Menlo Uptown housing project faces questions | January 1, 2020 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - January 1, 2020

Menlo Uptown housing project faces questions

by Kate Bradshaw

A proposal from development company Greystar to build nearly 500 housing units on Menlo Park's Bayside faced scrutiny from the city's Planning Commission on Dec. 16, as the commission held a public hearing to identify what topics should be studied in the project's environmental analysis and hosted a study session to give broader feedback on the project.

The 483-unit proposal, called Menlo Uptown, would add 441 rental apartments and 42 for-sale condos to Menlo Park's housing stock in an area that currently has no housing — though there are other proposals to add housing there. The development would be located at 141 Jefferson Drive and 180-186 Constitution Drive.

As is required by the city, a minimum of 15% of the units — 73, in this case — would be dedicated for rent by low-income tenants. The housing units would be contained in two apartment buildings — slated to be seven stories with a maximum height of about 85 feet — and the townhome buildings, set to measure about 39 feet in height. One of the apartment buildings would have 2,100 square feet of commercial space intended to serve the public. The apartment buildings would have automated parking garages on the first two levels.

According to project applicant Andrew Morcos, senior development director at Greystar, in 2020, Menlo Park is expected to have about 2.3 jobs for every housing unit, far higher than San Mateo County's ratio as a whole. "This imbalance is the driver of traffic and congestion in Menlo Park," he said.

In making the case to the commission for why the housing proposal should be considered when there is already so much traffic in the former M-2 (light industrial) area rezoned under the ConnectMenlo plan, Morcos said, "The M-2 area has an even more significant imbalance than the city as a whole. In it resides four out of five of the largest Menlo Park employers. ... Housing near this job center is the only thing that will meaningfully mitigate impacts from the major employment in this area."

He added that there is currently about a million square feet of office space under construction within walking distance of the site, which translates to roughly 5,000 new employees who will be drawn to the area.

Environmental review

During the public hearing to talk about what should be studied in the project's environmental impact review, community members raised concerns about impacts to local schools; urged that a larger proportion of the units be dedicated for below-market-rate rent; asked that local Native American tribes, including those not federally recognized, be contacted when evaluating the site's tribal and cultural resources; and gave input on a proposed landscaped pedestrian and bike path.

Crystal Leach, associate superintendent at the Sequoia Union High School District, said the district has calculated that the project could add as many as 100 high school students, which would strain the capacity at the district's local schools, TIDE Academy and Menlo-Atherton High.

"The reality is that the statutory fees do not even come close to mitigating the impacts of developments on schools," she said. She also urged that a careful review of traffic impacts be done, including the impacts of traffic on air quality, particularly around children, since the proposed development is across Jefferson Drive from TIDE Academy.

Belle Haven resident Pam Jones said she supports, among other things, an increase in the proportion of below-market-rate units to 20% from 15%, and that a proposed bike and pedestrian path be extended toward Belle Haven to make the development more accessible to the existing neighborhood.

The Planning Commission, for its part, gave thorough input on the proposed architecture and design of the project, even while continuing to grapple with the same key issue that it does for every Bayside proposal it encounters: how it can justify approving yet another project in an area already choking with traffic.

"We're seeing impacts far greater than even three or four years ago in that program EIR," said Commissioner Chris DeCardy, referring to the environmental analysis done during the ConnectMenlo rezoning process. "I think the way to address that is in how you're looking at those impacts, and recognizing that for many people in this community, the baseline for traffic is fundamentally unacceptable, and for many people any net addition in greenhouse gases is fundamentally unacceptable."

He added, "I think it's perfectly reasonable to explore no net vehicle miles traveled, (and) no net increased demand for transportation from these projects."

Commissioner Henry Riggs challenged the notion that building housing in a jobs-rich area would automatically enable people to live near where they work and cut car trips. In a lucky scenario, he pointed out, one person in most of the new housing units would work nearby, but that doesn't account for roommates or partners who would be employed elsewhere. The proposal is not located near Caltrain, and the Dumbarton rail line isn't currently active (a feasibility study and environmental review about rail possibilities on the corridor is underway, however).

Commissioners were also asked to weigh in on what the public-serving commercial space should be used for. Commission Chair Andrew Barnes' strong recommendation was that the space be used for child care purposes, not a cafe, though that would require an expanded space beyond what's proposed.

The deadline for people to comment on the project's notice of preparation, the step of the environmental review process in which the public may weigh in on what topics should be evaluated, is Friday, Jan. 10.

According to staff, the topics already chosen for further analysis are: air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic noise, population and housing, transportation and tribal cultural resources.

The deadline has been extended beyond the usual 30-day period to give people extra time during the holidays. People may submit comments by mail to Tom Smith, Community Development Department, 701 Laurel St., Menlo Park, CA 94025, or by email to tasmith@menlopark.org.

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