At its last meeting of 2015, the Menlo Park City Council again discussed its vision for the future of Menlo Park's downtown area on Dec. 15, as part of the biennial review of the city's El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan.
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton phoned in from China about halfway through the meeting.
Using a list of ideas generated from previous discussions, the council voted 4-0 in favor of a number of changes, including clarifying rules for setbacks, setting sidewalk widths for new areas, adjusting parking requirements, and earmarking public benefit fees paid to the city for downtown projects.
The council also dealt with eight broader changes that the council had previously recommended, and the city staff has given its feedback on:
● Hotel tax. The council voted 4-0 (with Catherine Carlton absent) in accordance with staff recommendations to revise the FAR (Floor Area Ratio) standards to specify that hotels "may be permitted at the Public Benefit Bonus levels without a study session or additional discretionary consideration." The city allows developers to exceed certain development limits, such as height and square footage, if they provide public benefits. The council also asked the staff to gather information about other hotel incentive programs.
● Public benefits. The council agreed to create a list of needed public benefits some of which may be considered as infrastructure projects, Councilman Mueller said to include the expected cost of each project and funding options. The list would be vetted by city commissions and reviewed annually by the council during its capital improvement plan funding process.
● Affordable housing. Senior Planner Thomas Rogers said that no "below market rate" housing units have been built within the downtown area, but proposed developments would trigger the requirement for the construction of some in the future. Mayor Rich Cline said this was an area he considered a top priority, and Councilwoman Keith said she wanted to "spend more resources to figure out how to get more affordable housing into the downtown specific plan." A motion to add more affordable housing in the downtown specific area and authorize more research of what can be done including hiring a consultant if necessary passed 5-0, with Councilwoman Carlton present by phone.
● Downtown parking garage and entertainment venue. A motion to allow the city to do a study of a downtown parking garage, which could include a portion for entertainment purposes, passed 4-1, with Mr. Cline dissenting. He said that without the approval of downtown businesses, such as Flegel's and Draeger's, he could not support the motion. The parking/entertainment venue combo was initially proposed by Mr. Mueller, who said that building a movie or community theater in combination with a parking garage would be one way to get entertainment downtown, since space for the number of parking spaces a theater would need would be difficult to find. He had wanted to request proposals for the project from the private sector, but the city had already authorized a feasibility study of the project, so it will continue that study, only now with authorization to consider a non-parking part of the structure.
● Downtown style guide. This item, which would set more specific guidelines for new downtown architecture, was dropped almost immediately, after the staff report suggested that not only would the staff require additional technical expertise, but that a community-wide consensus would be needed on what Menlo Park should establish as a standard architectural aesthetic. That could be a lengthy and contentious process, the staff said. Councilman Ohtaki, who had originally proposed it, said he "raised the white flag."
● Grade-separated crossing of Caltrain at Middle Avenue. The council agreed that the staff has been making progress on this plan, as evidenced by its pending grant application that would fund initial planning and the environmental review process.
● Parking requirements. The council agreed to wait until the city hires a transportation demand management coordinator before investigating a policy change that would allow new businesses to pay a fee to the city in exchange for having to create fewer parking spaces. The council also asked staff to look at other cities with similar programs, such as Palo Alto and Redwood City.
● Architectural flexibility. In agreement with staff recommendations, the council said the architectural requirements in the downtown specific plan were working to create visually interesting buildings and no changes should be made at present.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that the council voted that the transient occupancy tax would be counted during negotiations of public benefit. It has been clarified to state that due, in part, to the transient occupancy tax hotels provide to the city, the council agreed with staff recommendations to revise the FAR (Floor Area Ratio) standards to specify that "hotels may be permitted at the Public Benefit Bonus levels without a study session or additional discretionary consideration."