What's worse than a string of empty car lots? Eight acres of mixed-use office space, retail and apartments, according to the many public speakers and some Menlo Park officials. What's better than a string of empty car lots? Eight acres of mixed-use office space, retail and apartments, according to Stanford University, developer John Arrillaga and other city officials.
The university proposes replacing car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real with a mixed-use complex of 96,000 square feet of medical offices, 133,500 square feet of offices, 10,000 square feet of retail, and two five-story apartment buildings containing up to 150 units.
The Menlo Park Planning Commission held a study session on Jan. 28 to examine the project; more than 100 people crowded into the council chambers to participate.
Steve Elliott, managing director of real estate for the university, described the project as "a rare opportunity to create a transformational development" that would benefit the community by providing more local shopping and dining, medical services, and housing that would appeal to seniors.
It's the nature of that transformation that inspired 220 people to sign a petition protesting the proposal. Save Menlo, the grassroots coalition that organized the petition, was out in force Monday night.
"The reason why I feel personally that we need to save this current Menlo Park and save the vision of Menlo Park that so many people in this room participated in, not more than six months ago during the specific plan planning process, is to save all those things that we hold dear," said group spokeswoman Perla Ni.
Among Save Menlo's concerns: the impact of added traffic on bicyclists and pedestrians; the potential for cars cutting through neighborhoods to dodge congestion on El Camino Real; the incongruity of five-story buildings across the street from single-story businesses; and lack of public benefits.
Other worries include whether this one project would devour most of the new development allowed within the boundaries of the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, which caps new residential units at 680, and non-residential at 474,000 square feet.
Senior Planner Thomas Rogers said that's inaccurate. He referred to the staff report: "As such, the 500 El Camino Real proposal would represent between 20 and 23 percent of the residential uses and 45 percent of the non-residential uses."
Feeding the community's anxiety over the anticipated traffic impact are the constraints imposed by the new specific plan, which limit the city's control over projects that meet baseline requirements -- as Stanford's proposal does -- to architectural review.
The review must evaluate criteria such as whether a project matches the general character of a neighborhood, and whether it damages the "harmonious and orderly growth" of Menlo Park. Planning commissioners hinted that passing the architectural review gauntlet might not be a cakewalk.
Commissioner Henry Riggs noted that "this is not the architecture I expected from the guideline that it be harmonious with the neighborhood."
The commission requested further analysis of the traffic impacts and retail parking, questioned the suitability of the multi-story, modernistic design, and wondered whether the project's Middle Avenue plaza is truly public space, or whether it's functionally a three-lane easement for cars accessing the complex.
"I saw a plaza ... as being the substantial benefit in trade for the scale that's being allowed here," said Commissioner John Kadvany. "This is barely a plaza." He called for Stanford to explore further options.
City staff cautioned against using architectural review to stymie a proposal. "The Planning Commission has a track record of how it has applied the architectural control findings," Mr. Rogers said. "I would say that those findings have not been used in a way to extend beyond the look and feel, which is a very meaningful part of the process, but not extend beyond those to arbitrarily deny a use or size of a building if it conforms with another set of ordinances or design guidelines."
He noted that the most applicable architectural review criteria, in this case, is whether a project conforms to the specific plan. As for whether traffic impacts were adequately analyzed by the specific plan, Mr. Rogers said that discussion will continue.
Staff expect the proposal to return to the Planning Commission later this year. Commissioner John Onken is recused from these discussions due to a conflict of interest.
Editor's note: The Almanac recently reported that revisions to the proposal increased the project's size by 5,000 square feet. The January 2013 revision increased the total project size from 357,500 to 443,200 square feet, a change of 85,700 square feet created by adding housing units.