After two years and more than 60 public meetings, a set of policies for what can get built in Menlo Park has been approved by the Menlo Park City Council.
On a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Ray Mueller opposed, the council agreed Nov. 29 to make major changes in the city's general plan for development. The council was scheduled to give final approval to the changes at its meeting on Dec. 6.
Zoning changes in the city's M-2 area (roughly bounded by San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road) will allow the construction of 2.3 million additional square feet of nonresidential buildings, 400 hotel rooms and 4,500 residential units.
Such development will add to Menlo Park a total of 11,570 residents and 5,500 workers between now and the year 2040, the general plan predicts.
While the plan is expected to be good until 2040, a city's general plan should realistically be updated every 15 to 20 years, said City Manager Alex McIntyre, since even the best predictions don't always accurately foresee future needs.
The general plan update project, which had been set back from its original completion date by several months, comprised thousands of pages of data and feedback accumulated over many hours of public meetings.
A few last-minute items were added:
bull; Rat poisons will be banned from use, at the request of Councilwoman Catherine Carlton.
bull; Required electric vehicle chargers will be more powerful, at the request Councilwoman Kirsten Keith.
bull; There will be a check-in on the project in two years, per Mayor Rich Cline's request.
bull; Affordable housing, as a community amenity for developers to provide, will be given clearer priority.
Councilwoman Keith asked the council to consider changing the required affordable housing contribution for residential developments to 20 percent of all units, up from 15 percent.
After Mayor Cline and Councilman Peter Ohtaki raised concerns about not having data to determine whether that would be economically viable, Mr. Ohtaki suggested enumerating the priorities of what community benefits developers would provide in exchange for increased project density (more floor area per acre), which increases the value of the project for the developer.
The primary requirement is for 15 percent of all residential units to be designated as "below market rate." In exchange for the city allowing increased project density – know as the "bonus level" of development – additional affordable housing units up to 20 percent will be required, according to Principal Planner Deanna Chow. Then, if a larger contribution is required from the developer, a community amenity would be provided.
The requirements are different for commercial and retail developers. They will be required to pay into the city's "below market rate" housing fund regardless of whether they build at the base or bonus level, she said. When those developers build at the bonus level, they will be required to provide a community amenity.
When the affordable housing units are built, preference for occupancy will be given to people from Belle Haven who have been displaced.
At the Nov. 29 meeting, Menlo Park developer John Tarlton requested changes in the zoning policies for life sciences operations, such as biotech firms.
He told the council that biomedical labs have energy needs that are different than those of standard offices. He said those biomedical operations shouldn't be forced into compliance with the city's proposed sustainability standards for offices.
In the end, the council agreed to his requests.
Buildings on properties smaller than 2 acres won't have to be built 2 feet above the flood plain, as originally required, though the adjusted height should be "reasonably" maximized. Some buildings can share floor-area ratio, a measure of building density; and lab areas will be excluded from the environmental sustainability requirements.
Opposed to the approval of the general plan update was Councilman Mueller. He asked that the approval be delayed about two months to identify major infrastructure projects and potential funding methods that may be needed to accommodate the new residents and workers that the newly allowed development could add.
He also wanted time for the Planning Commission to look into establishing phases to slow office development so it doesn't outpace housing and retail development.
Charlie Knox, the city's head consultant on the project, said he hadn't seen any other cities' general plan updates include the kind of detailed projections for major projects that Mr. Mueller requested.
Other cities, such as Sunnyvale and Mountain View, do have "phasing" policies to pace development, he said. Sunnyvale's Lawrence Station area plan says that the second half of the allowed office space can't be developed until the first half of the allowed housing is built. Mountain View's North Bayshore plan has established thresholds on the allowable number of vehicle trips that new development can add.
City Attorney Bill McClure told the council that it can still impose phasing requirements, or even adopt a moratorium, after the general plan is approved.
Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman told the council that the fire district has some unresolved problems with the city's development plans, and proposed that their respective consultants talk to each other.
The city and fire district consultants' analyses differed on what the fiscal impacts would be on the fire district and what fees, if any, might be fair for the fire district to ask of developers to cover those impacts.
John Tenanes, Facebook's global director of real estate, said of the plan in a written statement: "It will help unlock solutions that will ultimately improve the quality of life in the Belle Haven neighborhood and the whole of Menlo Park, by focusing on sustainable development, regional collaboration, and economic benefits. ...
"We think staff has done a very good job in laying out what will come next: a comprehensive traffic update to support the proposal. The Plan does not approve any specific projects. Rather, it sets the stage for responsible growth, and avoids the inevitable problems occasioned by further delaying the process or doing nothing at all."
Lingering questions about the city's transportation infrastructure needs may get answered when Menlo Park embarks on the transportation master planning process. That process is expected to start in January and run for 18 months, according to Transportation Manager Nikki Nagaya.
Moving forward, several commenters such as lawyer Tim Tosta and Planning Commissioner Katherine Strehl, told the council that the time has come for Menlo Park to look outside its boundaries for help with problems, especially related to traffic, that it can't handle alone.
"Let's get that regional coalition together," said Mayor Cline. "After all this work, what we may have is a good start."