"Public benefits" was a refrain at the Nov. 16 Menlo Park Planning Commission meeting, this time with regard to Pollock Financial Group's proposal to build a four-story "boutique" hotel on a half-acre site at 1400 El Camino Real.
The issue: Should the city's 12 percent hotel tax count as the development's primary public benefit, which is given in exchange for allowing the developer to exceed the city's "baseline" building limit for the site?
In 2012, Menlo Park raised its hotel tax, known as a transient occupancy tax, to 12 percent from 10 percent in a ballot initiative, Measure K, that was approved by 74 percent of the voters.
The ballot measure stated that the tax would partially fill a $1.2 million revenue gap created when the state dissolved Menlo Park's redevelopment agency. That funding would be used "to maintain current City service levels for police, library, streets, sidewalks, storm drains, and parks and recreation facilities and programs," the measure said.
Jeff Pollock, vice president of Pollock Financial Group, said the hotel is expected to generate $8.5 million in transit occupancy tax revenue over 10 years, and approximately $600,000 in its first year.
Other public benefits include the developer's plan to pay for the installation of a dedicated right-turn lane from Glenwood Avenue onto El Camino Real. The hotel also would be LEED Silver certified, although, according Planning Commissioner Katie Ferrick, that level of sustainability is not much higher than California's current building standards.
New curbs, gutters and landscaping would be installed. Once in operation, Mr. Pollock said, the hotel would support local businesses, such as serving Beltramo's wine to guests.
Planning Commissioner Drew Combs noted that if the primary benefit were to be city income from the hotel tax, it might set a precedent for retail developers to think sales tax could count toward the public benefit requirement. Ms. Ferrick replied that the transit occupancy tax is "orders of magnitude" greater than other tax incomes for the city and constitutes a separate category that should count toward the development's public benefit requirement. "It's not a slippery slope," she said.
Even though the hotel's proposed architecture complies with the specific plan, questions were raised about whether it is too corporate or bland. Planning Commissioner John Onken encouraged the developers to go back to their architects, "crack the whip, and tell them we want it to really sing," referring to the building's design.
"Don't be afraid to go bold with this building and do something that's a little bit different," Planning Commissioner Larry Kahle said.
Mr. Pollock said he hopes to have the redesigned hotel plans resubmitted by Thanksgiving.