A proposed development at 1300 El Camino Real by local developer, Greenheart Land Co., has cleared the second to last hurdle in Menlo Park's approval process, winning an endorsement from the city's Planning Commission on a 6-0 vote (with commissioner Susan Goodhue absent) on Dec. 12.
The approval process called an "Icelandic saga" by Greenheart principal developer Steve Pierce for its glacial pace appears closer than ever to a conclusion: receiving permission to begin the two-plus-year process to build 420,000 square feet of offices, housing and retail space in downtown Menlo Park.
The last hurdle is to get final approval from the Menlo Park City Council, which is expected to review it early in 2017.
The project, originally submitted to the city in 2013, has had some modifications, but as it now stands today, would have up to 204,000 square feet of offices, 183 rental apartments, and up to 29,000 square feet of "community serving" space for uses such as shops, restaurants, personal services and banks. The development would have a two-story underground parking garage and a small amount of surface parking adding about 991 spots.
Of the 183 rental apartments, 98 would be one-bedroom units, 77 would have two bedrooms, and eight would have three bedrooms.
The office buildings would be three stories tall and the residential building, four stories. Most of the parking would be underground, leaving open space between buildings for a courtyard with an amphitheater-type area and outdoor dining.
Since Greenheart wants to build more than the base amount of development allowed under the city's specific plan for the downtown area, the company had to negotiate with the city and agree to provide benefits that will serve Menlo Park residents. As part of the development agreement, which the City Council has approved, Greenheart would give $2.1 million to a Menlo Park "public benefits" fund, guarantee $83,700 a year in sales tax revenue for the city, market the office space to tech incubator-type entities (to try to get more "innovative" businesses in town), and build and maintain a public-access dog park.
The developer would also provide 20 apartments to renters below market rate 14 will be for low-income tenants and six for "workforce" housing (renters who make 100 to 120 percent of the median income).
Greenheart has proposed to cut down 59 heritage trees and plant 99 new trees. The city usually requires new trees be planted at a two-to-one ratio when existing heritage trees are felled. Instead, the developer said the 99 new trees will be larger than required, a step approved by the city arborist, according to a staff report.
The Planning Commission's discussion focused on details: whether a curb should be changed here; whether the arched entries were big enough; what after-hours security would be like on the site. To the latter question, Mr. Pierce responded that Greenheart would be in charge of security for the public access areas and the private residential areas.
Of the members of the public who commented on the project, seven supported it, and two expressed reservations about specific impacts the development could have.
Former Planning Commissioner Vincent Bressler said the project shouldn't be approved because of the danger it could cause by bringing much more traffic so close to the Oak Grove and Glenwood avenue railroad crossings.
Greenheart's Mr. Pierce said that nothing in the project's design would prevent the city from moving ahead with any of the options it's considering for "grade separations" separating the roadway from the track it crosses.
Menlo Park is studying three options: (1) running Ravenswood Avenue under the Caltrain tracks; (2) separating Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues from the tracks by raising the rails and tunneling the road underneath; (3) adding the Glenwood Avenue crossing to option 2.
In an email sent before the meeting, former planning commissioner Patti Fry said she wants to see more public benefits from the project, more housing, a trip cap on the development, and more clarity about the kinds of businesses included under the category of "community-serving uses."
Supporters of the project appeared to agree that it is time for the development to move forward. The project complies with the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan, speaker Skip Hilton told the commission, and could help create the vibrancy envisioned by the plan. The goals of the plan, he said, have not "really come to fruition."
"We've seen what Redwood City has built, and frankly, I'm a little jealous," Menlo Park resident Joe Moeller said. "To think we might be able to have this in our community it's a pretty exciting thing."
Several commissioners pointed out that they had already seen the project several times before and were comfortable with it.
"We have seen this off and on for quite a while," said Commissioner John Onken. "There has been more than due diligence on this."