Menlo Park: Hampton Inn project sidelined after split vote by Planning Commission

Members voted 3-1-1 not to approve it, but have to wait until next month for a formal vote

A rendering of the proposed hotel at 1704 El Camino Real. (Image courtesy city of Menlo Park/RYS Architects.)

A proposed Hampton Inn hotel on El Camino Real in Menlo Park was sidelined Monday night (June 24) when the city's Planning Commission voted 3-1-1 against approving the hotel. Commissioners also decided to continue further discussion of the matter to their next meeting, likely to be on July 22.

The plan for a three-story, 70-room hotel with an underground parking garage at 1704 El Camino Real has gone through numerous iterations since it was first proposed in 2016.

There is now a 28-room Red Cottage Inn there, and the developer, Sagar Patel, says his family has worked hard running the inn since 1994.

In order to build the new hotel at the density the owner has proposed, the city requires that a "public benefit" be provided to the community. Patel has asked the city to allow the hotel or "transient occupancy" taxes – a fee of 12% per hotel room per night that goes directly to the city – to qualify as the required public benefit.

The tax revenue has been accepted as the public benefit in past projects under the current El Camino Real/downtown specific plan zoning code - including the Park James Hotel and Marriott Residence Inn projects - but the residents near this proposed hotel have argued that it isn't enough to make up for what they believe will be adverse impacts to the neighborhood.

Patel talked about the work he's done with the neighbors to address their concerns, but residents still raised pointed objections to the development.

Among them: That the proposed white exterior would be visually impactful; that the proposed 8-foot-tall wall around the perimeter should actually be 13 feet and painted brown instead of white; and that the proposal, which has been redesigned multiple times with feedback from the nearby residents, "looks like a freeway motel."

Patel said that while he's been criticized for the "franchise of choice," the hotel will "look more and feel like a boutique hotel that … happens to have a Hampton Inn sticker."

Patel said he has revised a mid-process proposal to put the underground parking above ground - which would have saved money but which the neighbors disliked - because he "didn't want to fight the fight."

"We've had this property for a long time," he said. "We've toiled for a long time. For us to give up equity in this project is not something we take lightly."

A divided commission

The commission's vote highlights an ongoing philosophical tension among commissioners: Should members abide by the zoning laws and policies laid out in the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan and ConnectMenlo general plan update, which govern the two areas of town where most new development is occurring? Or should they take a more active stance against projects that, while fully compliant with these zoning laws and policies, some members oppose for other reasons?

Commissioner Andrew Barnes took the former position.

Given the steps the applicant has taken and what the rules have been up to now under the El Camino Real/downtown plan, he said, "I'm unable to find a reason why it doesn't conform."

Evaluating whether or not hotel taxes should be allowed to count as a public benefit, he argued, is above his "pay grade" (as a volunteer commissioner).

Commissioner Henry Riggs' response was mixed: He argued that the city took years to develop these plans to create consistent policies, but noted he did want a debate about whether hotel taxes should count as a public benefit. In addition, he argued, "The applicant here has worked with the neighborhood to a degree that, in 12 years, I have rarely seen." He ultimately abstained from a vote.

Commissioners Michele Tate, Camille Kennedy and Katherine Strehl voted against approving the project at all. As a result, the matter will have to be brought back to the commission because city staff wasn't prepared for that decision and must now draft new "findings" for why the project shouldn't be approved.

That means another public hearing and the potential for the commission's two absent members, Michael Doran and Chris DeCardy, to weigh in next time.

Kennedy said she didn't think the project should be approved because the "base" amount of development the downtown plan permits isn't good for the community anymore, let alone the "bonus" amount of development the plan allows if the developer provides benefits to the community.

Strehl said her most significant objection to the project is the proposal to accept hotel taxes as a public benefit.

The taxes-as-public-benefit debate, she said, is "something I think the City Council needs to grapple with. The sooner they grapple with it, the sooner this project can come back."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that Commissioner Riggs had voted in opposition to the motion to not permit the hotel; in fact, he abstained, but did support a previous motion to permit the hotel.


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9 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 25, 2019 at 12:36 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Dear Planning Commissioners,

Thank you for listening carefully to the concerns of the neighbors regarding this project and for your thoughtful and continuing deliberations.

