Tonight: Menlo Park council to conduct first downtown plan review since Measure M

Will council address complaints that big developers aren't doing enough to provide public benefits?

The Menlo Park City Council will review tonight (Nov. 17) the city's "El Camino Real/downtown specific plan," a set of policies approved in 2012 that direct downtown development. (The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers in the Civic Center.)

While the staff report recommends a number of granular changes to the plan, some residents are asking the council to consider making significant changes to the plan's public benefits rules, which address what developers can be required to provide in community benefits if they exceed building limits set by the specific plan.

This will be the council's first review of the plan in the aftermath of Measure M, and it is unlikely to be reviewed for another two years. Measure M was an unsuccessful resident-sponsored initiative on the 2014 ballot that would have changed the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan. The measure would have limited office development, changed "open space" requirements for new buildings, and required voters to approve new projects that were nonresidential and larger than a certain size.

Under public benefit provisions, the city can negotiate public amenities with developers who want to exceed building limits in exchange for the potential burden that their larger developments would impose on the city's infrastructure.

However, some community members believe that the downtown specific plan sets the "trigger" level at which developments can be required to provide public benefits too high to mitigate the adverse impacts such projects might have on the community.

Without lowering the threshold to trigger required public benefits from developers, Menlo Park may lose bargaining power with large developers, Planning Commissioner John Kadvany told the Almanac. Last year, Mr. Kadvany called the council's decision to not lower the threshold for benefits "the biggest mistake (it) has made in the last couple of years."

One example of how the city may miss out on potential developer-funded public benefits, he said, would be the construction of a pedestrian and bike tunnel under the tracks at Middle Avenue and El Camino Real, near the plaza area of Stanford's proposed 459,000-square-foot housing, office and retail project in that area.

Without changing its current policy, he said, Menlo Park may have a challenge negotiating with Stanford over who will pay for the tunnel, which he estimated to cost over $10 million. "By not adjusting the threshold in some way the city lost a good deal of negotiation leverage," Mr. Kadvany said.

He recommended that the council allocate more resources to improve downtown infrastructure by funding projects such as new bike lanes, the pedestrian and bike tunnel, or a parking garage.

But changing the public benefits threshold could cause up to a year in delays for the Stanford project, according to Councilman Peter Ohtaki. Stanford developers, he said, have already "re-affirmed their financial support of a pedestrian/bike under-crossing at Middle (Avenue) at the recent workshops."

He added that even if public benefits are not restructured during Tuesday's review of the downtown specific plan, the council will review a public benefits formula when it updates the general plan next year. That formula could then also be applied to the downtown specific plan.

But would that be soon enough? According to a letter to the City Council from Patti Fry, a co-sponsor of Measure M and a former planning commissioner, waiting two years, when the next biennial review of the downtown specific plan would be conducted, would be too late. "The Council needs to get this right before negotiations with projects in the pipeline begin," she said. "Please do not kick the can down the road for the next biennial review."

Her letter lists questions she asks the council to address, emphasizing the urgency of clarifying the city's policies before large developments are approved.

Among those questions are:

● Should it be the job of the City Council or the Planning Commission to negotiate public benefits with developers?

● Where should the line be drawn between the Planning Commission's authority and the City Council's regarding public benefit agreements?

● How should the city define a "public benefit" in the first place?

● How should public benefit payments be used by the city?

The City Council may also discuss zoning changes proposed in the city's staff report, which include revising setback requirements for the rear of buildings, establishing maximum front and side setbacks, and setting sidewalk width standards for streets that do not have sidewalks.

Other proposed changes are considerations related to transportation demand management programs, electric vehicle recharging stations, and hotel parking rates.

The City Council will conduct its biennial review of the downtown specific plan at its meeting beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at 701 Laurel St.

For more information, go to the meeting agenda or watch the meeting online here.

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Like this comment
Posted by Shedana
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Where is the low income housing in this project? Why is this always an issue to add any affordable rentals along this corridor? Please don't forget those who make less than $30,000 a year who don't need to be commuting from Concord to work for us.

2 people like this
Posted by John Kadvany
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 17, 2015 at 1:36 pm

To clarify the above, here's what I wrote to the city council for tonight's Specific Plan review:

Stanford’s 500 El Camino Real proposal is a large project and the city is de facto involved in negotiations with Stanford over the project itself and the Middle Avenue tunnel. Yet nothing in the Specific Plan sanctions that city-developer relationship. As another example, if the Planning Commission recommends that the Greenheart project be reduced to a baseline scale (e.g. depending on their Envt'l Impact Report), Greenheart could build a six acre baseline project at 1300 ECR with zero retail and be in conformance with the Plan. That may be unlikely, but as long as the Plan does not give the city a stronger negotiation platform, the city is necessarily hobbled in achieving Plan goals. A problem with the current public benefit policy is that it doesn’t have a 'setting' giving the city more control over design for large projects without having to also invoke a benefit negotiation. One option is to make all baseline projects over, say, 2 acres subject to PC approval with respect to the mix of uses (retail, residential, office) planned for the project. For Stanford’s project, maybe some unique statement of intent by the city council which binds a Middle Ave tunnel and 500 ECR development and financing is appropriate.

