El Camino Real facelift begins | August 8, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



News - August 8, 2012

El Camino Real facelift begins

Menlo Park council approves Matteson housing project

by Sandy Brundage

A lot left vacant at 389 El Camino Real when a car dealer abandoned Menlo Park will now come to life again as a housing development.

You don't often see neighbors cheering alongside developers, but that's what happened after the City Council voted unanimously on July 31 to let Matteson Companies build 17 townhomes and nine single-family homes on the 1.23-acre site.

Given the city's current struggle to meet the state's affordable housing requirements, three units will be set aside as below-market-rate (BMR) housing, at no small cost to the developer, who estimated the units will cost $1.45 million out of pocket to build. Matteson will also pay $1.1 million in fees to the city and other agencies.

Developer Matt Matteson told the Almanac that it was important to actually build the BMR units instead of paying in-lieu fees, given the city's difficulty in translating those fees into housing.

"I've lived my entire life in Menlo Park. We rely on a whole lot of people to make our life go, people behind the checkstand at Safeway, the guy changing oil, city staff, teachers, police. If we don't watch out, all of those people end up living in Tracy and Modesto and commuting in."

On top of contributing to traffic, the commute steals time and volunteers for activities like after-school programs away, he said, and it's important to the fabric of a community to have the people who fill critical roles to live closer.

He thinks those proclaiming that only people who can afford to live in Menlo Park should live here have the wrong perspective. "People are people. Just because their income isn't as high as someone else's doesn't mean they don't make a great neighbor."

"It was easier in the 60s and 70s, for those of us lucky enough to buy many years ago. I would bet a massive percentage of people in Menlo Park could not afford to buy their home today." He noted that his two adult daughters will have a hard time buying a home in the town they grew up in on their own salaries.

The BMR housing will be integrated into the project site. Years of negotiation led to the project's current design, meant to blend in with the Allied Arts neighborhood bordering the property. Originally, in 2008, Matteson Companies proposed packing 48 homes onto the small lot, a plan that inspired protest from the neighbors.

And now: "I don't know how you could possibly vote against this," Menlo Park resident Preston Butcher said of the scaled-down project. "It's absolutely magnificent."

Indeed, the council could not, voting 5-0 to approve the project after some discussion on the tree canopy and sidewalk widths. Councilman Peter Ohtaki noted that he used to live near the empty lot, and sounded pleased to know the landscape would be changing in the near future.

Mr. Matteson said he hoped the recently approved downtown/El Camino Real specific plan would shorten the approval process for other projects by removing uncertainty and some of the city's discretion to disallow projects that do meet the code. "There are cities in our area that are doing this in a year and a half," he said. "Formerly the city didn't have to grant you approval even if the zoning code said the uses were possible with a conditional use permit. You were trying to count heads on the planning commission and council to see if you were going to get through. When you don't even know how many units you can build and how high they can go — that's a problem."

As someone who lives 12 blocks away from the project site, Mr. Matteson wants to be able to go to Peet's Coffee and hear that people like what he's done. He praised the willingness of the Allied Arts residents, led by Annie Berlin, to collaborate on a site design instead of stonewalling any development. "It was a really effective process," he said. "I hoped it's used by others." The changes included wider setbacks, two-story homes instead of three, and reworking exterior finishes and landscaping until they matched the neighborhood.

Construction should start some time next spring, according to the developer, after the rains pass.