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).