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.