2 people like this
Posted by How come?
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2015 at 10:26 pm

I never heard of ABAG-mandated "affordable" housing in Woodside or Portola Valley. Thankfully, some other cities are second-class.
How many Sirian refugees will make Menlo Park their new home?

Like this comment
Posted by downtown
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 18, 2015 at 12:14 am

Woodside and Portola Valley are towns, not cities. Also, Woodside and Portola Valley have no mandate to create workforce housing because they have no downtown for downtown workers.

1 person likes this
Posted by Rick Moen
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Nov 18, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Just in case the matter is of interest, there is no real difference in California between towns and cities, and upon incorporation may use either term (or neither) to describe themselves. Source: California Government Code Sections 34502 and 56722. Basically, it is a marketing distinction, a matter of style. Both are (equally) a special class of corporation, to which the state and county devolve some of their authority and duties within their borders.

The 23 towns in California (Apple Valley, Atherton, Colma, Corte Madera, Danville, Fairfax, Hillsborough, Loomis, Los Gatos, Los Altos Hills, Mammoth Lakes, Moraga, Ojai, Paradise, Portola Valley, Ross, San Anselmo, Tiburon, Truckee, Windsor, Woodside, Yountville, and Yucca Valley) are legally indistinguishable from the 459 cities. The former just sport more-pretentious marketing efforts.

Rick Moen

5 people like this
Posted by Heyward Robinson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Every city/town in California has a housing allocation. Its mandated by state law. Unincorporated areas also receive allocations which are administered by the counties. ABAG calculates and publishes these for the Bay Area. Here is the link:

Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Change the Law
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 19, 2015 at 2:23 pm

With regard to Heyward's comment and link (thank you), has there been any interest, effort, or action to change this law?!? It seems it is creating massive problems for a large number of cities, ours included. I wouldn't be so against this if there were some definitive study, some assessment which shows demonstrable benefit for these actions. I doubt that there is.

Why can't towns/cities decide that in instead of subdividing our cities away and stacking up these low rent sh#@$ apartments we can't (if we must), just subsidize the rent for some number of low-income people and call it a day.

The only thing there seems to be is blind adherence to a terrible law. If nothing else, let's get it on the ballot and put it to a vote.

8 people like this
Posted by residential community?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 21, 2015 at 11:59 am

The real issue is not whether Menlo Park is a town or a city but whether it is and should remain a residential community (town/city) or become a jobs center. Everything I see from the city is that they want to change our residential community into a jobs center. Why?
The more jobs that Menlo Park adds, the more housing ABAG will allocate, the more students for schools, the more congestion clogging our roads and interfering with emergency response, the more kids and adults wanting to use playing fields, etc.

6 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 22, 2015 at 8:27 pm

really? is a registered user.

@residential Community: It's obvious why everyone wants to change MP into a jobs center- the old model of 'bedroom community ' is neither desirable nor sustainable. The perpetual commuting and shopping elsewhere is why ECR is such a mess in the first place, and 101 looks like a parking lot. So thumbs up for mixed, self sustaining communities!

The only problem now is getting people to choose to work where they live.

8 people like this
Posted by It's all about profit$
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 22, 2015 at 9:19 pm

Great fantasy, really?! Now all we need to do is eliminate home ownership (because most people can't afford to sell and buy houses every time they switch jobs) and children, who do need the schools and playing fields that you no longer consider desirable or sustainable.

We can certainly implement a Logan's Run approach where everyone is gassed at age 21. That would solve most demand for home ownership, as young adults don't mind living in dorms or corporate housing in their company's parking lot (eg Facebook). But it may be difficult, even impossible, to eliminate babies, toddlers, and children.

Trying to reverse thousands of years of deeply ingrained human behavior by shaming people and telling them that they're wrong to want a decent lifestyle may actually not work that well.

6 people like this
Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 23, 2015 at 3:44 pm


Most people do not have the luxury of working close to home, nor can they pick and move when changing jobs.

6 people like this
Posted by Change the Law
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 24, 2015 at 9:19 am

@Residential Community

My main complaint, and I sense that you agree, is that city leaders are making these decisions (bedroom community vs. job community) without the informed consent of the citizens of Menlo Park. If our leaders opt for a "jobs-community" future (the trajectory we're on) and take steps to enable it, then we move down a path from which we cannot return, and one which will bring dramatic changes and change the character of the town -- I'd say for the worse.

I believe the current condition is mostly attributable to the inherent positive feedback loop which exists between city and growth. It is motivated and set to drive development and densification because public agencies (city govt., police, fire, schools) tend to grow themselves -- new regulation, new staff, higher budgets, etc., to prepare for a larger future city. But they cannot realize this grow unless more people move to Menlo Park to generate additional tax base. But if people actually move here, then the city govt. will need to grow to accommodate them. And on it goes...

