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Year in review: Development dominates Menlo Park news in 2016

 

"Strong" was the word Councilman Rich Cline, who held the title of mayor at the time, used to describe Menlo Park during 2016. The strength of the city's economic fortune was reflected in the constant stream of news about construction, development and planning projects that characterized the year.

In January, Mayor Cline said he hoped 2016 would be a year when the city would "get things done," and the goal was met on a number of fronts.

Notably, the city completed its general plan update, establishing an outline for what could get built in the city over the next 25 years and clearing the way for the development and redevelopment of the city's M-2 area (formerly zoned for light industrial use and roughly bounded by San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road).

Changes in the general plan will allow the construction of 2.3 million additional square feet of nonresidential buildings, 400 hotel rooms and 4,500 residential units, which could add a total of 11,570 residents and 5,500 workers.

The city also approved a large expansion by Facebook. The company plans to construct three buildings where TE Connectivity buildings are now, all 75 feet tall: two office buildings totaling 962,400 square feet, and a 200-room hotel.

A proposed 420,000-square-foot mixed-use development by Greenheart Land Co. at 1300 El Camino Real came closer to approval. A public hearing before the City Council is expected in January 2017.

Construction began on two hotels: the 11-story, 250-room Menlo Gateway hotel at 100-190 Independence Drive, east of U.S. 101; and a 4-story, 61-room boutique hotel at 1400 El Camino Real. Each has promised the city new revenues from hotel taxes.

This year, the City Council made progress on some long-standing projects. Belle Haven will finally get two bus shelters, at Marketplace Park and the Onetta Harris Community Center. Santa Cruz Avenue west of downtown will finally get sidewalks, after work to replace the water main beneath the street is completed. The sidewalks will extend on the north side of the road between Olive Street and Johnson Street, and on the south side between Olive Street and Arbor Road.

Seven downtown raised platforms in front of restaurants and a shop on Santa Cruz Avenue are being installed and will allow more eating and shopping outside. An emergency well and a new police antenna/transmitter are also scheduled for construction.

Menlo Park also joined Peninsula Clean Energy, a group governed by representatives from San Mateo County and its cities that provides residents with electricity that is lower-cost and cleaner than PG&E.

Traffic

Residents, workers and commuters who frequent Menlo Park's roads likely felt that too much of 2016 was spent sitting in traffic.

This year, Menlo Park spent a lot of money and time researching ideas and planning designs for projects that could help reduce traffic in the future.

Among the initiatives:

• Funding has been secured to begin building a new interchange at Willow Road and U.S. 101, converting the "full cloverleaf" pattern to a "partial cloverleaf." A construction schedule is expected to be released soon, according to Transportation Manager Nikki Nagaya.

• A $1 million study of short- and long-term ways to reduce traffic on the Dumbarton Corridor by SamTrans, funded by Facebook. The study is expected to be done in mid-2017.

• A study of three options for where and how to separate Menlo Park's roads from where they cross Caltrain tracks, including at Ravenswood Avenue. As of now, all the options involve tunneling the roadway beneath the Caltrain tracks, and two of the options also involve elevating the Caltrain tracks.

• The city gathered enough funding in March to begin preliminary engineering work on a bike and pedestrian tunnel under the Caltrain tracks at Middle Avenue. The city will likely begin the process to select a consultant to work on the project in January, according to Ms. Nagaya.

• The City Council held a study session on building a parking garage downtown. In 2017, the city plans to organize a competition for developers to design a mixed-use parking structure, according to Jim Cogan, housing and economic development manager.

• A study of options to reduce traffic on El Camino yielded a suggestion to remove parking lanes and replace them with bike lanes. The council asked city staff to finalize analysis of this project early in the new year, Ms. Nagaya said. A regional effort called the "Grand Boulevard Initiative" aiming to make El Camino Real attractive for bikes, pedestrian and transit, as well as motor vehicles, has received funding to design road improvements for Menlo Park's neighbors, Palo Alto and Redwood City.

Housing

On the housing front, construction and project approvals continued. The council talked about creating more affordable housing and passed an ordinance requiring landlords of certain housing types to offer 12-month leases to renters. Kepler's Books hosted a forum on the topic.

New apartments were completed at 777 Hamilton Ave. Twenty-two apartments for teachers and public service workers will have rent subsidized by Facebook due to an agreement the company made with the city.

