Housing near the train station, and whether there is enough of it, was a key issue raised March 21 during a Menlo Park Planning Commission meeting on Greenheart Development Co.'s proposed 420,000-square-foot mixed use development in downtown Menlo Park.
Greenheart plans to build 181 rental apartments (202,100 square feet), offices occupying 188,900 to 199,300 square feet, and retail space of from 18,600 to 29,000 square feet. The retail could include restaurants, shops and "personal service" business, such as a salon or yoga studio.
The commission held a study session on the project, which Greenheart is calling Station 1300 (named for its location at 1300 El Camino Real near the train station), and a public hearing on a draft environmental impact report.
Of the rental units, 21 would be "junior" one-bedroom apartments, 71 would be larger one-bedroom apartments, 82 would have two bedrooms, and seven would have three bedrooms.
Ten of the units would be "below market rate" and would have rent prices set according to a city formula, said Bob Burke, principal at Greenheart Land Co. Rent prices have not yet been determined, he said, as they likely won't be ready for occupancy until 2019. "We can't forecast that far out," he said.
Because Greenheart would build structures taller and larger than the base-level of development allowed on the site, the developer would have to provide some public benefit. The amount and nature of that benefit is something the city will hash out with the developer.
Greenheart has offered to pay the city $2.1 million as a public benefit. That amount is roughly equivalent to one-third of the value of the additional development allowed by the city, according to an evaluation by the consulting firm BAE.
Some planning commissioners, including John Onken and Susan Goodhue, said they'd like to see that $2.1 million invested in more below-market-rate housing units.
Others, such as Commissioner John Kadvany, said the public benefit money could be put toward a major infrastructure project the city is studying, such as a pedestrian/bike tunnel under the railroad track near Middle Avenue or a downtown parking garage.
Patti Fry, a former Menlo Park planning commissioner, said she would prefer the developer use the additional square footage allowed by the public benefit bonus for more housing, rather than more offices. Housing near the Caltrain station is one of the priorities of the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan, she noted.
Former councilman Steve Schmidt also called for more housing in the project.
"Menlo Park should build housing now while the zoning and the appropriate sites are available," he said in an email. "While the project may be in technical compliance with the Specific Plan, ... (the) project exceeds the base development for office, creating more local traffic problems and exacerbating the
Ms. Fry and several others, such as Commissioner Katie Ferrick, said the range of square footage for both office and retail space didn't provide enough clarity about the traffic impacts from the development. Also, they said, the traffic impacts could vary by the kind of retail that goes on the site whether it's restaurants, shops or "personal services" businesses, such a salon or yoga studio.
Both Ms. Fry and Ms. Ferrick cautioned against creating dead spaces where nothing is happening during long stretches of the day, such as at some kinds of personal fitness studios. "We need to make sure this is as lively as possible," said Ms. Fry.
Mark Spencer of W-Trans, a California traffic engineering consulting firm, analyzed the potential traffic impacts from the development.
The firm used models to project what traffic would be like under both short-term (2020) and long-term (2040) conditions. One mitigation measure analyzed was to change traffic signal timing on El Camino Real. That could help, Mr. Spencer said, but would only ameliorate traffic queuing by about 10 percent, if done well.
"A bit of congestion," he said, can encourage people to use other transit modes.
"You don't want to keep building your way out of congestion," he said, explaining that in his experience, it's more effective to get people off the road, using alternate transit modes, than to add more lanes.
Peak traffic hours in Menlo Park are lengthening, as local drivers well know. Mr. Spencer said evening traffic in Menlo Park used to peak between 4:30 and 6 p.m. Now there's a high amount of traffic as early as 3 p.m., and that's not just because of Menlo-Atherton High School, he said.
Willow Road is jammed from about 3 to 7:30 p.m. Traffic is already so bad that it doesn't take much new development to tip the traffic-impact scale to a "significant and unavoidable" level on downtown roadways, he said.
Clem Molony, who said he has lived in Menlo Park for 40 years, said the fact that the Greenheart development was "transit-oriented" and featured underground parking and open space were pluses for him.
Commissioners said they appreciated that 49 percent of the development's ground level would be open space, much of which would be open to the public. Some wondered if the public would actually use it as a public space, given its layout.
A public plaza, about half an acre in size, would be set between two office buildings, and would have an adjacent amphitheater area and possibly restaurants, Greenheart principal Steve Pierce said. There would also be a park open to the public.
Skip Hilton, a 23-year Menlo Park resident, said the mix of smaller rental units proposed in the project would increase the population density downtown, but still minimize the impact on schools.
The public comment period on the draft environmental impact report ends on April 4. Comments can be emailed to Thomas Rogers, principal planner, at: email@example.com or by mail to: Thomas Rogers, City of Menlo Park Community Development Department, Planning Division, 701 Laurel St., Menlo Park CA 94025.