News

Council takes hard look at eastern Menlo Park plan

Two years in, Menlo Park's plan to convert the city's former light-industrial and warehouse district into a high-density office, housing and biotech hub is hitting some snags.

The plan, known as ConnectMenlo, was expected to be decidedly forward-looking, evaluating city conditions out to 2040, but in the two years since the plan was approved, much of the new commercial development it allows has already been claimed by developers.

Of the permitted uses for growth in that plan, which covers the area roughly bounded by San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road, 73 percent of the available commercial space and 69 percent of the available office space have already been claimed by developers, and already developers want to build 57 more hotel rooms than the city permitted.

In contrast, only 46 percent of the available number of housing units have been claimed, and only 16 percent of the available square-footage to be dedicated to life science use has been claimed, according to numbers in a staff report.

Congestion a key concern

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As the city conducts its two-year review of the plan, some residents in the neighborhood closest to all of the new planned development, Belle Haven, are crying "enough." Some planning commissioners are also grappling with how to give their blessing to anything new, even developments that aim to minimize new vehicle traffic, given the hellish traffic in the area.

"It feels like the residents have been scammed," neighborhood resident Sheryl Bims told the City Council at its Tuesday (March 26) night meeting.

As part of the planning process that went into the plan's approval, neighborhood residents helped put together a list of "community amenities" the city should require of developers for constructing bigger, taller buildings than would otherwise be allowed. The final list was a menu-type document that lays out the different priorities, ranked according to survey responses. They include things like improvements to sidewalks, lighting and landscaping, a grocery store, restaurants, a pharmacy, an ATM, job opportunities for residents, improved educational opportunities for residents, and tree planting.

Residents say they haven't seen any of the benefits they've asked for since the plan was put into effect two years ago, even while they continue to bear the impacts of ever-worsening traffic conditions. These worsening conditions aren't due to the zoning changes, since none of the proposed buildings has been constructed yet, as much as to traffic flowing to places to and from Menlo Park, since the neighborhood is at a key nexus for motorists traveling across the Dumbarton bridge across the Bay.

This is worsened by the fact that the neighborhood is a triangle with few outlets, accessible only by the major commuter arteries of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road. Residents say they routinely get stuck waiting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock just to travel the few blocks to leave their neighborhood.

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"You don't see what kids go through, what drive-through traffic is like," said resident Vicky Robledo. "It takes 20 minutes to go one block," she added.

Mayor Ray Mueller said he voted against the plan initially because it lacked an infrastructure plan to address the traffic problems so much new development would bring.

He also directed staff to look at the potential impacts of Senate bills 330 and 50, both of which could restrict cities' ability to curtail housing development.

The council's discussion was considered a study session, so no decisions on the topic were made.

Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor said she wants to see other conditions enforced with developers in development agreements, such as a requirement to hire local residents.

Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said she wants to make sure new developments are held to the "highest standards possible" for environmental sustainability, and that she isn't interested in expanding the number of new hotel rooms the plan permits.

Councilman Drew Combs said he takes issue with the city calling the "ConnectMenlo" rezoning a "general plan update" because it applies only to one part of the city.

Councilwoman Betsy Nash said she is interested in reconsidering the amenities on the list, and asked questions about what a development moratorium could mean for the proposed projects.

City Attorney Bill McClure explained that a developer doesn't have vested rights in a project until construction has started, unless a development agreement has been reached – though that wouldn't prevent litigation.

Feedback brought forward from the public and council members is expected to be reviewed and brought back to the council for more discussion at a future date.

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Council takes hard look at eastern Menlo Park plan

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Wed, Mar 27, 2019, 1:27 pm

Two years in, Menlo Park's plan to convert the city's former light-industrial and warehouse district into a high-density office, housing and biotech hub is hitting some snags.

The plan, known as ConnectMenlo, was expected to be decidedly forward-looking, evaluating city conditions out to 2040, but in the two years since the plan was approved, much of the new commercial development it allows has already been claimed by developers.

Of the permitted uses for growth in that plan, which covers the area roughly bounded by San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road, 73 percent of the available commercial space and 69 percent of the available office space have already been claimed by developers, and already developers want to build 57 more hotel rooms than the city permitted.

In contrast, only 46 percent of the available number of housing units have been claimed, and only 16 percent of the available square-footage to be dedicated to life science use has been claimed, according to numbers in a staff report.