Several adjacent cities have taken pause, decided *together* what they want their identity to be, and taken steps to secure it. To preserve it. Cities like Woodside, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, Atherton, etc. Their model is to operate withing their means and not to be dependent on future growth. Conversely, they actively discourage growth. Sure they support projects to improve, update, and upgrade residential and commercial properties, but not for the purpose of adding to the residential or working population. I don't know about you, but these towns still seem like a nice place to live. People seem happy there. Their government works. Police are paid well. Their schools don't suck. People still want to move there.

Luckily there are options for everybody. If you are looking for denser housing, more urban options, Redwood city is fantastic. Try Mountain View. Equally wonderful. If you want cheap, look east of 101. If you want what Menlo Park offers, then that cost more. I'm sorry that it does, but it does.

I, for one, would really like for the citizens and leaders of Menlo Park to have this discussion *together* about the future vision for the city. What do *we* want this city to be? Then lets set a course to lock in that future in. If everybody decides that we want more people, more apartments, more traffic, then fine. At least everybody will have their opportunity to weight in. For now, Development rules as king.

3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 24, 2015 at 10:38 am


They had the discussion. It took years. And it was resoundingly supported by the citizens of this town when they soundly defeated Measure M.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 24, 2015 at 10:39 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"city leaders are making these decisions (bedroom community vs. job community) without the informed consent of the citizens of Menlo Park. "


A 4 year long Downtown Specific Plan process.

Dozens of properly noticed public meetings.

All with ample opportunity for public comment.

A sound defeat of Measure M?

Who exactly is not being listened to?

6 people like this
Posted by Change the Law
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 24, 2015 at 11:38 am

Agreed that the downtown specific plan had its fair share of input -- and I participated. But that study, and Measure M, were focused on downtown and the areas along El Camino and then primarily only with office and retail space. The discussions seldom strayed from "downtown" issues and quickly became mired in minutia. Planning issues and arguments about upper-story balconies and if they should count as open space or not.

My points, concern, and comments are about the long term vision for the entire city. Big picture, where are we headed? What do we want be in 10, 20, 40 years? 35,000 people 45,000, 60,000 people? We have not had that discussion. And so far as I can tell, there is no resistance toward increased densification at present.

5 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 24, 2015 at 11:56 am

really? is a registered user.

@ change the law:

There are two very different Menlo Parks that should not be confused with Los Altos or Woodside. Downtown, M2 etc. need revitalizing as proven through the DSP and the other discussions about commercial property currently. The residential end of Menlo Park is under McMansion development pressure. Would you consider curtailing or down-zoning West Menlo Park to keep it from bulking-out? You might just have a revolution on your hands but I'd support you. After that, if you don't want growth in our community the only solutions seem to be raising the crime rate to scare people off and more contraception.

6 people like this
Posted by residential community?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 5, 2015 at 3:34 pm

There has not been a city-wide conversation about the future of Menlo Park. Sorry, neither the DSP and Measure M were not that at all. And if you think most people in Menlo Park understand zoning or town planning, I have a bridge to sell you.
The General Plan update should be that conversation, but city hall deliberately has concentrated the focus on one part of Menlo Park rather than on the ramifications to the entire town.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenson
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 5, 2015 at 8:58 pm

@ residential community

Do you have any proof on your accusation of city hall and the general plan

"city hall deliberately has concentrated the focus on one part of Menlo Park rather than on the ramifications to the entire town"

Like this comment
Posted by Resident observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 6, 2015 at 8:54 pm

nearly all community meetings about general plan have been in belle haven, the zoning changes ato be considered are in m-2 at council direction

1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 7, 2015 at 7:43 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

State Law requires that the General Plan cover the entire City and that it be updated regularly.

"California state law requires each city and
county to adopt a general plan “for the physical
development of the county or city, and
any land outside its boundaries which bears relation to
its planning” (§65300). The California Supreme Court
has called the general plan the “constitution for future
development.” The general plan expresses the
community’s development goals and embodies public
policy relative to the distribution of future land uses,
both public and private."

"Geographic Comprehensiveness
The plan must cover the territory within the boundaries
of the adopting city or county as well as “any
land outside its boundaries which in the planning
agency’s judgment bears relation to its planning”
(§65300). For cities, this means all territory within the
city limits, both public and private."

"“The general plan shall
consist of a statement of
development policies
and shall include a
diagram or diagrams
and text setting forth
objectives, principles,
standards, and plan
proposals.” (§65302)"

"Equal Status Among Elements
All elements of the general plan have equal legal
status. For example, the land use element policies are
not superior to the policies of the open-space element."

2 people like this
Posted by residential community?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 7, 2015 at 10:02 am

@Peter C Menlo Park has not updated the General Plan since 1994. Individual parts have been updated at different times. Is that compliant with the law?

2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 7, 2015 at 12:43 pm


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