The first 65 units at the Anton Menlo apartment complex on Haven Avenue in eastern Menlo Park are expected to be completed by mid-February, according to Nick Linkert, project manager. Eventually, the complex will have 394 units.

Two complexes offering affordable housing to certain groups of renters were completed: 60 units at Willow Housing near the VA campus for homeless veterans, and 90 units at Sequoia Belle Haven on the 1200 block of Willow Road for low-income seniors.

Renovations at the Sharon Green apartment complex are planned for the coming months and are expected to result in higher rents.

Business

It was another year of change for Menlo Park businesses.

Beltramo's Wine and Spirits, which had been operated by the Beltramo family since 1882, closed, and a fitness equipment store moved in.

The U.S. Geological Survey announced it would leave its Middlefield Road offices and relocate to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View over the next five years.

Competition with local fitness studios and a rent increase caused Menlo Pilates and Yoga to close at the end of the year, though its instructors will continue to teach locally. The city lost two longstanding barber shops: Golden Shears and Moses Hairstyling.

As may be expected in the hometown of the venture capital firms of Sand Hill Road, startup companies continue to spring up.

Spaces, a company that offers co-working office spaces for startups and small businesses, opened an operation at 101 Jefferson Drive in Menlo Park. Quarterly events, when local artists can show and sell their work, will be held there in 2017, the company says.

The Cuckoo's Nest, a members-only venture capital and startup hangout near a residential area along Willow Road, backed down from its application for a liquor license after many neighbors complained. Meanwhile, Cafe Zoe did receive permission to sell beer and wine, and now stays open later.

Menlo Park-based innovators debuted the "world's largest molecular food database," a machine that automates apple picking and a tool to measure infants' exposure to language.

SRI International celebrated its 70th year.

Menlo Park was named the U.S. city with the largest number of registered commercial drones. The city banned the use of remote-controlled airplanes and drones in its parks. A company asked the City Council to think about allowing a fleet of ground delivery robots to take on delivering goods across town. (That may still happen.)

And Menlo Park's biggest company, Facebook, continued to earn large profits and expand, adding new workers and traffic, but also city revenue and funding for local nonprofits.

Schools, institutions

An enrollment increase in the Menlo Park City School District led to the completion and opening of a new campus for Laurel Elementary students in grades 3-5. Long conversations were had about the best course of action for keeping young cyclists and pedestrians safe on their way to school.

Casa dei Bambini, a preschool in Menlo Park's M-2 area, closed after the family-run location was not able to afford a rent increase.

The group that has administered and helped staff St. Patrick's Seminary since it began in 1898, the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice, said it will stop providing "administrative leadership" to the institution after the current school year ends in mid-2017.

Other Menlo Park institutions, the fire district and the library, both celebrated their 100th anniversaries in 2016. Both appear to be thriving.

The Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce brought back its "Golden Acorn Awards" ceremony after a several-year hiatus.

Politics

While the surprising results of the presidential election overshadowed other races, Menlo Park's council election generated buzz when newcomer Cecilia Taylor, a resident of Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, challenged the two incumbents running for re-election, Ray Mueller and Catherine Carlton.

The incumbents won, but Ms. Taylor was a fairly close third. After the election, former Mayor Rich Cline said he wanted the city to begin discussions about how to get better representation from Belle Haven on the City Council.

Menlo Park drew some big-name visitors this year: Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel and Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spoke at a Kepler's event. Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security came to SRI International to present plans to contract with local startups to develop new technology.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, residents responded in a variety of ways. High school students at Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools staged peaceful protests. A candlelight vigil to "Make America kind again" was held in Fremont Park. A group of locals began to meet about what to do to show their support for undocumented local residents and asked the City Council to consider a ordinance to ban city staff from questioning residents' immigration status.

Under a separate initiative, the council agreed to consider an ordinance to ban city staff from making a registry that tracks residents by religious affiliation.

Losses

Menlo Park also lost several community members, among them former councilman Andy Cohen, Bishop Teman L. Bostic Sr. of the Mt. Olive Apostolic Original Holy Church of God, former Pastor Walt Gerber of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, former police detective Larry Shannon, and most recently, 14-year-old Aisea Mataele, a Menlo-Atherton High School student and East Palo Alto resident. Many others will be remembered and missed.

Did we miss something big that happened in Menlo Park this year? Email kbradshaw@almanacnews.com.

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