Proposed growth along Bay far outpaces expectations | August 22, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - August 22, 2018

Proposed growth along Bay far outpaces expectations

by Kate Bradshaw

In Menlo Park, there's one lesson city officials are learning the hard way for the second time this year: With great development potential comes greater development demand.

Less than two years after the city completed an update to its general plan that permitted new construction on the city's eastern side, developers have already attempted to lay claim to all of that development potential, and then some.

The zoning plan, called ConnectMenlo, was supposed to act as an expansive guide to shape development along the city's Bay-facing side until 2040. But developers have already submitted proposals for five projects that cumulatively represent more than the 1.3-million-square-foot maximum of office space the plan permits.

In fact, just one of those submitted proposals asks for permission to build far more than the maximum allowed new office space.

The largest proposal submitted under the ConnectMenlo plan — and believed to be the biggest development proposal ever in Menlo Park — is Facebook's "Willow Village" project, which aims to redevelop a 56-acre property the company owns along Willow Road into what's expected to function as a new neighborhood.

The proposal lays out plans to raze the current office park there — which houses about a million square feet of office space, city staff estimate — and build 1.75 million square feet of office space, plus 126,500 square feet of retail space, 1,500 housing units, a 200-room hotel and a 40,000-square-foot cultural/visitors' center.

Menlo Park's Bayside development plan counts net new square footage, so it's expected that only the additional square footage of Facebook's proposal would count against the overall development potential.

But the company's proposal, plus other new buildings proposed in the area, signal that the appetite to develop in Menlo Park may be far greater than the community imagined in the recent ConnectMenlo process, which involved upwards of 60 community and stakeholder meetings, many of which emphasized the long-term nature of the plan.

Other proposed developments in the Bayfront area include 260,400 square feet of life sciences research and development space at 1350 Adams Court; 318,614 square feet of office space at 162-164 Jefferson Drive; 104,587 square feet of life sciences research and development space and 685 square feet of retail space at 1105 O'Brien Drive; and 94 housing units at 111 Independence Drive.

Based on the proposals received so far, office space appears to be in highest demand. If only the developments that have already been proposed are built, the city would overshoot the office square footage it zoned for by 768,614 square feet, while falling short of developing an additional 2,098 housing units, 200 hotel rooms, 107,815 square feet of commercial space and 1.73 million square feet of life sciences space that could still be built under the plan.

(This doesn't factor in the square footage of existing buildings to be demolished that would be subtracted as part of a net new square-footage calculation.)

On the housing front, Facebook has proposed 1,500 new units, and SP Menlo LLC has proposed to build 94 units. According to a staff report, the city expects another 1,240 housing units to be "applied for in the near future" on the eastern side of Menlo Park.

Already a problem

Last December, Menlo Park staff announced that the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan was already approaching the development limits put in place when the City Council approved new development allowances in 2012.

That plan, when adopted, had seemed expansive and destined to guide growth for decades. But as of December, most of the 474,000 square feet of new nonresidential space and 680 housing units the plan permitted had been claimed by approved and proposed developments, with about 92 percent of the nonhousing space and 72 percent of the total number of housing units claimed.

To raise the cap for residential or commercial development beyond what is in the plan would require environmental review, a process that usually takes at least a year, according to staff.

At an Aug. 6 City Council meeting, Belle Haven resident Pamela Jones urged the council to put the matter on the agenda and asked members to consider a moratorium on new building. "We cannot afford to keep doing what we're doing in the city of Menlo Park," she said.

During the years-long process to develop the ConnectMenlo plan, she said, local developers were active participants in public meetings, and in some cases won the zoning policies they sought as a result. "Oftentimes what residents brought up wasn't considered," she added.

What to do

To address the fact that office development capacity is the first part of the zoning plan to be maxed out, staff has developed four options for the council to consider in the future.

Community Development Director Mark Muenzer noted that the City Council may place the subject on a future council agenda, but the discussion hasn't been scheduled yet.

Among the options being considered are to keep the current office cap, amend the general plan to allow more office development, make developers apply to amend the general plan, or transfer some of the life sciences space the plan permits to become office space.

Each option carries potential repercussions. According to staff, if the city keeps its current office cap, new office spaces would be approved based on a first-come, first-served basis.

Deanna Chow, the city's assistant community development director, noted that a big question is which developer would get first dibs on the allowed development. Usually it would be based on whichever project receives entitlement first, but the process can be nuanced, she said. Later proposals would likely have to scale back to comply with the development cap.

If the council takes on amending the general plan to increase the development potential of the area, the city would need to do more public outreach and pay for more consultants. Chow noted it cost the city about $1.6 million in consultant fees to develop the 2016 ConnectMenlo plan.

If developers had to propose general plan amendments, it would be up to the council to decide on a case-by-case basis, which could create more uncertainty in the development process.

If the city changes some of the development potential from life sciences space to office space, it would likely trigger a need for further environmental analysis of how such a transition would impact traffic, because life sciences space generates fewer workers — and by extension, fewer solo drivers — than traditional office space.

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