Downtown Alliance hires law firm

Review calls specific plan deficient

Putting its money where its mouth is, the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance hired a law firm to evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed downtown specific plan, and won't dismiss the possibility of a lawsuit.

"We'll keep all options open," said co-founder Nancy Couperus. The group asked Shulte, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP to take a look at the draft environmental impact report (DEIR). The law firm found the report lacking in eight areas.

The main criticisms focus on the lack of analysis regarding environmental impacts if the downtown and El Camino Real corridors are built out to the maximum allowed by the proposed specific plan, and lack of project-level review for items such as a parking garage. The law firm also questioned the DEIR's reliance on mitigation measures that aren't guaranteed to happen.

The law firm didn't skimp on details; it even dug into the history of parking plazas in Menlo Park and suggested that replacing a plaza with a garage would destroy a piece of history. "Indeed, Menlo Park's parking plazas served as models to California and the Nation," said Shulte, Mihaly & Weinberger.

An attorney with the firm, Heather Minner, told the Almanac that there have been times when a review uncovers only minor deficiencies, but that the specific plan DEIR contains serious omissions and flawed analyses that need revision.

Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs called the possibility of a legal challenge unfortunate. "This will cost us all, and for what purpose?" he said, noting the open forum for discussing the plan continues. "Some just do not want change under any circumstances."

Mayor Rich Cline and Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith, along with senior city staff, met with Downtown Alliance members on June 2. Both councilmembers said they didn't know the group planned to have lawyers review the DEIR before the meeting.

"But the concern is understandable," said Mayor Cline. "This is a big deal and a big change and it can have very positive impacts, but also negative impacts. I still maintain this makes the plan better in the long run. We can have a good open public discourse and find common ground in the end."

The Planning Commission begins its review of the specific plan and the DEIR this summer. Thomas Rogers, associate planner for Menlo Park, said if the report requires extensive revisions, the city may need to hold another 45-day public comment period.

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Like this comment
Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Right on "Downtown Alliance"! How do we contribute?

Like this comment
Posted by El Camino Specific Plan Proponent
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Does anyone else want to see the El Camino and Station Area East aspects of this plan move forward without further delay? If we need to spend more time thinking about Downtown, does El Camino, its blighted sites, and its outdated zoning need to be held hostage? Can we quickly bifurcate the Downtown and El Camino plan components so we can make some progress on the ECR now? There are good developers along the ECR ready and waiting for some certainty from the City, and finally the market is improving such that we might actually get some great projects to go in upon the adoption of this Specific Plan.

Is this process inefficiency bothering anyone else?

Like this comment
Posted by been there
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

The silver lining is that the draft EIR can be amended now to include the deficiencies, if warranted, rather than having to fight it out in court after it is approved. There is an advantage to hearing from the "enemy" where their land minds are buried

Like this comment
Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 21, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Bifurcate El Camino? Certainly but not to the massive scale as proposed

Like this comment
Posted by Shawn
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I would like to know what the downtown alliance feels would revitalize our deteriorating downtown shopping area. They seem to be against every improvement idea that comes along.
Ok, I challenge you to come up with a plan!

Like this comment
Posted by Know the facts
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Shawn, the Downtown Alliance has put forth a compromise plan. They gave it to the City prior the EIR's creation. The City then chose not to include the Downtown's Alliance's compromise plan as an alternative plan considered in the EIR.

Looks like that was a big mistake.

Like this comment
Posted by deja vu
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 22, 2011 at 7:56 am

A histrionic letter from Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, alleging fatal flaws and a need for re-circulation... where have I heard that before.... Oh yea, when Paul Collacchi paid them to write a spite letter on the Bohannon project (see "Zinn" - Web Link). That resulted in a lot more paper, but no re-circulation and no denial of the project (64.5% voter approval, even). If anything, that hurt Paul and his Preferred Citizens Club by putting them so clearly in an antagonistic role. On this one, the Council might as well cut off negotiations with Couperus and Flegel now, since they're obviously not interested in collaborative solutions. Work with the Chamber of Commerce- they're stuck in the 1990s, but at least that's better than the 'Downtown Alliance' being stuck in the 1950s.

