While the Menlo Park City Council decided to put off making any major decisions about the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan until a later meeting, it was clear at the March 12 council meeting that people are interested in participating in the process of reviewing the plan.
The plan, which the council approved in 2012, has gone through a review every other year since 2013. To date, about 84 percent of the 474,000 square feet of net new nonresidential development the downtown plan permits has been claimed by downtown development projects, and about 72 percent of the total new 680 housing units the plan permits have received entitlements, according to staff.
With the city coming up on the cap of what's permitted, a discussion is in the works about whether the cap should be revised or updated. In particular, some members of the community are requesting that the plan be re-evaluated so the city could consider permitting more housing – including more affordable housing – downtown.
According to staff, several local public agencies have raised concerns with the plan thus far.
The Sequoia Union High School District is worried about increased enrollment at its schools, increased traffic, and more noise and air pollution from downtown growth. The Menlo Park City School District is concerned about increased school enrollment without additional funding for the district in property taxes.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District is worried about the densities, heights and massing of new buildings, as well as a lack of backup water storage for fighting fires downtown.
One of the goals of the downtown plan was to "revitalize" the city's downtown, both along Santa Cruz Avenue and El Camino Real. But some say that progress on this front has been slow.
According to resident Evan Goldin, the closest businesses to his home are shuttered. "I'm tired of having a dreary neighborhood," he said.
Mayor Ray Mueller said he wants the plan to promote downtown improvements "organically." Past initiatives, such as approving changes to the Guild Theater and building street cafe areas on Santa Cruz Avenue, have been one-off projects, he pointed out. During the last review, the City Council suggested that staff look at how to preserve retail businesses, but staff members said they need further clarity on how to pursue that goal.
Community Development Director Mark Muenzer said, "As we move into amending the downtown specific plan, it's very important we do as much outreach as possible."
Several members of the city's Housing Commission, speaking as individuals during the public comment period, emphasized the need for the city to zone for higher-density housing, especially affordable housing.
"We will not ever get affordable housing on private land, because it's too expensive," Housing Commissioner Karen Grove said. She added that the commission would like to see public land dedicated to providing affordable housing – potentially as a shared-use project with a parking garage or other public use.
As for the next steps, Muenzer said, staff is likely to consider expanding the boundaries of the downtown specific plan, and might reconsider where multi-family housing could be zoned. If the council decides to move forward to explore further development downtown beyond what the current plan permits, additional environmental analysis would be needed and consultants would need to be hired, he added.
Council members agreed to give staff as long as needed to collect more data before scheduling a follow-up meeting.