Tonight: Menlo Park general plan rewrite goes to Planning Commission


After a year of "visioning" and another year of public meetings and presentations, Menlo Park is getting ready to stop talking and start making decisions about the future of its M-2 industrial area, now being called the Bayfront.

First up, the Menlo Park Planning Commission meets Monday, Sept. 21, to look at proposed changes in zoning, land use and traffic circulation in the area, being considered as updates to the city's general plan, a state-mandated document that acts as the "constitution" guiding the city's development regulations.

The Bayfront area is roughly bordered by Marsh Road, U.S. 101, University Avenue and the Bay. Much of the light industrial and office area is adjacent to the Belle Haven residential neighborhood.

The meeting will also be a chance for anyone to talk about what they'd like to see included in an environmental impact report on the project to rewrite the city's general plan for that area. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 701 Laurel St.

Click here to watch the meeting online, either live or after the meeting as a video recording.

The Planning Commission meeting will be followed by a Tuesday, Sept. 29, City Council meeting to also discuss the same issues, except for the environmental report.

Just because the city is starting to get down to details doesn't mean the process is close to completion. The updates to the city's general plan are not expected to be adopted until July 2016.

More meetings will be held to discuss the zoning changes. Once those are in place, fiscal studies will help the city pin down the value of the zoning changes to developers.

The general plan update project, which the city is calling ConnectMenlo, has focused on the M-2 area of the city, where current and planned development by companies such as the Bohannon Development Company, Facebook and the Greenheart Land Company are transforming the area.

The update also looks at the street system and transportation programs for the entire city, known in the general plan as the circulation element.

The city's General Plan Advisory Group has recommended allowing a maximum of 2.5 million square feet of nonresidential buildings, about 4,500 new housing units, about 5,300 new jobs, and about 600 new hotel rooms in the Bayfront area.

Displacing residents

The city plans to ask developers to trade amenities, also known as public benefits, for any development more intensive than what is currently allowed. What Belle Haven residents would like to see in their neighborhood has come out of a year-long "visioning" process and community surveys as well as the additional year of meetings on the general plan changes.

One of those meetings, a community workshop, was held on Sept. 9 in Belle Haven. Charlie Knox from PlaceWorks, the consultants coordinating the general plan update, said that in addition to asking for amenities for the neighborhood, the city will have development regulations to assure "if new development happens, it at least doesn't make anything worse."

The ability to ask for public benefits has the potential for helping with problems that already exist, he said, including traffic and the increased housing costs that have started to drive low-income residents from the neighborhood. "When we started this process, displacement was already underway," he said.

Mr. Knox said that housing experts who have weighed in on the displacement issue have recommended rent stabilization and laws that limit moving out tenants except under certain circumstances — laws that already exist in neighboring East Palo Alto.

Mr. Knox reminded those at the meeting that while the proposed plans for the Bayfront show many amenities — a large supermarket, a pharmacy, a job-training center, transit stops along the Dumbarton rail right-of-way, new bike and pedestrian routes and even a bicycle-pedestrian bridge across the Bayfront Expressway — none are close to being a reality.

The fact that many of the things the community values are shown on the map does not mean they will be built, he said.

And some of the problems that plague the neighborhood are beyond the city's control, he said. "We shouldn't have to bus our kids to other areas to get a decent education," said one speaker. Belle Haven is part of the Ravenswood School District, which lags far behind the other school districts that cover Menlo Park in test scores and funding.

The school district is run by its own school board, not the city, Mr. Knox said. "Cities are pretty hard-pressed to make schools do anything," he said.

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