Clearly the issue of what should be the standards for granting a Public Benefit Bonus and which body should make such a decision is a critical issue. The continuance of your deliberations to your July 22 meeting should provide the opportunity for clarification on this matter.

Peter Carpenter
140 Forest Ln

16 people like this
Posted by Good decision
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 25, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Most telling line:

"...the matter will have to be brought back to the commission because city staffers weren't prepared for that decision and must draft new "findings" for why the project shouldn't be approved."

Staff members need to realize that they work for all of us who live here, and that they don't just function as a rubberstamp for developers.

19 people like this
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Thank you, Planning Commission.

Transient Occupancy Taxes provide NO benefit to the public. No park, no greenbelt, no enhanced mobility for people or cargo, no community garden, no recreation or fitness facility, etc.
To the contrary, a larger hotel in this location is a disadvantage to entire community. It physically imposes not only on the residential neighbors but will bring additional vehicular traffic to MP's already inadequate & outdated "thoroughfares." Until MP coordinates with SamTrans and VTA to design more routes in which smaller buses provide better access within (& across) the community, no more large commercial or multi-residential buildings should be allowed in the downtown area.
The Patels are replacing the 17 room Garden Motel in downtown Redwood City with a new ~100 room Holiday Inn Express & Suites, having convinced Redwood City that increased transient occupancy tax is enough of a benefit to justify an under-parked 5 story behemoth in an already congested area. Please, let's not have MP succumb to the same lure.

10 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:41 pm

Watched it online- ridiculous waffling around. Maybe the outcome we want but maybe not the government we want.

5 people like this
Posted by Specific Plan?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:45 pm

The Specific Plan is now on life support.

2 people like this
Posted by No Easy Solution
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:48 pm

It is false to assume the city staff rubber stamps for developers. Has anyone talked with them or walked in their shoes? In my dealings with them on remodeling our home, they were very helpful in pointing out how our design conforms or not to current ordinance, what correction is needed for the application, etc to get approved by the PC. I viewed them as helping the property owner get their project approved and not rubber stamp any plan. If you were the property owner, you would want that assistance vs getting stonewalled by the city staff.

17 people like this
Posted by fire the staff
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:55 pm

With all the input from the public, both here and in the City's email log, it is incredible that staff was not prepared with findings needed to turn down the project. Those responsible should be fired.

Has Henry Riggs ever turned down a project?

13 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 25, 2019 at 5:09 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

A balanced staff report would have included the option of denying the project and suggested language for doing so such as " Project exceeds the base level FAR and fails to justify the granting of a Public Benefit FAR".

The staff report did not contain such an option because the staff perceives their role as getting projects approved - an unfortunate bias.

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 29, 2019 at 7:58 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here is why there should not be a Public Benefit Bonus for the Hampton Inn:

"Menlo Park tops San Mateo County cities with highest percentage growth in assessed property value

Menlo Park — with a 10.5% increase in assessed property value — edged out Foster City (10.2%) to lead the list of San Mateo County cities.

“It’s hard to celebrate tax assessment increases. But the flip side is that they are a reflection of the desirability of our community and the value people find in living and working in this special place,” said Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller. “And we at City Hall plan to keep working hard to preserve all the things we love about Menlo Park, that make it such a desirable place to live.”

Keep up that good work Mr. Mayor and city staff!!

7 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

According to the staff report the incremental TOT for the proposed Public Benefit Bonus level hotel, after subtracting the TOT currently being paid for by the Red Cottage Inn, is a net of $390,000/yr.

If a hotel were built that conforms with the Base Level FAR of .75 it would have about fifty rooms and would generate about $225,000/yr.

If the developer is gifted the Public Benefit Bonus FAR of 1.1 then an additional 20 rooms could be added. Those additional rooms would generate $165,000 of TOT.

Therefore the value to the city of granting the Public Benefit Bonus is only $165,000/year or $463/day.

Is that how little the City will take to screw up a neighborhood in this town?

1 person likes this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 11, 2019 at 6:02 pm

George Fisher is a registered user.

