What should the city of Menlo Park require the developers of a proposed three-story office building on Alma Street to provide in public benefits in exchange for exceeding building size limits?
The Menlo Park Planning Commission discussed that question at length when it met Monday, Nov. 2, and ultimately determined developer Lane Partners to be in compliance with the city's regulations to demolish existing buildings at 1010-1026 Alma St. and build a 25,156-square-foot, three-story office building with two levels of underground parking. That location is the current home of Menlo Park businesses Iberia Restaurant, Los Salonez and Cindy Nails Spa II.
The commission had first reviewed the public benefit plans for the proposed development in May. Changes incorporating the commission's previous feedback, according to Lane Partners representative Marcus Gilmour and BAR Architects representatives Chris Haegglund and Ben Schaefer, included an expanded public plaza with an outdoor coffee pavilion and a restroom, plus preservation of a heritage oak tree in the public plaza. Lane Partners also offered to increase its one-time payment to the city to $185,816 from $180,212. It will also pay an in-lieu fee of $307,618 to go into the city's below market rate housing fund.
Gillian Robinson, co-owner of Zombie Runner in Palo Alto, a coffee shop and running shoe store, expressed excitement at the possibility of opening a second store at the site. She said Mr. Gilmour had reached out to explore potential interest from local coffee vendors.
Mr. Gilmour emphasized that no agreements have been made. Several other coffee vendors have also been approached as potential operators for the site.
The pavilion would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends, the developer said.
Lane Partners also proposed building two electric vehicle charging stations and bike parking along Alma Street.
In public comments, Clem Molony praised the plan to construct the building according to LEED Gold environmental standards. Krista Skehan, a longtime Menlo Park resident, and Carol Schumaker, a business owner in downtown Menlo Park, also praised the plan.
Speaker Verle Aebi encouraged the city to earmark public benefits funds to address congestion and safety at the intersection of Alma Street and Ravenswood Avenue. Bill Sanders said he wanted to see residential space incorporated into the plan.
Several planning commissioners called the project "handsome" while others expressed frustration at several provisions in the Menlo Park El Camino Real/downtown specific plan. The discussion revolved around two key problems they saw with current policies in the plan.
Commissioner Drew Combs asked why the Lane Partners' one-time payment to the city would go into the city's general fund. Could it be earmarked instead for public improvements in the downtown area, such as installing stoplights or an overpassing at the Alma Street and Ravenswood Avenue intersection, he asked.
Commissioner John Kadvany went a step further and questioned the added value of the pavilion at all, saying he'd rather see the city be able to "cash out" the sum of the proposed public benefits and put them all toward the most necessary downtown public improvements, which could be determined by a city "wish list,"designating priorities for various projects.
Commissioner Katie Ferrick asked why the new development needs two stories of underground parking when the site is near the Menlo Park train station.
Provisions in the specific plan set a minimum number of parking spaces for new buildings. Ms. Ferrick said the Planning Commission should ask the City Council to consider making those provisions more flexible.
However, Menlo Park Senior Planner Thomas Rogers said such changes, even if approved by the council by the end of the year, would take at least six months to bring about, making it improbable to be of much help to the Lane Partners development.
In the end, Commissioner Catherine Strehl made a motion to approve the public benefits proposal by Lane Partners and BAR Architects, with provisions that if the City Council changes the specific plan, then the developer could either reduce underground parking by a full level or earmark the one-time payment to the city for downtown public improvements. It was seconded by Ms. Ferrick and approved unanimously.
The project is now in a 15 day appeals period. If no appeals are received, the developers will be able to break ground as soon as they acquire the requisite permits, said Jean Lin, Menlo Park associate planner.