Menlo Park: Commissioners 'favorably disposed' toward plan's height, density allowances | September 18, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - September 18, 2013

Menlo Park: Commissioners 'favorably disposed' toward plan's height, density allowances

by Sandy Brundage

The Menlo Park Planning Commission signaled its confidence in the provisions of the city's new downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, during the first of what's expected to be a multiple-meetings review.

While taking no formal action, after hearing public comment, the commissioners took a series of straw votes on Sept. 10 to assess what aspects of the specific plan merited further consideration for modification. The straw votes indicated that a total revamp of the specific plan is very unlikely, given the five years' of analysis that went into its construction.

"This is a review," Commissioner Katie Ferrick said. "We're not necessarily going to make any changes. We'll see what we come up with."

Five commissioners said they were "favorably disposed" toward the density and floor area ratios — the scale, in other words — of buildings allowed under the specific plan. Katherine Strehl and John Onken abstained since they are recused from voting on certain zones of the specific plan.

The two areas that might need refinement, the commissioners said, were control over proposed projects and the proportion of specific uses, such as housing versus office space.

Four commissioners — John Kadvany, Ben Eiref, Katie Ferrick and Vince Bressler — thought more control beyond architectural review may be needed. Ms. Ferrick said her concern involved a lack of funding mechanisms for certain aspects of the plan, such as a pedestrian and bike undercrossing of the railroad tracks.

The commission unanimously agreed to consider whether the city needed more ways to guide the selection of uses proposed for a site.

A group of residents citing traffic and housing impacts has led the charge against the current specific plan after Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga proposed building an eight-acre mixed-use complex along 300 to 500 El Camino Real that met the plan's baseline criteria without triggering public benefit requirements.

Several spoke against the specific plan during the Sept. 10 meeting, saying that it allows so much density and traffic that it would ruin the quality of life in Menlo Park.

"Scuttle the specific plan instead of spending months rearranging the deck chairs pretending this plan won't sink the city," resident Cherie Zaslawsky urged.

Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition that has criticized the Stanford project and the specific plan, told the Almanac the group seeks "reasonable growth that enhances the quality of life and neighborhoods in Menlo Park and maintains the village character."

While the group supports the Planning Commission's efforts to improve the specific plan, Save Menlo spokesperson Perla Ni said, it believes the plan will allow "the 'manhattanization' of Menlo Park" via "monstrously large developments" with ensuing traffic gridlock, hazards to bicyclists and pedestrians, and damage to the city's village character.

"We want human-scale buildings, neighborhood retail, housing for seniors and significant revenue-generating development that will enhance the high quality of living in Menlo Park," Ms. Ni said in an email.

Other speakers at the meeting included developers such as Steve Pearce of Greenheart Land Company. His company bought parcels on El Camino Real and the former Derry project site because of the specific plan's passage, he said, which was supposed to provide certainty for both developers and the community regarding what could be built.

Changing the specific plan now "sends the message that the goalposts are moving and may keep moving," Mr. Pearce commented, which in turn suggests that Menlo Park is not a good place to invest in.

The Planning Commission will take up the specific plan review again during its Sept. 23 meeting. Once the commission concludes its review, it will provide recommendations for the City Council to consider.


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