For such a contentious issue, there's agreement more often than not between Stanford University and the Menlo Park City Council over what needs to happen next regarding the university's proposed mixed-use complex at 500 El Camino Real.
During a discussion on Oct. 1 of a neighborhood cut-through traffic study by W-Trans, the council agreed that an environmental impact analysis of the complex was a logical step -- a step that Stanford said it supported in a letter to the city. The downtown/El Camino Real specific plan calls for such a project-level review whenever a proposed project may have impacts beyond those analyzed by the specific plan.
However, because of the amount of cut-through traffic projected by the W-Trans study, the council also thought there was an opportunity to refine the proposal further before determining the parameters of the EIR.
The analysis projects 528 more daily trips along Middle Avenue if Stanford builds the mixed-use complex. The specific plan anticipated an additional 222 daily trips from whatever was built within the entire plan area. According to the city's transportation staff, the street already accommodates about 10,717 trips a day.
"When it jumps up by 320, that's concerning to me," said Mayor Ray Mueller. Continuing with a comparison of traffic to water flowing through pipes made earlier by city staff, he said: "Like any set of pipes, we have a leak, right? And the leak is what's happening on Middle and University and in Allied Arts.... The specific plan is working perfectly. It's working perfectly, because it's identified where the leak is."
Now the question is how to fix the leak, he said, and to do so before the EIR is conducted. "Maybe the fix is, you reduce a little of the square footage you're putting in." A redesign of the project by Stanford University could get the traffic projections in line with those anticipated by the specific plan, according to Mr. Mueller.
The picture was better for the impact to El Camino Real: As a whole, the specific plan assumed 4,842 trips generated by 500 El Camino Real; the current mixed-use proposal is projected to create 3,115.
Like Transportation Commissioner Adina Levin, who spoke during public comment, Councilman Peter Ohtaki urged the city to look at traffic mitigation measures as rigorously as possible in the EIR. That may include project modification, but also should include an aggressive look at trip reduction policies that would encourage people to use nearby public transit. "So we can go back to the community and say we've got a solution here," he said.
Vice Mayor Cat Carlton agreed about refining the project further before the EIR and looking at traffic mitigation; she suggested considering how opening up a third lane on El Camino Real would affect the traffic impacts. An El Camino Real corridor study is currently underway, although it could take some time to complete.
Councilman Rich Cline was unable to attend Wednesday's meeting, but spoke to the Almanac the next day. He said that the traffic data needs to be considered in context -- it would add about 500 new daily trips on Middle Avenue over a span of 20 years or so.
Compared with that of other cities, Menlo Park's threshold for impact is so low as to be misleading, according to Mr. Cline. The city's transportation staff has said that Menlo Park regards an impact as an added 50 trips or more, whereas in Los Altos or Palo Alto, that trigger would be 2,100 new daily trips for a street similar to Middle Avenue.
Mr. Cline acknowledged the counterargument that Menlo Park isn't Los Altos or Palo Alto. "Right - why should Menlo Park be part of the region? If you ask other communities who have to deal with the impacts of housing and traffic and schools ... most people you ask will say yeah, Menlo Park has stood in a really weird place. Politically, they haven't been very collaborative."
That argument becomes "a poison pill for everything. And it is used for everything. It was used on the Derry project -- 'this is not what Menlo Park wants.' Menlo Gateway. ... 'this is not what Menlo Park wants.' It's been a constant 'this is not what Menlo Park wants'."
Rather than being based on data, he said, it becomes an emotional, subjective debate much like the one over what constitutes "village character."
"We have got to look at the bottom-line impacts over a 20-year period, look at it realistically with a broader view than 'I live a block from there'," Mr. Cline said. "The council has to represent 33,000 people. And I think a lot of good comes out of these projects and there are some impacts that will never be mitigated for people living near there."