How should Menlo Park define public benefit?


In the city's ongoing effort to wrangle the meaning of "public benefit" into measurable, comparable terms, the Menlo Park Planning Commission and the planning staff, as well as two developers with projects coming to the table, took a few hours recently to consider what the right questions to ask would be.

For example: "Are those public benefits generally desired?" Senior Planner Thomas Rogers asked during the May 19 meeting, noting that desirability does not always correspond with price. A gold statue of himself would probably not be on the community's wish list, regardless of the expense, Mr. Rogers said.

Other questions he raised: "Is this a fair deal?" "Is there additional information or analysis needed?"

The debate came about thanks to two study sessions held that night regarding development proposals for projects within the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan's boundaries.

650 Live Oak LLC is looking at building a mixed-use complex with a three-story non-medical office building with five studio apartments, and a three-story, 10-unit apartment building over a two-level underground parking garage at 650-660 Live Oak Ave. The site used to house a mortuary.

In exchange for extra building density as defined by the specific plan, the developer has suggested creating a 16-bed community garden managed by a caretaker and open to the public -- an amenity residents have said they would want, according to project representatives. The proposal also includes one below-market-rate, one-bedroom apartment. An analysis by consultants BAE Urban Economics estimated the value of the proposed public benefits at $391,000, according to the staff report.

The idea piqued the commission's interest. And raised more questions. They liked the idea of creating a public, active space on the site. John Kadvany, along several colleagues, wondered whether it may be the wrong spot for a community garden, and also asked whether the estimated value of the benefit was appropriate.

"When you're going up to the public benefit level and you're getting that (extra) 4,500 square feet of office space in Menlo Park, which is like one of the most desirable office venues now in Silicon Valley -- I want to get a handle on that," Commissioner Kadvany said. "I think this is really the core question -- this value question. I have other numbers in mind, that I think should be significantly higher."

Project representatives countered that land in Menlo Park is worth more than a big check. "The economic benefit calculation doesn't include the value of land. It includes the below-market-rate value and some garden construction costs, but we are providing that land for free. The value is significantly more than what you're seeing in that analysis."

Commissioner John Onken later asked another crucial question: "Thomas, have we given you any help on public benefit tonight?"

Mr. Rogers admitted that it was hard to say whether the commission had reached a consensus on the topic.

1020 Alma St.

The second proposal studied that night is from Lane Partners for a 25,156-square-foot, three-story office building on top of a two-level, 76-space underground parking garage at 1020 Alma St. An additional 20 parking spaces would be created on Alma Lane. Construction will require demolishing existing businesses from 1010 Alma St. to 1026 Alma St. That includes Los Salonez and Cindy Nails Spa II, as well as Iberia restaurant.

As for public benefits, Lane Partners has proposed building a coffee kiosk with outdoor seating and a one-time payment to the city of $180,212. Although the developer also listed pedestrian paths and two small public plazas as potential benefits, the city's staff was not inclined to agree, as those amenities would mainly serve the tenants, according to the staff report. BAE estimated the value of those public amenities at $379,000, which does not include a valuation of the pedestrian paths.

In contrast to the earlier discussion, the commission mainly focused on dollars as opposed to land value this time. The BAE analysis estimated that building at the bonus level added $1.05 million in project value to Lane Partners, whereas building at the base level would result in a $417,000 loss.

Mr. Kadvany praised the project's aesthetics, and said having an all-office complex across from the Caltrain station provides an alternative to Sand Hill Road. "But we don't want to leave money on the table."

Commissioner Drew Combs commented that the disparity between the "very shallow public plaza and this enormous private courtyard" left him wondering whether the developer really thought the commission would approve. "I appreciate it's a negotiation, and why show all your cards up front?" he said. "Overall, my only comment would be with regard to that public plaza -- more of it." He did like the kiosk.

Other commissioners floated the idea of incorporating retail into the ground floor of the office building, but weren't sure the location would make it economically viable.

No action was taken on either proposal. Both projects will have to pass muster through the post-design planning process, including City Council review, before starting construction.

