Menlo Park: Traffic woes lead to divide over general plan

General plan update goes to City Council on Nov. 15

This is an expanded version of a previously posted story.

By Kate Bradshaw | Almanac Staff Writer

With the Planning Commission's members down to four (three commissioners recused themselves due to personal connections to the area under discussion), the commission found itself at an 11 p.m. divide on Oct. 24. The commission split 2-2 on whether the city's general plan update is OK as is or should be refined to address citywide traffic problems.

This was the last meeting on the general plan update before the City Council reviews the proposed changes to city zoning that could allow construction of 2.3 million additional square feet of nonresidential buildings, 400 hotel rooms and 4,500 residential units in eastern Menlo Park. The update would also reclassify roadway designations citywide.

The general plan update will go before the City Council for possible approval at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

How planning commissioners voted

Commissioners Larry Kahle and Andrew Barnes voted to recommend the changes be approved by the City Council as proposed, with a recommendation to "use all means possible to push regional transportation solutions forward," in the words of Commissioner Kahle.

Mr. Barnes pointed out the regional nature of much of Menlo Park's traffic problems."There are things in Menlo Park we can control, (and) things we cannot, which require regional work on this," he said.

Commissioner Henry Riggs pointed to the large amount of development in the works, with the Menlo Gateway hotel and Facebook's expansion, which the commission discussed recently. "Not a single tenant vehicle has hit the streets yet," he said. "Before any of this (proposed changes to the general plan) turns into buildings, we are going to see significant impacts on our transportation."

Mr. Riggs said he found the proposed changes in the general plan "to be a good plan except for one element, and it's a key element. ... Where do the transportation mitigations come from?"

Mr. Riggs said he thinks the city should spend a few more weeks to develop specific alternative transportation plans and find possible funding sources before approving the changes.

With the existing state of clogged roadways throughout the city, he said, alternative transportation should be a bigger part of the general plan changes. The city should lay out specific milestones or deadlines to ensure the transportation network gets improved while development happens, he said.

"(It) means more than handing out bus passes," he said, hinting a resurrection of the Dumbarton Rail project should be a priority.

Katherine Strehl, who chairs the Planning Commission, agreed with Mr. Riggs that Menlo Park was not doing enough to address transportation problems, and they were not ready to stamp their approval of the proposed plans just yet.

With regard to large-scale infrastructure needs laid out by Mr. Riggs, Commissioner Strehl said: "I think it'll be a Herculean task to get anything done. Menlo Park on its own could push and shove and scream all they want with the regional agencies, but there are other fish that are pushing and shoving. I don't think we should be naive about what kind of influence Menlo Park might have."

In the commission's eight-plus hours of discussion over two meetings, several other key issues with the general plan update remain unresolved.

Fire safety

One point that became clear during the meetings was that the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is angry that the city is not considering adopting development-impact fees for the fire district.

The fees would be paid by developers based on the floor area of new development. The money would go to the fire district to expand its facilities and equipment to provide services to the new development and the additional workers and residents.

The Belle Haven fire station, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said, needs to be expanded. That station is only 21 years old, and the district doesn't want to rebuild it.

That said, Chief Schapelhouman added: "We're addressing the growth. We're addressing what's in front of us. We're addressing millions of more square feet and thousands of new people. And then we read in the plan that any impacts to the fire station are less than significant. Really? Seriously?" he asked the commission incredulously.

"We're not looking for problems anywhere, we just want to have responsible and prudent growth in the community."

Water conservation

If the proposed zoning changes go through and the land gets built out to the maximum of what's allowed, and a multi-year drought happens, Menlo Park could find itself facing a considerable water shortfall, said Azalea Mitch, senior civil engineer.

To improve water efficiency, one proposed general plan change would require new buildings 250,000 square feet or larger to have their own water recycling system.

Richard Truempler, vice president of real estate development at the Sobrato Organization, asked the commission to waive the requirement, and instead require residential developments over 250,000 square feet to install the necessary plumbing to connect to a recycled water network, if and when it becomes available. The Sobrato Organization owns property that is slated to be rezoned to allow residential/mixed-use development.

According to Ms. Mitch, getting a network to distribute recycled water in that area is a long-term project and could require cooperation with Palo Alto or Redwood City.

Affordable housing

Mr. Truempler also asked that the city allow developers to construct affordable, or "below market rate," housing in a building that is separate from, but perhaps adjacent to, market-rate housing. Opinions varied on the subject.

Maya Perkins, a Menlo Park resident, said she wanted the housing designed so that tenants from different income brackets are integrated into the same building.

"I think for people to have a healthy, culturally diverse experience, (they) need to live all together and not have some families go into the poor building and some families go into the market-rate building," she said.

Lily Gray of MidPen Housing said that in her experience, it's been easiest to get housing units built when developers have flexibility in where they build affordable units and what category of below-market-rate housing are built (for instance, for tenants who are low income, very low income, or extremely low income).

