Editorial: Key election issue: Addressing Bayfront area's general plan


Whether or not Menlo Park residents supported the general plan changes approved in late 2016 governing growth in the city's eastern region, it's likely that few could have predicted that the 25-year plan's cap on office space would be on the verge of max-out less than two years later. An argument can be made, however, that the city's paid staff, consultants and elected leaders, as they worked through the details of the plan, were less than attentive to the tendency of developers to push for projects that will maximize profit even when it's at the expense of the well-being of communities their projects will impact.

The City Council heard a report last week by staff revealing that developers have been submitting proposals for office space in the city's Bayfront area, east of U.S. 101, that already cumulatively surpass the limits the city set in November 2016 when the council approved general plan amendments for that area. If all proposals are approved, including the massive Facebook "Willow Village" project, the level of office development will exceed the general plan's limit by 768,614 square feet. (This doesn't factor in the square footage of existing buildings that would be razed a figure that would be subtracted as part of a "net new square footage" calculation.)

What's at stake with the staggering amount of pressure developers are now putting on the city to build far more offices in the area bounded roughly by U.S. 101, Marsh Road, the Bay and East Palo Alto is of great consequence to Menlo Park and surrounding communities, which are reeling under the weight of far too much traffic and far too little housing. While the demand for office-development permits is excessive in relation to the general plan, developers haven't been nearly as eager to submit proposals for housing, hotel rooms and space to accommodate life sciences firms.

The city's staff has presented four options for the council to consider in dealing with the situation: keep the current office cap as is; amend the general plan to allow more office development; require developers to apply for amendments to the general plan if they want to exceed the office space limit; or transfer some of the allowable space for life sciences into the office development category, which would open the door for more office space than the general plan changes, approved after much community outreach and costly city effort, allow.

We hope no one would seriously consider amending the plan to allow more office space or transferring life sciences space to enable more office development – suggestions that border on the ludicrous. The burden on infrastructure – mainly traffic and housing – is far less when jobs are created in the life sciences field than when new jobs are linked to office space.

And where will the housing to accommodate those people holding the new jobs be located with so much available space for new construction gobbled up by office development? It's not news to anyone in the area that our roadways are clogged – often at gridlock – because of the number of people coming to work here from faraway areas where they can find housing.

Neither the council nor staff has suggested a time frame for taking up this complex issue, which will require some tough decisions. Unless there is an urgent deadline involving approval of development proposals in the pipeline, the city should wait until a new City Council is seated in December. There will be at least one, and possibly three, new council members then. And it's certain that one new member will be from the area of town most dramatically affected by development in the Bayfront area regulated by the general plan elements in question: District 1, which includes Belle Haven and other areas east of U.S. 101.

Meanwhile, as the eight City Council candidates go about the business of asking voters for their support during this campaign season, residents should zero in on the candidates' positions on office development in the Bayfront area, and solutions for holding the reins on it while encouraging more housing, retail and other uses that meet the needs of residents, not just of developers.

(Read reporter Kate Bradshaw's story on the topic, Proposed growth along Bay far outpaces expectations).

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9 people like this
Posted by Responsible Planning
a resident of another community
on Aug 15, 2018 at 10:15 am

The City Council vote 4-1 to approve the General Plan without a Transportation Master Plan. There still is no Transportation Master Plan. The City staff member in charge of the Transportation Master Plan just quit her job.

The General Plan is a disaster to date. Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki voted for the General Plan.

The Almanac and a few public servants tried to warn them but the Council majority didn't listen:

“Editorial: Menlo Park general plan update promising, but not ready for adoption

The Menlo Park City Council is poised to approve zoning changes to the portion of the general plan governing the city's M-2 area, east of U.S. 101, when it meets on Nov. 29. If the update is approved, the action will conclude a two-year process that included dozens of community meetings and deliberation by city advisory committees and commissions, as well as the council.

Has the process gone on long enough? Is it time to approve these changes and put the new zoning policies in place to help ease the city's increasing burdens of transportation congestion, the housing shortage and other growth-related challenges the general plan is designed to address?

Advocates for delaying the City Council's action make a persuasive case for waiting until early next year before approving the updated plan, which is intended to guide growth in the M-2 (light industrial) area for the next 30 years.

