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Menlo Park: Larger motel on the way

Mermaid Inn to expand

A Menlo Park motel is getting a makeover along with more rooms. The Planning Commission approved the renovation of the Mermaid Inn, located at 727 El Camino Real, during its Sept. 23 meeting.

The project includes modernizing the inside and outside of the building, adding new amenities such as breakfast and fitness rooms, and increasing the number of rooms from 39 to 47. The motel's owners, BPR Properties, expect the revamped motel to deliver an additional $150,000 to $200,000 a year of transient occupancy tax revenue once the upgrade is finished.

Commissioners John Onken and Vince Bressler pointed out during the meeting that the renovation highlights a potential problem with the new downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, namely that buildings undergoing renovation rather than construction from the ground up may not be required to comply with the specific plan's regulations.

The specific plan would have required 12-foot sidewalks, but according to the staff report, the constraints of the existing layout prevented widening the sidewalk beyond the current 6 feet. BPR representatives said it would be "prohibitively expensive" to shift a portion of the existing building back to allow for wider sidewalks.

Staff also recommended allowing 38 parking spaces for the 47-room motel rather than the 59 spaces the specific plan requires for a full-service hotel -- one with banquet and conference facilities -- with the same number of rooms.

The key aspect of the proposal for the commissioners, who voted 6-1 to allow the exceptions to the specific plan and for the makeover to proceed, was that the motel was being renovated, not rebuilt from the ground up.

Commissioner Katherine Strehl said that short of tearing the building down completely, this was about significantly improving the existing property within the given constraints.

Mr. Bressler cast the dissenting vote. In a comment emailed to the City Council on Sept 24, he said: "Given this mode of operation, most properties along El Camino may well remain nonconforming for the foreseeable future. We may as well not have a specific plan if staff and the planning commission see fit to ignore it."

The motel's existing blue-and-white sign, bearing a mermaid and font that calls back to an earlier era, will vanish from the El Camino Real streetscape. The project will return to the Planning Commission for final approval of new signs as well as the design of a two-story wall to be constructed at the front of the building.

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