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.