Planning commission tackles housing, traffic, parking in plan review | June 27, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - June 27, 2018

Planning commission tackles housing, traffic, parking in plan review

by Kate Bradshaw

Menlo Park's Planning Commission on June 18 hosted two study sessions that pointed to two very different scales for development in different parts of the city, bound by the shared threads of traffic, parking requirements and affordable housing.

Downtown plan review

Menlo Park's downtown plan, which was approved in 2012 and expected to remain in effect until 2030, and increased development allowances to 474,000 square feet of new nonresidential space and 680 new housing units, was under review in part because proposed and approved developments downtown are already nearing the upper limit of what's allowed under the plan. So far, 505 housing units have been approved and proposed — or 74 percent of the maximum permitted — and 445,282 square feet of nonresidential development, or 94 percent of the maximum allowed, has been approved and proposed in the downtown plan area.

The Planning Commission was asked to consider whether the city should reconsider those maximum development limits. Lifting those caps would require further environmental analysis, which is typically a yearlong process at best.

Some members of the public spoke in favor of adding more affordable housing, and emphasized the role that the city could play if it were to dedicate public land — a large portion of which is on surface parking lots scattered through downtown.

Rachel Horst, a new housing commissioner, said she thinks downtown is a good place to build affordable housing because that's where public transit and car-free travel opportunities are most available.

"I don't want to talk about parking unless (we're) also talking about opportunities to build housing," she said.

One of the big questions under consideration is what the city should do about parking. The City Council has as one of its top priorities the construction of a parking structure somewhere downtown, but the council is also considering adding other uses to such a structure, like housing or an entertainment venue. Both would require changes to the downtown plan.

Key to the downtown discussion is a debate as to how to preserve and support the city's downtown restaurant and retail businesses.

Fran Dehn, president and CEO of the city's Chamber of Commerce, was wary about reducing parking requirements, which could compromise the city's retail operations, and recommended loosening some of the architectural restrictions that seem to not allow enough variation and flexibility for retailers.

"As we talk about preserving retail, it's important to create an environment for retail to thrive," Commissioner Andrew Barnes said.

Downtown traffic, especially the El Camino Real bottleneck that runs along the city's entire stretch of the road, is a major concern to Commissioner Henry Riggs. "It's a citywide responsibility," he said, not one that should be borne by single developments.

Commissioner John Onken offered another approach: "If you don't build it, they won't come."

94 apartments

On just the other side of the freeway, in the rezoned M-2 area along Menlo Park's stretch of the Bay, owner/developer Sateez Kadivar has proposed to build an eight-story, 85-foot-tall apartment building with 94 units at 111 Independence Drive. That project, he told the commission, is among the smaller that will be planned in that area of the city.

(The largest is Facebook's 59-acre "Willow Village," with nine office buildings, 1,500 apartments, a grocery store and other retail offerings.)

Commissioners heard presentations about the proposed project's architecture — curved in shape to mirror the nearby Menlo Gateway office building that was recently completed — and landscaping, which would include a dog area, a bocce court and publicly accessible outdoor space.

The building would also come with 134 parking spots.

"I think that showing a more conservative approach to parking is responsive to neighborhood concerns," said Commissioner Drew Combs. "I think it's a well-designed building that takes a very unique, interesting site and puts a very interesting, unique building on it."

Cutting parking requirements is seen as a way to force people to not drive solo and thereby reduce traffic.

Citing terrible traffic and other developments already planned and proposed nearby, Riggs said it was "going to be hard to approve another project, even though (it is) housing."

Commissioners asked for more clarity about how the city's "community amenities" provision would work with the proposed development.

On both matters, the commission gave feedback to staff without taking votes. The commission will be the final decision-maker on the apartment building.

For the potential downtown plan revisions, staff will take the matter to other city commissions, prepare a scope of work, conduct environmental analyses, and bring the matter back to the Planning Commission before bringing any of the commission's recommendations to the council for final approval.

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