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Menlo Park creates 'guiding principles' for general plan

General plan open house on Thursday, Jan. 8, in Belle Haven

Inevitably, as a city updates its zoning codes to allow types of development that change the status quo, residents will wonder what on earth the policymakers were thinking.

The advantage, however, is that municipal agencies such as the city of Menlo Park, along with its council members and commissioners, carry out that thinking in full view of the public.

Case in point: The creation of the "guiding principles" for the city's ongoing general plan update.

Why does this matter? The general plan, with some components last revised in 1994, represents the city's overall "constitution" for development.

This update cycle will include revamping what kind of projects can be built in the M2 industrial district, which roughly spans the land wedged between the San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, Marsh Road and U.S. 101, out where Facebook, Menlo Gateway and a bevy of new housing projects are located.

PlaceWorks, the consultant awarded the $1.65 million contract to manage the update, expects to finish it by mid-2016.

So while it may not have been the most scintillating debate, the Planning Commission and City Council in December did their thinking out loud to fine-tune those guiding principles to determine what the community's priorities are in planning for the future.

Councilmen Ray Mueller and Rich Cline, during a Dec. 16 meeting, said that the feedback they had received from residents was that "quality of life" was not emphasized enough in the draft principles.

"It's implicit that we're creating a high quality of life for people; that's our intent," Mr. Mueller observed, but "I think we should just spell it out."

But where to spell it out? "Where will 'high quality of life' have the most impact without repeating it five times?" asked Mayor Cat Carlton. The consensus was that it belonged under the "healthy community" category.

Word-smithing is easier said than done. Mr. Mueller suggested adding, "Menlo Park neighborhoods are protected from unreasonable development and oppressive traffic," which led to a consideration of what "unreasonable" means. Mayor Carlton pointed out that recent months in Menlo Park have proven "that what one person considers reasonable is unreasonable to another."

Using the phrase "minimizes traffic congestion" also presented a conundrum, given that any new development will add, rather than reduce, traffic, the council noted.

Two Belle Haven residents spoke during the meeting. The principles looked good, both said, although the interpretation may depend on where you live in the city. Oppressive and burdensome traffic is already the reality for Belle Haven, said Vicky Robledo. She recommended that each council member attempt to get to that neighborhood during commute hours to fully appreciate the congestion.

The council voted 5-0 to adopt the principles, which were revised based on the discussion. Councilman Peter Ohtaki said to keep in mind that nothing precludes further revisions as the update proceeds. "We're not done by any means."

There are plenty of opportunities for residents to weigh in. In the immediate future, on Thursday, Jan. 8, the city will host a general plan open house at the new police substation at 871 Hamilton Ave., starting at 6:30 p.m. Along with attending public workshops, meetings and submitting comments to the city, residents can weigh in via an online "land use survey" for the M2 area to describe what they want to see. The survey will be available until Jan. 18.

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Guiding principles

The Menlo Park City Council approved these guiding principles for the general plan on Dec. 16.

Citywide Equity: Menlo Park neighborhoods are protected from unreasonable development and unreasonable cut-through traffic, share the benefits and impacts of local growth, and enjoy equal access to quality services, education, public open space, housing that complements local job opportunities with affordability that limits displacement of current residents, and convenient daily shopping such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

Healthy Community: Everyone in Menlo Park enjoys healthy living spaces, high quality of life, and can safely walk or bike to fresh food, medical services, employment, recreational facilities, and other daily destinations; land owners and occupants take pride in the appearance of property; Menlo Park achieves code compliance and prioritizes improvements that promote safety and healthy living; and the entire city is well-served by emergency services and community policing.

Competitive and Innovative Business Destination: Menlo Park embraces emerging technologies, local intelligence, and entrepreneurship, and welcomes reasonable development without excessive traffic congestion that will grow and attract successful companies and innovators that generate local economic activity and tax revenue for the entire community.

Corporate Contribution: In exchange for added development potential, construction projects provide physical benefits in the adjacent neighborhood (such as Belle Haven for growth north of US 101), including jobs, housing, schools, libraries, neighborhood retail, childcare, public open space, high speed internet access, and transportation choices.

Youth Support and Education Excellence: Menlo Park children and young adults have equal access to excellent childcare, education, meaningful employment opportunities, and useful training, including internship opportunities at local companies.

Great Transportation Options: Menlo Park provides thoroughly-connected, safe and convenient transportation, adequate emergency vehicle access, and multiple options for people traveling by foot, bicycle, shuttle, bus, car, and train, including daily service along the Dumbarton Rail Corridor.

Complete Neighborhoods and Commercial Corridors: Menlo Park neighborhoods are complete communities, featuring well integrated and designed development along vibrant commercial corridors with a live-work-play mix of community-focused businesses that conveniently serve adjacent neighborhoods while respecting their residential character.

Accessible Open Space and Recreation: Menlo Park provides safe and convenient access to an ample amount of local and regional parks and a range of public open space types, recreational facilities, trails, and enhancements to wetlands and the Bay.

Sustainable Environmental Planning: Menlo Park is a leader in efforts to address climate change, adapt to sea-level rise, protect natural and built resources, conserve energy, manage water, utilize renewable energy, and promote green building.

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