What can the city of Menlo Park do to improve its downtown?
After the city spent five years, from 2007 to 2012, trying to answer that question, it came up with the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the City Council began its first biennial review of the plan.
Council members offered direction to the city staff on a list of recommended changes.
No votes were taken, but the council appeared to generally concur on a number of changes.
Public benefits fund
Creating a fund separate from the city's general fund would allow the city to earmark fee and public benefit payments from developers to be used specifically for downtown improvements. At present, all developer fees go into the city's general fund and may be spent elsewhere in Menlo Park's budget.
The idea was put forward by the Planning Commission in its last meeting, and was generally supported by council members. Councilman Peter Ohtaki asked if city revenue generated by its 12 percent hotel tax downtown would also be included in those earmarked funds.
The council wants staff to propose new parking standards for buildings in and around the Caltrain station area, as well as hotels and "personal improvement services," such as fitness studios.
Parking requirements, council members said, should create enough spots to prevent "spillover" the term for when parking is so limited that people's only recourse is to park in residential neighborhoods yet not create so much parking that it reduces incentives to bicycle or use alternative modes of transport.
The parking rate emerged as a problem in the eyes of several planning commissioners recently when developers of a planned three-story office building at 1020 Alma St. were required under the specific plan to install 75 parking spaces in an expensive two-story underground lot, even though the site is across the street from the Caltrain station, and many potential workers there would be able to ride the train.
Councilman Rich Cline asked transportation manager Nikki Nagaya point-blank if the city's current parking requirements were too high. Her response? A simple "yes."
Council members agreed with staff that setting procedures for "transportation demand management" basically attempting to reduce single-occupancy car trips was important.
Menlo Park has already agreed to a county framework to measure how many trips new development might add, but it has yet to create standards for exactly what level of added trips would be permissible.
To promote low and zero emissions and fuel-efficient vehicles, the staff recommended creating requirements for office developments to install electric vehicle charging stations.
Setbacks and sidewalks
The staff proposed changes to clarify rules for setbacks (how much a building should be set back from its property line) and to allow variances in the maximum front and side setbacks. This would allow developers to customize their plans to better protect heritage trees, for example.
A sidewalk width would be set for streets currently without sidewalks.
In addition, the maximum signage area, which is capped at 100 square feet, could be expanded for bigger developments. The change was proposed by Steve Pierce of Greenheart Land Co., which is proposing to build an office-housing complex on 6.4 acres at 1300 El Camino Real. He said that with a development this size, with multiple retail sites, the allowed space for signs "just doesn't cut it."
At the council's Dec. 15 meeting, the staff plans to check back with the council to make sure the guidance was clear, and then move forward with analyzing the impact of those changes and drafting language for council approval.