no problem keeping the spaces rented and getting the prices he wants.

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Posted by truthiness
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 5, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Martin Engel's message is a predictable mishmash of self-pity and conspiratorial claims about evil developers, but what really stands out is the claim that the plan is going to increase the size of Menlo Park from 30K to 40K. From the page 3-11 of the EIR itself: "Resident Population: 1,537", pretty different than 10,000!

Is this where you're at, Martin? Outright lies? I bet you can make it messy, but you're deluding yourself if you think this strategy is going to work out well for you.

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Posted by stick to facts
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 6, 2011 at 8:31 am

Careful now. Engel didn't claim that all growth would be coming from the new El Camino/downtown plans.
Isn't it true that other projects also will increase Menlo Park's population? There's Bahonnon's huge new complex and Facebook's expansion plans for starters.

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Posted by gunste
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm

In the 45 years I have lived in the area, I have seen downtown Menlo Park "remodeled" several times. It always cost a lot of money and rarely improved anything, except the consultants and contractors pocket books. Trees were demolished and replanted, parking rejiggered, then there was the disaster of the islands sticking into Santa Cruz, which had to be removed.
Now, Menlo Park frequently lacks adequate parking, though when I go there, I can usually find a spot and walk a block or two, if required.
I have not seen the new plans, but someone has already cashed in on their development. Improvement? A reason to raise the rents and loose some attractive businesses for more "upscale" and unaffordable stores. There is very serious doubt that anything will result except inconvenience, unavailability of parking during construction, and a good reason to go elsewhere.

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Posted by Roxie Rorapaugh
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on May 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Looking at the plan, I do not see how increasing development FAR density is going to change the make up of landlord and propery owners downtown. If the property becomes more valuable due to high development potential, would the current owner necessarily sell it or just develop the property themselves? After all, due to Prop 13, although they may have to pay additional taxes for the property improvement, their overall property taxes are far lower than what a potential developer buying the property at current market value will pay, so the current landowners will have a higher profit margin by developing the land themselves.

If the goal is to change property owners' behavior towards their tenants, which I do not think is the case, I do not see how the plan addresses this.

Reading through the draft EIR so far I can only see added traffic and parking garages. I do not believe that "shared" parking downtown could work and think this sounds like a way for some to build without providing the parking that is needed.

The residents of Menlo Park don't need to compete with Redwood City and Palo Alto for tourist traffic. This plan creates too much traffic far too many negative environmental impacts-- doing nothing is better than this.

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