After a muddled second round of talks on street development for a portion of El Camino Real near the Middle Plaza project, Menlo Park City Council came full circle from its last meeting on March 1 and voted Tuesday to accept the city staff's initial proposal to install a 2-foot wide median between Middle and College avenues by removing eight parking spaces around 401 to 441 El Camino Real.
City Council voted 3-2 at its March 8 meeting, with Cecilia Taylor reversing her "no" vote from March 1. Ray Mueller and Drew Combs were opposed.
The decision will also remove street parking by Stanford University's Middle Plaza — a new 429,739 square-foot development — and The Stanford Park Hotel, from 700 El Camino Real to the Menlo Park-Palo Alto city limit. Part of the rationale is that Stanford's development will provide ample on-site parking, and by removing the existing street parking, the city can consider adding a buffered bike lane in the future.
Perhaps one of the main roadblocks to the changes, however, was the eight parking spaces in front of the businesses between 401 to 441 El Camino Real, including Menlo Velo Bicycles, a UPS store, Level Lux Salon and Namesake Cheesecake.
In the March 1 meeting, City Council members hoped to find a solution that didn't eliminate those spaces. A few business owners have said they were crucial for customers who want to make quick stops close to the storefronts.
"Taking these parking spots away would be detrimental to my walk-ins, to my curbside pick-ups, to my senior citizens," Cherith Spicer, owner of Namesake Cheesecake, said in a brief interview.
City staff members tried to allay these concerns by proposing a one-hour time limit for residential parking spots on College Avenue that can fit about seven cars, 150 to 250 feet away from the businesses, which was approved with Tuesday's decision. The logic is that, with time restrictions, vehicles will have to move in and out of the spots, leaving space for customers throughout the day.
Vice Mayor Jen Wolosin added to last night's decision a direction to staff to look into changing two more residential parking spots in that area to timed spaces. She hoped that this, along with potential new customers from visitors of Middle Plaza, which is slated to open this year, will soften the immediate impacts.
Spicer said that she has no choice but to hope that the development will bring in more customers.
"What I'm losing is the 10 years of clients who are used to just swinging in," she said. "I would hope there's more (customers) but I can't count on that.
Assistant Public Works Director Hugh Louch outlined some short-term options the council could move forward with, if not installing the 2-foot-wide median now. One option is to retain parking by the businesses and the existing median, which consists of flexible posts, and move forward with the crosswalk. The City Council could also maintain the status quo but with additional direction to staff to explore different median options.
Council member Ray Mueller said he preferred the latter choice, with hopes that the city could move toward developing a protected bike lane on the side of the Stanford development.
To the surprise and concern of some council members, the item returned to the agenda just a week after City Council discussions.
Interim City Manager Justin Murphy said new information had come to light regarding Stanford University's construction timeframe for the median, which is why he was compelled to quickly bring it to the council again.
Murphy later told The Almanac that there are several near-term projects that Stanford needs to finish at the Middle Avenue and El Camino Real intersection, including a southbound left-turn lane from El Camino into the Middle Plaza development as well as the crosswalk and median.
"They need that entire intersection built, fully operational — all vehicular-turning movements, all pedestrian movements — prior to occupancy and (Stanford is) on track for late summer," Murphy said.
But council member Drew Combs chided Murphy that a timeframe was something that council never approved.
"You're saying, 'Oh, there is now a time limit on a project which council hadn't approved and that was the impetus for it coming back,'" Combs said.
John Donahoe, Stanford's director of planning and entitlement, who brought the Middle Plaza project to council in 2017, reminded City Council that evening that the development agreement not only stipulates that the university would take care of the crosswalk and median, but also assist with funding the grade-separated bike and pedestrian crossing of the Caltrain tracks at Middle Avenue.
"I think he was just reminding (the city of) the good will that Stanford had done by doing that," Mueller later said.
One of the concerns the city staff brought forward last week was that the university would relinquish any financial responsibilities for the median and that the city would have to pay for it instead.
Donahoe also addressed Mueller's previously stated desire to shave off sidewalk space from the Middle Plaza project side and said that it would be extremely challenging to achieve.
"I can't overestimate how difficult and the amount of time we spent in designing our project because of the Hetch Hetchy water line that is right at that curb line, working with Caltrans, the city and the Public Utility Commission for the design of our project," Donahoe said. "And it would be very difficult to make adjustments on our side of the property."
Some council members expressed dismay that city staff members may have broken the chain of command throughout the process of this relatively modest development.
The staff had previously told council that the proposal to install the 2-foot-wide median and remove the parking on both sides of El Camino Real was already approved by Caltrans, the state agency that has authority over any changes to the road, also known as State Route 82.
"With respect to staff, I do have concerns that we went to Caltrans and got approval for something that had not been approved by council," Combs said, adding that it's "incredibly problematic" that a project was approved by another agency first, which then influenced the council's subsequent decision.
Taylor later told The Almanac that she had addressed this same concern with Murphy in a meeting on Monday, March 7.
"I believe the process must start with pedestrian safety and community outreach with a timeline, bring it to council and then Caltrans approval," she wrote. "That did not happen last Tuesday, March 1."
Taylor ultimately voted to move forward with the parking changes and crosswalk, citing pedestrian safety as top priority "Usually we say bike-ped, I think ped-bike," she said at the meeting and a desire for an outcome where the staff wouldn't have to return to council again on the matter.
"Sometimes the smallest projects take as long as some of the bigger ones," Louch said.
In other City Council news, Menlo Park will get a new online platform where the public can sign up for recreation classes, reserve city facilities such as tennis courts, submit rental applications, pay fees and conduct other business between the city.
The City Council approved a five-year contract with PerfectMind, a management software company, in order to create a "parks and recreation registration management platform," according to a staff report.
The total cost of the five-year contract would be $318,268, the report stated.
Staff members reviewed six potential vendors and chose PerfectMind as the preferred service provider on the "strength of its platform’s overall user-friendliness, flexibility, functionality, technical support, customer satisfaction reviews and references, and predictable flat-fee pricing model."
Several other Bay Area jurisdictions currently use PerfectMind's platform, including Oakland, Walnut Creek, Sausalito, Santa Rosa, Saratoga and Los Gatos.