City Council tweaks draft specific plan for downtown Menlo Park


This is an expanded version of an article that previously appeared online.

The Menlo Park City Council carried on into the wee hours of Wednesday morning while continuing its evaluation of the draft downtown/El Camino Real specific plan on Sept. 13.

The plan aims to describe the types of new development and building dimensions allowed downtown and along El Camino Real for the next 30 years.

Last week's discussion kicked off with 24 public speakers that included local merchants Richard Draeger of Draeger's Supermarkets and furniture merchant Mark Flegel, who opposed some aspects of the plan, such as the option to fill in parking plazas with mixed-use development, forcing customers to park farther away from stores. As members of the Downtown Alliance, a coalition of property and business owners, they suggested locating parking garages on plaza 2 (off Oak Grove Avenue and Chestnut Street) and another next to the Caltrain station, instead of using plazas 1 and 3 as the plan suggests.

The Alliance has argued that forcing customers to park in a garage blocks away from stores isn't good for business. "Stand in the shoes of the property owners; stand in my shoes," Mr. Draeger asked the council. "Our livelihoods depend upon the practicality of the downtown."

Developer Jeffrey Warmoth spoke in support of the specific plan, mentioning that in 2007 he was told it would take only six months to get into place. The guidelines would give him "certainty that if I bring you a project that's quality architecture and quality materials, it will get approved."

He also asked for a maximum allowed height of 45 feet near the Caltrain station area, as that would allow for "full retail height on the first floor" of a new building, whereas the 38 feet suggested by the Planning Commission is "kind of a non-height; it gets you part of the way there, not all the way there."

After public comment, the council tried to set the record straight on several items of apparent confusion: No, the trees on Santa Cruz Avenue's median won't be cut down. Yes, the plan will strive to not compete with the Farmers' Market. The plan would add between 256 to 536 parking spaces.Yes, there were many, many public meetings advertised and held to solicit input from every Menlo Park resident, including the downtown merchants.

Last but not least, as put forth by Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, the city is not spending money right now to implement any portion of the plan. There are no projects, just guidelines.

The council then tweaked recommendations made this summer by the Planning Commission for the downtown area:

* Implement a trial installation of a Chestnut Street paseo for at least a full week and up to several months.

* Ensure that Menlo Park businesses have access to the paseo and that it won't compete with the Farmers' Market.

* Install wider sidewalks in phases, and only where there's a logical reason to have a wider sidewalk adjacent to a specific business.

* Keep parking garages at the same height and scale as buildings next door, and encourage employees to park in the garages via permits to save surface parking for customers. Provide opportunities for merchants to voluntarily help fund the garages, and also discourage any mixed-use development either on top of the garages or as parking plaza infill.

That leaves the El Camino Real portion of the specific plan and the fiscal impact analysis, as well as a discussion of public benefit associated with development within the plan's zone, for the next council meeting on Sept. 20.

Click here to review all documents associated with the specific plan, including recommendations.

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