Like this comment
Posted by what zoning restrictions?
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

a number of projects have been built or approved for vacant lots n El Camino Real under the existing zoning (the Cadillac site, Beltramo project among others). Stanford is getting paid for leases on their large chunk of land from Big 5 to the county line, for about three more years. They say they will bring a project forward then.
So .... how is it that the zoning is the problem? Approved projects aren't being built, and Stanford is in no hurry to do anything.

How about sticking with facts? Most of us would appreciate more civil and positive discourse, too. Labeling and attacking others in our community makes this an uglier place.

Like this comment
Posted by El Camino Specific Plan Proponent
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Dear what zoning restrictions,

Approved projects in this City require many years to get those approvals, often causing them to miss the market cycle for which they were designed and intended. Specific plans streamline the process so that great projects can get proposed, reviewed, approved, financed, built, and tenanted during the same market cycle. Look at Derry, whose for-sale condo project (regardless that property's ownership issues) has not been "finance-able" by any kind of construction lender for about 3 years now. Look at 1300 ECR, whose stacked office/retail mixed-use project has not been "finance-able" by any kind of construction lender for about the same amount of time.

Bottom line is, whatever the Specific Plan utlimately allows developers to do, it will be great for business in Menlo Park.

Like this comment
Posted by what zoning restrictions?
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 22, 2011 at 7:58 pm

well proponent, I don't quite buy that argument. Some of these projects did not take very long at all to get approved, but still aren't built so clearly there other factors than zoning at play. Zoning is not the issue.
If developers have free reign to build many multiples of what is possible now, that might be good for them, but the resulting congestion may well kill all that's good about Menlo Park. Some development would be great, especially if it helps the housing shortage but I understand the project brings hideous traffic and worsens green house gases by a lot. So what does that do to us residents? Can't we do better than this?

Like this comment
Posted by Proponent
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 23, 2011 at 11:55 am

Thanks for the dialogue. I agree that there are surely other factors out there - namely the market, which I considered in my thinking. I am not sure which projects you think sped through the approval process - I am certainly interested to hear that from you since my experience is that it takes years to approve anything even if it CONFORMS with existing zoning rules, not to mention departs from them.

As far as the two projects I mentioned, the City's dedicated webpages for these projects (below) show that the Derry approval process (PRE-referendum) took almost 3 years to grant entitlements (Jan '04 to Aug '06) and the Cadillac site (1300 ECR) took almost 4 years (Dec '05 to Oct '09). The interesting note here is that 1300 ECR changed its application in Jul '07 to conform with the existing zoning so that a General Plan amendment would not be required (the developer having seen what happened to Derry even after it got its approvals). So even applications that meet existing zoning standards (not to mention those that propose to clean up a huge chunk of blight on El Camino) take over 2 years to get through Menlo Park's approval process.

I am not taking a position on whether or not the development standards in the proposed Specific Plan (or the concerns or approach of the Downtown Alliance) are appropriate. I am only saying that this City's process for reviewing development applications is generally severely flawed, too drawn-out and insecure and as a result often counter-productive. Again, I welcome examples from you of those projects that "did not take very long to get approved", but in their absence (and Council's commitment to speedy review going forward) I see the adoption of a specific plan -- with its clear, comprehensive ground rules and efficient processes -- as hugely important for the City in its effort to rid El Camino of its many giant eyesores and ensure good development in general.

Web Link

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by what zoning
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Sorry, Proponent, but it is often the applicant who takes the time, not necessarily the approval process. Besides, far more often any delays are during the building permit process, which has been described as needing improvement, not during the use permit process. The new zoning will do absolutely nothing to speed up the building permit process. If you are familiar at all with construction, you already know this. Be honest.

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

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