News

Menlo Park Planning Commission approves Alma Street development

The proposed development raises questions about downtown Menlo Park regulations

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.

Comments

16 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 5, 2015 at 3:54 pm

No matter what require the two full levels of underground parking to make sure they keep to a minimum their use of scarce city street parking.

Planning commission seems to have a habit about forgetting what's best for the citizen residents of Menlo Park and instead catering and pampering the developers who build and then leave us with more problems and issues.


9 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 5, 2015 at 8:31 pm

Not *another* office building? Instead of more retail businesses and truly affordable housing? sigh.....


9 people like this
Posted by Law abiding
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2015 at 8:53 pm

I would like to see a rule that prevents planning commissioners (and council members, for that matter) prevented from taking jobs obtained via their city connections. It's pretty clear that it compromises their ability to make decisions on behalf of the community.


4 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 6, 2015 at 11:09 am

really? is a registered user.

Law abiding: Don't they recuse themselves when there's a conflict of interest? Chances are that if you live in Menlo park and are working, it's going to have a connection to Stanford or Tech somewhere....


9 people like this
Posted by Beth
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 6, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Again, our tasteless planning members and likely city shills are out for something totally out of place, and does anyone ask them to justify their decisions with an eye on who is benefitting? This is an outrage, in that it's out of place and obviously the developer couldn't care less for the residents who live nearby. So every plot of property in MP is up for grabs, with no design for the neighborhood. This looks like another monstrosity.

And who elects(appoints) these clowns and why do they want their positions? It will be an interesting election next time. Even Palo Alto is stopping the overbuilding - late, but still....


7 people like this
Posted by gunste
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Nov 6, 2015 at 1:45 pm

What are height limits for if they are not observed or can be set aside? What is influencing the City?


2 people like this
Posted by Unanimous Decision
a resident of another community
on Nov 6, 2015 at 3:15 pm

JOHN ONKEN

JOHN KADVANY

DREW COMBS

KATHERINE STREHL

KATIE FERRICK

SUSAN GOODHUE

LARRY KAHLE

all voted UNANIMOUSLY to approve this project. It won't go before the City Council now unless it is appealed.

Drew Combs was the Measure M candidate for City Council last election and even he voted for this project.




6 people like this
Posted by Law abiding
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 6, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Without getting too specific, imagine that there is someone who works with development firms, a lawyer maybe, who also works with local tech firms. That person is in a position to recommend planning commissioners for jobs with local tech firms. There is no perceived conflict of interest unless the tech firm happens to have a project that requires PC scrutiny, but it's natural for the commissioners to feel some gratitude toward the person who help them get their jobs -- a person who regularly appears before the PC on behalf of development interests.


5 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 6, 2015 at 3:53 pm

really? is a registered user.

So according to the staff report, this is a project that meets all of the height and bulk requirements of the Specific Plan, and has an agreed public benefit paid to the city. So Kwitcherbellyachin'


6 people like this
Posted by Seriously?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 6, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Providing charging stations for two electric vehicles is considered a public benefit? And they're saving one heritage oak? Is this the best the council can come up with?


9 people like this
Posted by Public benefit 101
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 6, 2015 at 5:20 pm

I'm also stunned at what passes as "public benefit." A relatively tiny amount of money (to be applied to BMR housing, can buy about 1/10 of a house with that) plus a patio surrounding an old tree. Is this really a public amenity? Are people going to be coming by just to hang out by a tree?

The building is replacing a restaurant, a deli that was popular with many city and SRI employees -- where will they get their sandwiches now? -- a salon that was repeatedly voted #1 in Menlo Park, my family's favorite mani-pedi stop, and more. Those of us who live east of El Camino will now have to travel farther, and the sales taxes we pay on similar goods and services are likely to end up in other cities. Since an office building generates no sales tax, only traffic, net-net it's a loss for our community. And they're offering us a few square feet of paving plus a charging station in exchange. Seriously?


Like this comment
Posted by Procedure Check
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 8, 2015 at 12:35 am

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the Public Benefit for this project - not the City Council.


2 people like this
Posted by John Kadvany
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 9, 2015 at 12:38 pm

The public benefit includes:
-- dedication of the public space, plus landscaping, inclusive of the oak tree rather than placing it within the adjacent open space reserved as private for office residents
-- construction of a cafe pavilion (no inside seating) with plumbing, full size bathroom per vendor requirements, outdoor furniture
-- guaranteed operation days/hours for the cafe service to start, adjust with experience
-- $185,000 additional cash payment to the city, separate from below-market housing payment. Those funds can and should be targeted to other Specific Plan area projects, e.g. Middle Ave tunnel development.
-- charging stations are not a significant factor compared to the above
For many reasons, this looks like a very good package. Getting a nicely appointed public space with simple cafe service right at the train is desirable and may be used by people leaving Burgess Park or the Library without crossing the tracks, also of course train riders wanting a quick coffee/snack. Simplicity of the pavilion will make it easy to manage, should only take 1-2 people to handle. Since it's not a full-service cafe, it should take only a modest number of customers to be profitable, plus the developer will likely not charge rent for a while. It's a unique situation, probably won't see another opportunity like this.


2 people like this
Posted by John Kadvany
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 10, 2015 at 1:33 pm

To balance the optimism of the above comment, the potential downside, also discussed by the Planning Commission, is simply that the cafe does poorly because of low foot traffic. 'Nothing worse than dead retail.' This is a risk that has to be taken to go ahead as the project won't be completed for about two years. My view is that while this area is now very quiet, the new 1020 Alma office building, other Station area development, train riders, Burgess Park/Library patrons and future Greenheart residents/office workers at 1300 ECR will provide a sufficient customer population base to make the risk worth taking. A known cafe brand like Zombie Runner, Philz or others will further help that along. Success would be simply that this nicely appointed and furnished public space gets 'activated' and becomes a local known spot for casual hanging out/meeting/etc. That's what you try to do today at transit stations, they become a place to linger and enjoy. It's also good to integrate private (the new office) and public spaces, that's a plus to the final design. Generally I think it's not a good idea for the city to support retail which might not otherwise happen. While there cannot be a guarantee of success, the stars could here be in alignment.


2 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 11, 2015 at 8:36 am

really? is a registered user.

Thanks John Kadvany. Let's hope the PC stays mindful about the public benefit discussion. I'm not sure how some people can call a nail salon a public benefit that should be protected.


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

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