Menlo Park searches to define, prioritize 'public benefits'


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."

Wish list

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.

Mixed use

"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."

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Like this comment
Posted by change the plan
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 28, 2015 at 11:17 am

The only way to prevent the continued loss of shops and restaurants, and personal services, is to prevent offices and high office rents to displace them. We could lose the entire BevMo shopping center, and Safeway shopping center too, over the next 27 years (remaining life of the downtown plan) unless actions are taken.

There should be more required on El Camino and Alma at ground level. All projects should be mixed use if they include offices.

The Council needs to modify the plan in the ways Mueller suggests by lowering the point where public benefit is required, and to update the list of what public improvements are desired and how to fund them. The Council should negotiate all Public Benefit projects, not the Planning Commission. The draft plan was issued about 5 years ago. The Council needs to step up and make needed changes.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 28, 2015 at 11:27 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"The Council needs to modify the plan in the ways Mueller suggests by lowering the point where public benefit is required,"

And the result of doing that may well be vacant lots on ECR for decades to come.

Stanford has lots of other places to invest their time and energy rather than in a community that continually changes its mind.

3 people like this
Posted by Tom S.
a resident of another community
on Nov 28, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Mueller didn't advocate for lowering the public benefits threshold. But he didn't take it off the table either.

He asked for an analysis to determine how many public benefit projects that are being proposed are actually infrastructure projects, and what funding exists or is being projected to pay for those projects - and whether the funding for those projects is expected to come from public benefit dollars or developer fees or some other source.

Mueller actually expressed skepticism over using the public benefit process for infrastructure.

"I'm concerned that the public benefits process, which is an ad hoc political process, is not the best way to be funding infrastructure," Mueller said.

Like this comment
Posted by change the plan
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Changing the threshold for public benefit doesn't change the allowable development.

Regarding paying for public improvements heralded as part of the Specific Plan, how else to pay? It is incredibly unfair to saddle taxpayers with those costs when the developers have been given huge gifts of greater allowable development opportunities far above what was allowed before the Plan. The only way to have them help pay is through negotiated agreements.

1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 28, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Changing the threshold for public benefit doesn't change the allowable development."

If the City doubles the fee for you to build an otherwise allowable new home is that not a "change"?

What if the City decide that every new development of any size must pay a public benefit fee - is that not a change?

Why have a zoning ordinance if nothing that the zoning ordinance says can be depended on by property owners?

3 people like this
Posted by Richard Vaughan
a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2015 at 10:49 am

It seems to me that Menlo Park has never quite figured out what the term "Public Benefit" refers to. I refer to the
the Art Commission that was founded in 2000, based upon a MP City Council law. When that benefit was countermanded at the request of the Chevron owner, who didn't want to pay for any "art" in his remodel, this led to the en-masse resignation of the committee in protest.

Web Link
Web Link

So, what's it going to be? Can we learn from history or will this all be repeated again for a new city council and planning dept.? Is the goal to be more like Palo Alto, including art, space, bike lanes as a public benefit"? Or are you going to be like Redwood City and go for the increased downtown presence, which has effectively transformed the vista without taking much of a "public benefit" into consideration. I hope that MP can figure out a middle ground.
Regardless, given the traffic I encounter on MIddlefield, El Camino, and Valparaiso everyday will hopefully put to rest the quaint concept that we are a village. There needs to be SmartGrowth with an emphasis placed upon public transportation with increased access to downtown merchants. I have always liked the idea of an automated parking garage (thanks Peter C.). Add to that a dedicated ped. zone and more bike lanes on ECR and I'm a happy camper. My dream - get a boring machine from the Swiss and bring BART right under ECR from Milbrae to San Jose along with light rail from Facebook using the Dumbarton spur line..time to think BIG folks...

4 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 29, 2015 at 1:22 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.


we should close Santa Cruz ave and make it a pedestrian friendly mall, just like the Pearl St. Mall in Boulder, Co.. Web Link

It's a great space and very vital, in part because it is so pedestrian friendly.

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