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3 people like this
Posted by Allan
a resident of another community
on May 26, 2015 at 8:20 pm

Look next door at how Palo Alto made bad 'deal' after bad 'deal' with developers promising the so called 'public benefit', using the much maligned Planned Community regulation. Almost without exception, the developer was allowed to oversize, get odd variances, and other permits which allowed them to pocket many extra hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars than they would have otherwise. In exchange, the public got a park bench on High and Channing in one case, some malformed car designs on a doorway on Lytton in another, restaurants have essentially taken over the 'public benefit' space in at least two cases, a few out of the way parking spaces in others, and so on. The bottom line is: the developer ALWAYS benefits to the tune of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, the public gets stiffed with a over sized development, and maybe, if they are lucky, a bench to sit on and look at it. Don't be fooled.

5 people like this
Posted by For the 10th time
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on May 27, 2015 at 12:37 pm

In Menlo Park there was an opportunity to get real public benefits such as an under crossing of the caltrain tracks or a public garage downtown but when the council in 2011 tripled the development rights for the property owners in the specific plan area, they gave away any chance to get these kind of real benefits. Stanford will build right up to the edge of their allowable square footage and avoid any public benefit. Greenheart will go over a little bit and to date, their idea of public benefit consists of opening Garwood St. and including a bike lane. The fact that Greenheart needs this street opened up so that tenants can access the garage never seems to be mentioned.

Why bother identifying public benefits when the Council gave away millions and millions of dollars in development rights without getting anything back.

How many times do residents need to hear this? And no, there is no written agreement with Stanford for a "substantial contribution" to an under crossing of the caltrain tracks. The sub committee of council members Keith and Carlton make it sound like they did some serious negotiations but they're blowing smoke.

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Posted by Sam Tyler
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm

In response to "For The 10th Time"

I'm not aware that anyone has seen the most recent Stanford plans for their property. It's so nice that you have such an open mind as to what will or will not happen in the future. I, for one, will at least wait to see any new plans from Stanford before I comment.

3 people like this
Posted by public benefits
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on May 27, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Public benefits would be alleviating traffic issues that are growing worse by the minute. The developers need to provide something substantial, in terms of a bike tunnel, or better yet contribute $$ to grade separation so the traffic back up by the railroad tracks don't continue to claim lives. The City should be requiring that the buildings meet LEED gold standards and conserve energy and water resources wherever possible. And instead of 100% office space, provide the community with some retail and restaurants. Some affordable housing units would also help alleviate the housing crunch for local teachers and other workers who are finding themselves squeezed out of Menlo Park. A portion of the property should be reserved for public park space. Not parking, that needs to go underground. Playgrounds and open space - open to the PUBLIC are needed, and the City should require the developers to provide them.

1 person likes this
Posted by Steve Taffee
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 28, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Public benefits include a range of community improvements. At the end of the day, such benefits should be weighed as part of an overall approach to public benefits in the City rather than an ad-hoc basis. Determining the monetary value of a pubic benefit should be the role of the City, rather than that of the Developer who has an incentive to inflate the value of their proposal.

A needs analysis should be part of determining what sort of public benefits the City and residents might want in different neighborhoods:

open space and parks
access to transit, bike and pedestrian paths
recreation facilities
preservation of historic landmarks
workforce development
affordable housing
and so on.

Both quantitative and qualitative factors are part of the consideration, as well as environmental and financial sustainability.

All in all, with the price of land what it is on the Peninsula, we should be aggressive in requesting public benefits from developers. We will be living with our decisions for decades to come. Today's benefit could be a liability in a decade, so plan accordingly and wisely.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 28, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I find it fascinating that the City demands impact fees from developers but refuses to give any of those funds to the other public agencies which are impacted by the proposed developments.

Lead Agencies are required by law to evaluate the impact of any developments that they approve on other agencies - Menlo Park never does.

The entire Staff Report and attachment on the Lane Alma project never once even mention the impact of this project on any publlc agency except the City itself.

Selfish, unprofessional, unwise and illegal.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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