Corporate housing

Several commissioners asked why, in the final draft of the general plan update, the new zoning category of "corporate housing," appeared on the map by Facebook only.

The zoning change would allow up to 1,500 dorm-like housing units, where tenants would not be able to have children, pets or spouses who don't work there.

The housing would have no parking, but tenants could use Facebook's existing parking spots, according to Principal Planner Deanna Chow.

Those conditions were reportedly studied in the environmental impact report on the general plan update, but not in the draft fiscal impact analysis. When consultants from BAE Economics ran the numbers in the final fiscal impact analysis, the expected revenues for the city declined somewhat because property-tax revenue from dorm-style housing would be lower than that from larger apartments, according to Ms. Chow.

The expected increases in student population at local schools were also lower, because there would be no children living in the units.

The final fiscal analysis shows the city's expected annual revenue following the full potential buildout citywide would be $8.3 million, down from a previously estimated $9 million.

The Bayfront?

The possibility of calling the proposed rezoned area east of U.S. 101 "the Bayfront" resurfaced; planners months ago had reverted to calling the area "the M-2."

According to consultant Charlie Knox, "Bayfront" was initially proposed as a substitute for M-2, which describes the area's zoning designation as "light-industrial."

However, the Bayfront name was dropped after opposition was raised by Belle Haven residents, who in public meetings expressed concern that the new title would create undue distinctions between their neighborhood and the M-2 area's neighborhood-to-be, once housing is allowed to be built there.

The Planning Commission agreed to pass the naming question along to the City Council to iron out.

The general plan update will go before the City Council for possible approval at its scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15.


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6 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 3, 2016 at 1:48 pm

"This was the last meeting on the general plan update before the City Council reviews the proposed changes to city zoning that could allow construction of 2.3 million additional square feet of nonresidential buildings, 400 hotel rooms and 4,500 residential units in eastern Menlo Park. The update would also reclassify roadway designations citywide."

While I generally support the proposed zoning changes, ESSENTIAL traffic mitigation plans including infrastructure investments must be identified and sized plus likely funding sources identified before ANY MAJOR developments can be approved. Piecemeal and incremental City decisions will inevitably produce traffic nightmares.

6 people like this
Posted by Longview
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 3, 2016 at 9:04 pm

It seems to me blindingly obvious that if continue to allow commercial development, our town becomes a worse place to live. Maybe our property values continue to climb and so we make money off it or our kids do when we die.

Every time I read about our elected officials approving more office space or dense housing I just feel sad to see such a beautiful town slipping away.

And one a big building is built it never gets unbuilt.

2 people like this
Posted by MLK
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 4, 2016 at 7:11 am

It seems Kahle and Barnes have learned very little from the problems associated with the Stanford/Arrillaga project where traffic mitigation was not properly addressed. There was enough community uproar to send that project back to the drawing board. They seem prepared to kick the can down the road again, this time with fire safety and water shortage problems also "less than significant". Maybe this time Peter will be on our side (that being the one that says put the solutions in place before you approve the plan).

Like this comment
Posted by JR
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Kudos to ALL OF YOU for recognizing the tremendous need to provide housing near the jobs your plan changes will create. Additional traffic mitigation measures - bikes and public transit- would be great, but you've already addressed 90% of the issue by planning for housing near those jobs. Very thoughtful. If you could please call your counterparts in Brisbane and tell them how this is really the only way to mitigate traffic, the rest of the Bay Area would cheer you on!

4 people like this
Posted by blindness to the obvious
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 4, 2016 at 1:35 pm

The best solution to traffic problems is to allow only that commercial development which is proportional to the amount of housing and infrastructure available. Even though not all who live here would work here and not all how work here would live here, but the closer the numbers are, the more likely there would be fewer commuters. Menlo Park does not have the capacity to absorb all the growth that is proposed. Those are the obvious truths that decisionmakers are willfully ignoring as they blindly proceed anyway towards approving a General Plan.

4 people like this
Posted by Jenson
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 5, 2016 at 12:23 am

More development that creates more traffic, roads congested all day long, bicyclists and pedestrians in danger on many roads from traffic are full blown out of control problems. On top of that there are office buildings throughout the city already built that remain empty but let's build more. Commuters cut through all the residential streets surrounding Willow Rd all day long, Ravanswood Ave is so crowded it take two or three light changes before you can get onto El Camino.
City council does not care about traffic or residents safety as long as the city gets its money. The balance needed between housing and office buildings for proper growth has gone off the deep end resulting in our roads being choked by traffic. To expect any remedy from our council is a pipe dream. Unfortunately it will continue with Facebook getting everything it wants as long as they throw dollars at the city. Hotels and office space will soon clog El Camino past the point of sanity. It takes 20 minutes to drive from Middlefield road to hiway 101 when using Willow road at 4pm ..... oh wait, did I mention the sunset magazine development. Great idea, City Council has lost its mind

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