The Menlo Park City Council is poised to approve zoning changes to the portion of the general plan governing the city's M-2 area, east of U.S. 101, when it meets on Nov. 29. If the update is approved, the action will conclude a two-year process that included dozens of community meetings and deliberation by city advisory committees and commissions, as well as the council.
Has the process gone on long enough? Is it time to approve these changes and put the new zoning policies in place to help ease the city's increasing burdens of transportation congestion, the housing shortage and other growth-related challenges the general plan is designed to address?
Advocates for delaying the City Council's action make a persuasive case for waiting until early next year before approving the updated plan, which is intended to guide growth in the M-2 (light industrial) area for the next 30 years.
The proposed zoning changes to the plan would allow construction of 2.3 million square feet of nonresidential buildings in addition to what is there now and what is allowed under the current zoning. It also allows 4,500 new residential units and 400 new hotel rooms in addition to what is now permitted. Among other goals, the proposed plan is designed to mitigate the impacts of growth on the nearby Belle Haven neighborhood by directing developer fees and efforts toward amenities for that community.
The proposed changes have been crafted during an intensive, painstaking process that city staff, participating community members and the consulting firm Placeworks deserve much credit for. But we agree with City Councilman Ray Mueller, two planning commissioners and a number of residents who have been involved in the process that not all the pieces of the puzzle are in place, and that with a bit more time, the general plan update will be a more solid document.
Although the proposed plan has reasonable allowances and limits on housing and commercial development, what it lacks is specifics regarding how -- and when -- the essential infrastructure will be put in place to support that development. Details on funding infrastructure, including transportation features and systems to allow recycled water to flow as the area absorbs nearly 12,000 new residents and 5,500 new employees, are inadequate in a plan that is to see the community through the next 30 years.
"We want the housing to come in, and we want transportation improvements in the area, but right now ... we don't know what the costs would be" to put necessary supporting infrastructure in place, Councilman Ray Mueller told the Almanac last week. "It's like a fiscal mystery grab bag."
Mr. Mueller said he is pushing for the council to delay its decision, estimating that the extra work needed to sharpen and complete the plan should take no more than one to two months. One provision that can be added to improve the plan, he said, is a phase-in formula for development, which would set milestones for specific areas of growth to ensure that the construction of commercial and residential projects doesn't outpace the building of supporting infrastructure.
This provision would add a wise, reasonable and responsible strategy to the general plan that would go a long way toward protecting residents from the cumulative effects of major growth. In approving a document that will govern how the already rapidly expanding M-2 region of the city will grow in the next three decades, the City Council shouldn't dash over the finish line before putting into place the final needed touches.
Related story: Today: Council could act on general plan changes.