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.