Dear Menlo Park Resident,
Many of you have asked me if I am supporting the referendum effort OR the Derry Project. My answer is... BOTH! It is a well-designed project, but the City Council completely dropped the ball in negotiating for well-deserved public benefits. Here's how it happened:
On August 22, the city council discussed public benefits recommendations for future high density projects. A council subcommittee (Cohen, Duboc) had looked into identifying potential public benefits that could be required when the city council grants Planned Development ("PD") permits, General Plan amendments, and zoning changes that allow greater density than Menlo Park's current zoning.
The council ultimately tabled the August 22 discussion. The flavor of councilmembers' comments was that the dollar values put forth in the staff report really weren't high enough given the kinds of density exceptions being contemplated, and that every project was so unique and should be evaluated individually. Given these comments, you and I both had every reason to expect a tough but fair negotiating session with the developer at the council meeting the following week.
On August 29, after the close of Public Comment on the Derry Project, the council discussed and collaboratively resolved some important project details. With the details out of the way, and with the final motion being crafted, I again entreated my council colleagues to make the general plan change only applicable to the Derry site, and not to the 1300 El Camino Real site. In addition, I encouraged my colleagues to require a substantial public benefit for the density bonus being granted to the Derry project. When Mayor Jellins proposed a small grant from the developer to study greater densities and parcel consolidation on the west side of El Camino as a "public benefit," I was appalled. This was a paltry proposal completely out-of-step with the previous week's discussion, and fell far short of the public's expectations. These two issues (scope of general plan change and public benefits) were major sticking points for me in approving the project. I pleaded with my fellow council members over these two major issues, but to no avail.
Then why did I vote to approve the project in a 4-1 vote? Partly out of respect for the efforts of the O'Brien Group and the Derry family in bringing along the project to this point. It is not their fault that the city council as a whole failed to negotiate for public benefits commensurate with the density bonus being granted. And, I wanted to demonstrate my appreciation that the council majority and the developer did take into account some of my suggestions regarding project details, which made it an incrementally better project. Finally, my vote is a signal to other potential developers that well designed, high-quality proposals that are fair to the public and to other downtown landowners can and will be approved in the future in Menlo Park under my watch.
On Sept. 12, at the final approval of the Derry project, I introduced a Motion to Reconsider*, again requesting my colleagues:
1) to make the General Plan amendment ONLY applicable to Derry, not to 1300 El Camino Real, and
2) to require significant public benefits of the developer, beyond the mandated minimum fees.
I expressed my concern about fairness to, for example, the Beltramos Family who "played by the rules" and stayed within General Plan densities on their recently-approved project. I also expressed my concern about the inflationary effect this density windfall would have on downtown land values. Unfortunately, I again was rebuffed in my request and this motion failed on a 2-3 vote, with my position being supported by Councilmember Cohen.
The referendum is your time-honored recourse when the city council fails to consider fairness to the residents in its decisions. You may be able to achieve what I was unable to achieve. Referendums are a state constitutionally-guaranteed right the people can exercise when the council neglects to act in the public's interest.
In closing, I am very grateful for the citizen efforts to bring this referendum forward to try to get a fair deal. I hope the referendum will provide the leverage to obtain appropriate public benefits from the developer.
Vice Mayor, Menlo Park
*Parliamentary rules allowed me to introduce this motion only because I had voted in favor of the project.