An expanded version of an earlier story
At Menlo Park's standing-room-only goal-setting meeting last week, the City Council's decision on its top five do-or-die list of priorities signaled a shift in its attention to the city's downtown and traffic problems:
● 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 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 – will get done this year.
A parking structure downtown has been discussed for years – notably when the city created its El Camino Real/downtown specific plan – but has taken a backseat to other developments within the plan area.
Now, pressure for a structure appears to be building. In December, a group of Menlo Park businesses and its customers submitted a petition to the council in favor of constructing 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. 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 hasn't been established, but a movie theater and housing mixed in with a parking structure have been discussed.
A proposed project to build a new main library wasn't added as a top priority on the city's work plan, but City Manager Alex McIntyre said staff will continue to work on the project, and will plan for the third and final public meeting to discuss possible siting for the proposed library on Thursday, Feb. 15.
According to the findings of the satisfaction survey, released in January, there does not appear to be the support of two-thirds of likely voters needed to pass a bond measure that would raise the needed $30 million for a new 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 to help rebuild the main library. He has offered to cover the all construction costs after the first $20 million and an expected $10 million in soft costs.
The proposed renovation of the Guild Theatre was the newest of the council's identified priorities, but the project has actually been in the works for some time. According to Drew Dunlevie of the Peninsula Arts Guild, he approached Councilman Ray Mueller about the concept in May 2017, looking for advice on how to deal with city councils. Originally, Mr. Dunlevie said, he didn't think Menlo Park would be interested and envisioned the venue for Redwood City or East Palo Alto. At the time, Mr. Dunlevie said, Mr. Mueller told him he thought the concept could work in Menlo Park and encouraged him to speak with other people about it, such as fellow city council members; theater owner Howard "Sandy" Crittenden; city staff; and Judy Adams, founder of the "Save the Guild" effort.
"They all seemed to really understand why this is a great thing for the town," Mr. Dunlevie said.
Charter, minimum wage
In addition to the proposals for the Guild Theatre and a new parking garage, the council agreed to add some legal projects to its work plan: continuing to look into what it would take to become a charter city, and exploring a minimum wage ordinance.
If Menlo Park were to become a charter city, it could explore alternative voting systems, and have more flexibility to customize other aspects of its governance. City Attorney Bill McClure said he thinks there is a way for the city to bring the matter before voters sooner, and flesh out the specific details of what provisions would be in the charter later.
The city had also preliminarily discussed a minimum wage ordinance in early 2016, but talks stalled after the state passed its own minimum wage law.
Neighboring Palo Alto and Mountain View have already passed minimum wage ordinances and Redwood City is considering one. In San Mateo County, only the city of San Mateo has an existing minimum wage ordinance, while Belmont, Brisbane and Daly City are considering them, according to Redwood City staff.
Most of the Bay Area cities that do have minimum wage ordinances have opted to accelerate the timeline at which the $15-per-hour minimum wage is implemented rather than align with the state's timeline. Mountain View's increase in minimum wage to $15 an hour took effect Jan. 1; Palo Alto's is currently $13.50 and is slated to rise to $15 an hour next Jan. 1.
Statewide, the minimum wage is now $10.50 and is set to rise to $15 per hour by 2022. After that, it will rise up to 3.5 percent per year, based on increases in the Consumer Price Index, an indicator of the cost of living.
If Menlo Park opts to move forward with a minimum wage ordinance, it will have to figure out how to enforce it. The city of San Mateo and cities in Santa Clara County contract with the city of San Jose for enforcement.
Housing, child care
Despite requests by members of the public to prioritize both affordable housing and the expansion of child care opportunities and facilities in the city, those topics were not directly addressed on the city's work plan.
Mr. McIntyre said the City Council has permitted a dramatic increase in market-rate and affordable housing units over previous years, and continues to "work with land owners and developers to try to get more affordable housing units out there."
He noted that there are still opportunities for the city to pursue adding below-market-rate units as secondary uses at city-led projects such as a new library or parking structure.
Angie Evans of the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council said her organization is trying to push cities that have public land available to use it to build affordable housing, since one of the biggest barriers to getting affordable housing built in the region is that land is so expensive.
As of June 30 of last year, the city had $18,652,660 in its below-market-rate housing fund.
Three-fourths of the land in San Mateo County is designated as protected, and of the remaining quarter, two-thirds is zoned for single-family homes, Ms. Evans said. That leaves little space available for adding housing density.
Another problem several attendees asked the council to address is the shortage of child care and early childhood education facilities in the city.
According to David Fleishman of the Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County, there have been two studies done countywide assessing the needs and the facility requirements for child care and early childhood education in the community. Those assessments indicate there is unmet demand for child care slots for 322 infants and 456 preschool-aged kids in Menlo Park. Based on conservative population increase projections by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the numbers are expected to rise to a shortage of 424 infant and 584 preschool spaces by 2025.
There are currently 1,756 infant and preschool child care spots in the city, the report says, about 20 percent of which are subsidized. The report also notes that 53 percent of the city's child care centers are open to expanding.
To address this shortage, Mr. Fleishman said, there are a number of policies that cities can adopt, such as leveraging impact fees on new developments or removing extra fees or red tape that burden and slow the opening of new child care facilities. Cities like San Mateo and South San Francisco have impact fees to support child care facilities, while Redwood City is working toward removing extra fees for child care providers.
"With many commercial and residential projects in the development pipeline, the City should be mindful of how increases in the number of residents or workers coming in to the city (will) put pressure on the already strained child care supply, just as these increases impact housing, traffic, K-12 schools, and other critical community issues," Mr. Fleishman wrote in a letter to the council.
Some other items that were requested and not added to the work plan were: annexing a triangle of homes in West Menlo Park bounded by Sharon Road, Santa Cruz Avenue and Alameda de las Pulgas; forming a quiet zone along the Caltrain tracks; starting a public arts program or arts commission; bringing a measure to voters to raise taxpayer funds; and initiating a policy requiring council members to publish their weekly calendars.
City officials report that the city is experiencing a widespread staff shortage that will diminish the staff's capacity to complete council-directed tasks; the situation worsens the longer positions remain unfilled. As of Jan. 30, the city was down about 37 full-time employees, according to Administrative Services Director Nick Pegueros.
Cities and consulting firms that work in transportation and planning around the region are all short-staffed, making recruiting a challenge, according to Mr. 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 employee 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, with some offering better pay or shorter commutes.
"It remains a poaching game," he said. "All we're doing is poaching each other's candidates."