Menlo Park: Specific plan review focuses on public benefits


This is an expanded version of a story previously published online.

On the second day of reviewing the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, the Menlo Park Planning Commission indicated a desire to take a closer look at how to ensure developments proposed under the new regulations will contribute to funding infrastructure improvements to benefit the entire community.

With a 7-0 straw vote on a motion made by Commissioner Katie Ferrick on Sept. 23, the panel signaled that it wants to move in the direction of recommending that the City Council investigate whether a formula that would produce a fee proportional to the size of the development, as opposed to a flat fee, would prove more effective in funding infrastructure prioritized within the specific plan, including pedestrian under-crossings and parking garages.

Commissioner Vince Bressler pushed for setting a formula as well as lowering the threshold at which developers would have to provide public benefit, citing the eight-acre Stanford Arrillaga mixed-use project on El Camino Real as evidence for the necessity of adjusting the threshold.

The project, which would replace mostly vacant car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real with 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and between 203,000 to 250,000 square feet of apartment space a total of up to 459,500 square feet wouldn't trigger any public benefit requirements under the new specific plan. Stanford has also agreed to pay for an additional traffic study as well as contribute substantially towards constructing a pedestrian-bicycle railroad under-crossing at Middle Avenue.

Mr. Bressler made a brief presentation regarding a proposal to build two four-story office towers, with a total of 311,000 square feet, in Palo Alto at 395 Page Mill Road. Menlo Park's neighboring city is currently involved in extensive negotiations for public benefits and may receive a new $49.3 million police headquarters in exchange for development rights.

By comparison, he said, Menlo Park is "getting nothing" out of the Stanford project. "Mitigation is not public benefit," Mr. Bressler commented. "It's damage done."

Staff reviewed previous times that public benefit has been discussed by Menlo Park and walked through why the specific plan opted not to use a formulaic approach, perhaps taking 1 to 2 percent of the project's construction value, which had been proposed in 2006 and 2008. No other city was found to be successfully applying a formula to calculate public benefit; what did seem to be working was a negotiated process such as the one incorporated into Menlo Park's specific plan, they said.

Which was not to say the idea could not be revisited again, staff noted, adding that it could provide a mechanism for creating a public benefit fund as well as certainty for developers as to what would be expected.

Other planning commissioners, as well as staff, suggested that they did not support lowering the threshold for public benefit, given that the threshold was set at a point where the city believed it would encourage development after years of stagnation along El Camino Real.

Commissioner Henry Riggs compared the new regulations to loosening overly restrictive barriers to development rather than up-zoning.

"You don't expect a thank-you for releasing a chokehold," Mr. Riggs commented.

Attempting to grab more money for public benefit should take into consideration that building within the El Camino Real zones of the specific plan already carries heavier costs because of the requirement to provide on-site parking, Mr. Riggs said, which makes one- to two-story buildings financially unfeasible since the lot sizes force the parking to go underground -- an expensive proposition at an estimated $30,000 per car space.

As midnight approached, the commission opted to continue the specific plan review to a third meeting. Topics to be taken up include public plaza design and, as suggested by Commissioner John Onken, whether there's a way to ensure that projects comply with the specific plan when renovating existing buildings as well as when constructing new ones from the ground up.

"It's going to be a complete mess," Mr. Onken suggested, given the heaps of old buildings along El Camino Real that could make a hodgepodge out of the specific plan's regulations.

Once the commission has completed its review, it will pass on any recommendations to the City Council, which will decide whether to approve the changes.


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