Peter. If the 10% occupancy tax is increased by $165,000 per year, how much would property owner get per year from increased number of rooms? Is tax paid by owner?, or added to occupant’s bill?

7 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 11, 2019 at 6:35 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If the 10% occupancy tax is $165,000 per year, how much would property owner get? $1.650.00

Is tax paid by owner? Yes

or added to occupant’s bill? Yes

The property owners net 90% or $1,485,000

The neighbors get zero plus all the negatives of a huge motel on a .8 acre site that does not even own the access to ECR.

As I stated previously the granting of a Public Benefit Bonus for this project is a cash cow for the city which gets the milk while the neighbors get the manure.

5 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 14, 2019 at 1:08 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

I really appreciate the Park Forest neighborhood (and the Almanac) for elevating the visibility of a key problem in Menlo Park: bonus-level development without an adequate public benefit policy.

I also recently wrote Council with ideas related to our current problems: Web Link

Please attend the July 15 (at 6 p.m.) City Council meeting as the agenda includes E5: which will include an update from the Council subcommittees working on most moratorium ideas related to development, planning, zoning, etc. Web Link

The July 16 Council meeting also includes I1: Willows Village EIR. In short major developments are moving along and anyone concerned is invited and encouraged to come and make public comments. It will take ample public opinion to help bring about needed change. Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by David Forter
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 14, 2019 at 2:58 pm

I doubt if most of the neighbors really noticed that the Red Cottage property, which is tucked into a primarily residential area, was part of the original Specific Plan. It doesn't even have frontage on ECL. It is connected to ECL via an easement where all exiting traffic must turn right on ECL. What happens to travelers who want to go south on ECL? They must find a U turn and add to our traffic woes.

Even if we didn't notice this "mistake" on the Specific Plan, we were comforted to know that this portion of the plan is labeled LOW DENSITY. I am not sure what low density means to the Planning Commission or the City Council, but it doesn't mean a massive hotel that is eligible for a Public Benefit Bonus that makes it even more dense. How in the world can low density possibly mean approving the maximum FAR? Maybe I don't understand the term low density. Or, maybe the Planning Commission doesn't understand that this portion of the Specific calls for low density.

What a minute. Most of the commissioners at the last meeting did understand it, because they voted against the project for granting a PBB. Why then did Chairman Barnes not accept the majority vote? Why is he so pro development on this project? Perhaps, he could recuse himself from the next vote and see what the will of the other commissioners and the neighbors really is.

2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 14, 2019 at 3:11 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Under Robert's Rules of Order the Chair could (but is not required) withhold his vote until the other members have voted:

".. if a majority vote is required and there is a tie, he or she may vote in the affirmative to cause the motion to prevail. If there is one more in the affirmative than in the negative, the chair can create a tie by voting in the negative to cause the motion to fail."

1 person likes this
Posted by Scott Barnum
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 15, 2019 at 9:01 am

There have been more than a few voices raised here in the Almanac on various occasions and in direct communication with the Planning Commissioners, City Council Members and Staff on this project. There are real and valid concerns here on this project that are representative of similar development questions in multiple neighborhoods throughout Menlo Park. And these concerns, whether they be Facebook or a hotel are only just starting to be listened to by our City’s leaders and administration.

Menlo Park needs to take a very considered and balanced hand in creating - codifying new regulations and modifying existing ones. The granting of the Public Benefit Bonus should only be considered and approved in very cogent and well defined situations that go well beyond a few incremental tax dollars to the City. And there should be clear and specific qualifications and considerations for the application of the PBB in a low density zoned neighborhood.

Let’s hold off granting the PBB on this project until a thorough review of the existing ECR Downtown Specific Plan and the application of the PBB application has been completed. And the City should also consider the many reasonable suggestions that Lynne Bramlett has made at the same time. While the developer here on this project is certainly seeking an immediate ruling, the vast majority of the many neighbors (150+) bordering the hotel have legitimate concerns about the new hotel’s impact on property values and quality of life. A large imposing hotel is something that we didn’t foresee or signed up for when we moved to this neighborhood.

If this lightening rod project is a catalyst to affect better codification of development direction and regulations for the betterment of the community, so be it! There is no better time than now...

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