Congestion a key concern

As the city conducts its two-year review of the plan, some residents in the neighborhood closest to all of the new planned development, Belle Haven, are crying "enough." Some planning commissioners are also grappling with how to give their blessing to anything new, even developments that aim to minimize new vehicle traffic, given the hellish traffic in the area.

"It feels like the residents have been scammed," neighborhood resident Sheryl Bims told the City Council at its Tuesday (March 26) night meeting.

As part of the planning process that went into the plan's approval, neighborhood residents helped put together a list of "community amenities" the city should require of developers for constructing bigger, taller buildings than would otherwise be allowed. The final list was a menu-type document that lays out the different priorities, ranked according to survey responses. They include things like improvements to sidewalks, lighting and landscaping, a grocery store, restaurants, a pharmacy, an ATM, job opportunities for residents, improved educational opportunities for residents, and tree planting.

Residents say they haven't seen any of the benefits they've asked for since the plan was put into effect two years ago, even while they continue to bear the impacts of ever-worsening traffic conditions. These worsening conditions aren't due to the zoning changes, since none of the proposed buildings has been constructed yet, as much as to traffic flowing to places to and from Menlo Park, since the neighborhood is at a key nexus for motorists traveling across the Dumbarton bridge across the Bay.

This is worsened by the fact that the neighborhood is a triangle with few outlets, accessible only by the major commuter arteries of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road. Residents say they routinely get stuck waiting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock just to travel the few blocks to leave their neighborhood.

"You don't see what kids go through, what drive-through traffic is like," said resident Vicky Robledo. "It takes 20 minutes to go one block," she added.

Mayor Ray Mueller said he voted against the plan initially because it lacked an infrastructure plan to address the traffic problems so much new development would bring.

He also directed staff to look at the potential impacts of Senate bills 330 and 50, both of which could restrict cities' ability to curtail housing development.

The council's discussion was considered a study session, so no decisions on the topic were made.

Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor said she wants to see other conditions enforced with developers in development agreements, such as a requirement to hire local residents.

Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said she wants to make sure new developments are held to the "highest standards possible" for environmental sustainability, and that she isn't interested in expanding the number of new hotel rooms the plan permits.

Councilman Drew Combs said he takes issue with the city calling the "ConnectMenlo" rezoning a "general plan update" because it applies only to one part of the city.

Councilwoman Betsy Nash said she is interested in reconsidering the amenities on the list, and asked questions about what a development moratorium could mean for the proposed projects.

City Attorney Bill McClure explained that a developer doesn't have vested rights in a project until construction has started, unless a development agreement has been reached – though that wouldn't prevent litigation.

Feedback brought forward from the public and council members is expected to be reviewed and brought back to the council for more discussion at a future date.

Comments

ineffective leadership
Menlo Park: other
on Mar 28, 2019 at 12:06 am
ineffective leadership, Menlo Park: other
on Mar 28, 2019 at 12:06 am

We agree with Mayor Mueller that this plan was lacking. The incompetent subcommittee members that oversaw the creation of this lacking plan should resign from office.


Blame it on the old Council
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 28, 2019 at 7:42 am
Blame it on the old Council, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 28, 2019 at 7:42 am

Many subcommittee members voiced opposition to the plan at the time the City Council took up the vote whether to pass it. They argued more work was needed. The Planning Commission didn't approve the General Plan either.

Still, the City Council passed the plan 4-1.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 28, 2019 at 11:42 am
Peter Carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2019 at 11:42 am

"Councilman Drew Combs said he takes issue with the city calling the "ConnectMenlo" rezoning a "general plan update" because it applies only to one part of the city."

Combs is exactly correct and the city's subterfuge in using Connect Menlo as an "update" of its entire General Plan was illegal and should be challenged in court.


Dawn1234
Registered user
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm
Dawn1234, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm

Hey Almanac--

I've brought this up before, but it seems it needs to be brought up again. Belle Haven is NOT eastern menlo park. Also its not east menlo park. I get why "people" use the term, but I expect more of a news organization. Belle Haven is actually the northernmost neighborhood in our fine city. If you must define it by compass, use that. It's also closest to the bay, so you could use geography. Please make this a permanent correction in your reporting. It is misleading and perpetuates old neighborhood stereotypes.


Lynne Bramlett
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 28, 2019 at 1:20 pm
Lynne Bramlett , Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2019 at 1:20 pm

The Belle Haven Community has requested a community-led master or neighborhood plan. Community leaders, stakeholders and small business owners should drive this process.

