Progressing through a series of votes during a goal-setting meeting on Monday (Jan. 29), the Menlo Park City Council slowly winnowed its goals for 2018 to a list of five do-or-die priorities:
● Complete the citywide transportation master plan
● Focus on safe routes to school initiatives
● Update the city's Downtown Specific Plan
● Work toward building a parking garage downtown
● Support a proposal to renovate the Guild Theatre into a community-focused event venue.
Those priorities are in addition to the one truly "mandatory" task, which the city must do or risk a lawsuit: switch to a district-based election system before the November elections.
This list doesn't mean that the other projects the city has been working on will necessarily fall by the wayside, according to city staff. But there's no guarantee that other projects not on the top-five list – including the top 18 projects on the city's overall work plan – can get done.
During the four-hour-plus goal-setting session, the council opted to refocus its attention on the city's downtown and traffic problems.
Recently, a group of Menlo Park businesses and its customers submitted a petition to the council in favor of building a downtown parking structure. And in the city's recent satisfaction survey, polling indicated that up to three-fourths of respondents favored a parking garage of some kind, although how tall it should be and whether other uses would be permitted are questions still up in the air.
According to Community Development Director Arlinda Heineck, the city's Downtown Specific Plan would have to be revised to allow a mixed-use parking structure. What other uses might be allowed there haven't been established, but the concept of a movie theater or housing mixed in with a parking structure have been mentioned.
It's as yet unclear what taking the proposed new main library off the priority list means for that project. According to the findings of a satisfaction survey released earlier this month, there does not appear to be sufficient public support for a bond measure that would raise the $30 million for the main library and $20 million for a new Belle Haven library.
The city would need to come up with about $30 million to take advantage of an offer by local developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga, who has said he would cover the remaining construction costs after the first $20 million and an expected $10 million in soft costs.
The council also opted to separate the effort to build a new Belle Haven library from the main library initiative in its work plan and retain the Belle Haven project as a high priority – though not as a "top five" initiative.
The city is experiencing a widespread staff shortage that, the longer positions remain unfilled, will diminish the city's capacity to complete the tasks the council wants done. As of several weeks ago, the city was down about 35 full-time employees.
Cities and even consulting firms that work in transportation and planning around the region are all short-staffed, making recruiting a challenge, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre.
Menlo Park Human Resources Manager Lenka Diaz said that on average, the city takes about 100 days between starting to look for a new hire and making a final offer.
According to Mr. McIntyre, some Menlo Park staffers get unsolicited calls from other cities asking them to come work there without applying – some offering better pay or shorter commutes.
"It remains a poaching game," he said. "All we're doing is poaching each other's candidates."