Talks to change Menlo Park's specific plan tabled

Council plans to discuss the changes on Oct. 20

By the time the clock struck 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 6, the Menlo Park City Council had not yet broached its second major discussion on the agenda: a review of proposed updates to the city's specific plan, a 365-page document adopted in 2012 to guide development in downtown Menlo Park for decades to come.

The 2015 review is the plan's first biennial review, after one review in 2013.

This review came directly after a lengthy discussion and 20 comments from community members about proposed updates to Menlo Park's general plan. Council members rubbed their eyes but forged ahead.

Thomas Rogers, senior planner for the city of Menlo Park, presented the changes to the specific plan proposed by city staff, including setting standards for sidewalks on streets where they do not yet exist, clarifying rear setback rules, allowing flexibility for side and front setbacks, and setting parking requirements for hotels and personal improvement services, such as dance or yoga studios, fine arts, or driving schools.

He added that several changes to the specific plan had also been proposed by the Pollock Financial Group in order to more comfortably build a boutique hotel on a half-acre plot of land located at 1400 El Camino Real.

By now, the clock was on the verge of striking midnight, and so the council members decided that they would discuss the Pollock Financial Group's proposed changes that night, and hold the rest to discuss at their next meeting on Oct. 20.

Presented by John Spanier and Jeff Pollock, the Pollock Financial Group's proposed changes included allowing "back of house" or storage and employee-only areas to not count toward the total square-foot area, and allowing flexibility regarding the building's front design.

The proposal launched a discussion among council members as to whether changing the rules would set a precedent for other exceptions, a concern voiced by council members Rich Cline and Kirsten Keith; or whether sticking to the rules in the specific plan would make the new structure less interesting, articulated by Mayor Catherine Carlton.

Council members recommended that the Pollock Financial Group work with city staff to research how more space could be utilized in the existing hotel plans and how additional space would affect the potential occupancy of the hotel and its adjoining restaurant.

Four public comments were also made regarding broader changes to the specific plan.

Patti Fry, a former Menlo Park planning commissioner, said she wanted to see the city's jobs-housing balance improved. Retail opportunities, she said, are at risk of being overtaken by office space.

Maya Perkins, a resident of Menlo Park, said council members should build affordable housing near transit lines in the downtown area.

Adina Levin, a member of the city's Transportation Commission, urged council members to examine development proposals that have been made and are pending to make sure that affordable housing is considered.

Diane Bailey, executive director of Menlo Spark, a nonprofit with the aim of making Menlo Park carbon neutral by 2025, said implementing demand-based parking fees downtown would promote alternative transportation and offer convenient parking to those who need it.

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