In contrast, the Connect Menlo process was staff-driven. The 15-member advisory committee included David Bohannon, a major conflict of interest. That amounted to putting a fox on a committee to redesign a hen house. I'd like to know what the courts might think of his presence on a process to increase high-density zoning that would materially benefit Bohannon's business. Maybe they would overturn the Connect Menlo zoning decisions.

I agree with Rachael Bickerstaff's online comments that "it's time for the City Council to take back control of how [MP] is run..." in clear reference to staff running Menlo Park.

I think that Staff has successfully been running MP for years, but I see hope in our new Council. My late neighbor and friend, Andy Cohen, also believed that Staff run MP. We need a new approach. However perhaps well-intended, something has gone terribly wrong in MP. The residents and small business owners seem to be the least important groups in town, while there is too much focus on serving the interests of developers and large companies.

A more holistic approach to planning, with measures and regular review, would help. Any advisory committee for such planning should be designed so that those who will be most impacted by decisions, are the ones driving the decisions.


Tech leaders need to engage on this.
another community
on Mar 29, 2019 at 10:02 am
Tech leaders need to engage on this., another community
on Mar 29, 2019 at 10:02 am

Palo Alto has a similar problem. Even though PA has upzoned very large areas close to transit to include housing, the city is not getting the housing proposals in the numbers the city hoped they would with these changes. Why? Big tech is using nearly all available local developer capacity to build offices. They are using so much of local developer and development consultant resources there is little left to build housing.

Tech is not including much housing in their development proposals, but they have made office development so profitable, it is ridiculously difficult for cities to get housing built. The developers are simply NOT interested in building housing.

Tech companies say this is "not their problem to solve." Their employees need to let them know they are wrong about that. Tech companies are creating this problem. The need to play a role in solving it. Cities cannot solve it with the tools they have (zoning and code and impact fees) if the tech companies are using all of the development resources.

So...cities and citizens need to call on tech leaders to use their formidable leverage (development MONEY) to incent developers to build housing. How do they do this? I can think of lots of ways.

1). Incorporate housing in major tech projects/campus planning. Insist that these things be built simultaneously. Cities might explore some new zoning incentives that could push companies to cooperate.

2). Tech companies must acknowledge that government and market forces cannot solve this problem for you. They must find meaningful ways to let developers know that housing your employees is important to you. Ask developers how much housing they have built in proximity of your latest office project. Rank developers on their housing production performance. Use those rankings as you award office projects.

Tech is creating a gigantic mess that they seem to expect everyone else to solve for them. Their workers (and everyone else) are paying burdensome costs for housing because of the jobs /housing imbalance they are exacerbating. Tech leaders must own this problem and participate in solving it.

Or maybe consider moving parts of their businesses somewhere where their workers (including their lower paid admin and janitorial staffs) can be housed.


Kate Bradshaw - Almanac Reporter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 29, 2019 at 12:30 pm
Kate Bradshaw - Almanac Reporter, Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
Registered user
on Mar 29, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Hi Dawn1234,

Thanks for bringing this point up. I agree that it doesn't always make sense to call the Bay side of Menlo Park "eastern" or "east", geographically-speaking. On one hand, for better or worse, most people on the Peninsula use El Camino Real and U.S. 101 as their north-south axis, and we try to orient our readers to directions they understand. On the other, we want to avoid using charged and/or misleading language. I spoke with my editor and we agreed that the "Bay side" of Menlo Park is more geographically accurate, so we're going to aim to use that to describe that part of the city from here on out. But we're certainly open to other suggestions as well. You can reach me at [email protected]


BH resident
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 29, 2019 at 12:36 pm
BH resident, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 29, 2019 at 12:36 pm

Menlo Park needs a vision for itself--its history, architecture, and culture. The previous city council had zero vision and was totally reactive, and now we're stuck with all these plans that they approved. I have hope that the current leadership knows vision is vital or you'll have a city without a soul.
In addition, the residents of Belle Haven were completely misled by the previous city council and the litany of paid consultants. The amenities that were promised to Belle Haven residents never materialized and the city leadership should be ashamed of that legacy--and seek to make amends for it.


Dawn1234
Registered user
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 3, 2019 at 6:45 pm
Dawn1234, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
Registered user
on Apr 3, 2019 at 6:45 pm

Thank you so much, Kate! That was great responsiveness to an issue that was first brought to my attention by Rose Bickerstaff and has made slow change since then. Seeing it in the Almanac was nice boost. Thank you for making the effort to be more accurate, while still being clear.


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