During its review of the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan Nov. 17, the City Council decided the city needs to prioritize the "public benefit" projects it wants done, and determine how to pay for them.
City guidelines in the specific plan decree that new developments greater than a certain size or height have to pay extra fees or give something back to the community in the form of a "public benefit."
The problem, though, according to John Onken, chair of the city's Planning Commission, is that the language in the specific plan on what exactly a public benefit is or should be : and by extension, what developers should be prepared to give to the city : is nebulous at best.
A public benefit can be an architecturally engaging building that draws people downtown; an outdoor plaza accessible to the public; or sometimes, he said, "a large brown envelope full of cash" developers give to the city. (This metaphor drew a visible grimace from Mayor Catherine Carlton.)
With more clarity about what the city wants, Mr. Onken said, the Planning Commission could have greater authority to say, "We don't want your ice sculpture; we want your money instead."
To clarify what the city wants and to make the process clearer for developers, Councilman Ray Mueller suggested that the city create a "wish list" to prioritize public benefit projects. Each item would come with a price tag or cost estimate.
Several projects in greatest demand by the community are expensive infrastructure changes, he said. Could there be a better way to fund those projects than with public benefit fees, which only enter the city's coffers if and when developers want to build more than what the city's current zoning allows downtown? Why not increase fees all developers are required to pay, such as transportation impact fees and below-market-rate housing in-lieu fees, to leverage greater funding on the city's behalf?
If an analysis were to show that the only way to attain money for those projects was through public benefit funding, then, Mr. Mueller said, the city could think about lowering the project size at which developers are required to give public benefits. Doing so might increase the amount of funding available for the city's projects, but it might also drive developers elsewhere, he said, and in that case the city wouldn't get any funding.
"I'm concerned that the public benefits process, which is an ad hoc political process, is not the best way to be funding infrastructure," he said.
"Is the (specific) plan accomplishing what you want it to?" asked Patti Fry, a former planning commissioner and a Menlo Park resident, who urged the council during a public comment period to reflect on the impact the plan has had in its three years of implementation. She said that developments currently proposed to the city have skewed toward new office construction rather than retail or restaurants.
Councilman Rich Cline asked how the city can make sure it's getting a balance of residential, retail, restaurant and office uses in the development proposals it sees.
"That's a really good question," Senior Planner Thomas Rogers replied.
Ms. Carlton said that she'd like to see some way to "incentivize the kind of businesses we want," such as restaurants. Mr. Mueller said he'd also like to see improved family-friendly entertainment downtown. Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said a public benefits list should give priority to projects like affordable housing, traffic reduction and bike infrastructure.
Creating priorities is a learning process, said Mayor Carlton. "Every time we have a new business come, we're learning. And every time we do a public benefit, we're learning," she said. "We may not come up with the perfect list, but that doesn't mean we can't try."