The proposed zoning changes to the plan would allow construction of 2.3 million square feet of nonresidential buildings in addition to what is there now and what is allowed under the current zoning. It also allows 4,500 new residential units and 400 new hotel rooms in addition to what is now permitted. Among other goals, the proposed plan is designed to mitigate the impacts of growth on the nearby Belle Haven neighborhood by directing developer fees and efforts toward amenities for that community.

The proposed changes have been crafted during an intensive, painstaking process that city staff, participating community members and the consulting firm Placeworks deserve much credit for. But we agree with City Councilman Ray Mueller, two planning commissioners and a number of residents who have been involved in the process that not all the pieces of the puzzle are in place, and that with a bit more time, the general plan update will be a more solid document.

Although the proposed plan has reasonable allowances and limits on housing and commercial development, what it lacks is specifics regarding how -- and when -- the essential infrastructure will be put in place to support that development. Details on funding infrastructure, including transportation features and systems to allow recycled water to flow as the area absorbs nearly 12,000 new residents and 5,500 new employees, are inadequate in a plan that is to see the community through the next 30 years.

"We want the housing to come in, and we want transportation improvements in the area, but right now ... we don't know what the costs would be" to put necessary supporting infrastructure in place, Councilman Ray Mueller told the Almanac last week. "It's like a fiscal mystery grab bag."

Mr. Mueller said he is pushing for the council to delay its decision, estimating that the extra work needed to sharpen and complete the plan should take no more than one to two months. One provision that can be added to improve the plan, he said, is a phase-in formula for development, which would set milestones for specific areas of growth to ensure that the construction of commercial and residential projects doesn't outpace the building of supporting infrastructure.

This provision would add a wise, reasonable and responsible strategy to the general plan that would go a long way toward protecting residents from the cumulative effects of major growth. In approving a document that will govern how the already rapidly expanding M-2 region of the city will grow in the next three decades, the City Council shouldn't dash over the finish line before putting into place the final needed touches.”

1 person likes this
Posted by educated and compelling argument
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 15, 2018 at 12:29 pm

For an educated and compelling argument for approving the General Plan, listen to Harry Bims, PhD: Menlo Park General Plan Advisory Committee member, former Menlo Park Planning Commissioner, Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce Board Member, 15 year Belle Haven resident. Web Link

13 people like this
Posted by Traffic Hater
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 15, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Focus on traffic, not square feet or workers. Developers should be charged based on vehicle trips and parking spaces. Having more businesses and workers in Menlo Park is a good thing. Having too many cars and not enough housing is the issue.

Having apartments on 3rd and 4th floors over businesses is common in other areas to reduce traffic. Requiring businesses and residences to charge for parking and use the funds for better bike and bus improvements will reduce traffic.

Let's get creative. Free parking is not a right, its a subsidy we all pay for.

7 people like this
Posted by OldGuy
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Aug 15, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Even if the housing and jobs are balanced, there is little likelihood that traffic will drop, simply because the talent needed may not want (or be able to afford) to live in or near Menlo Park. Living close to where one works is fantastic, in my experience. But it is simply not an option for many.

Low-fare, well run public transit would make large developments in eastern Menlo palatable. Perhaps developers should have to pay into an endowment to support public transit.

17 people like this
Posted by Who is Driving the Bus?
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 15, 2018 at 4:37 pm

Who is Driving the Bus? is a registered user.

Menlo Park has approved more development than existing infrastructure can handle. Traffic congestion is only one impact that must be mitigated by developers. Water, schools and public safety services are all strained by development already approved. No more development should be approved until Menlo Park develops a comprehensive plan that addresses and mitigates all identified negative impacts. The needs of the Menlo Park Fire District and Menlo Park Police Department must be taken into account. The City of Menlo Park must assess impact fees to pay for new fire and police facilities needed to serve the new development. Handouts from Facebook and other developers are insufficient and open the door to corruption.

5 people like this
Posted by Proposal
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 16, 2018 at 9:41 am

Hold the cap on office development for 25 years. That's the plan that the community supported.

Raise the cap on housing. We are at crisis level, and every unit is needed, especially for both moderate and lower income levels.

No more luxury housing!

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