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Guest opinion: City missed chance for housing near transit

Original post made by Richard Hine, editor of The Almanac, on Oct 15, 2009

This opinion by Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle was published in the Oct. 14, 2009, edition of The Almanac.

By John Boyle

Last week, the Menlo Park City Council approved a major new development for the former Cadillac dealership site at 1300 El Camino Real. I was the dissenter in the 4-1 vote.

Despite my vote against this project, I agree that there were many supportive arguments:

• This parcel has been empty for far too long.

• The developer had worked hard over many years to produce a project that followed the general guidance he was given by the current council majority.

• City staff and the Planning Commission recommended approval based on current council policy guidance.

• The proposed project (110,000 square feet of office/retail space) is attractive and will contribute to our downtown in a number of positive ways.

However, I believe that this project was unacceptable. Despite being in a prime downtown location that was adjacent to the train station and other public transportation, it didn't include any housing. Locations like this are exactly the type of places that Peninsula cities are embracing what's known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Such projects recognize the value in developments that include both jobs and housing near public transportation. Appropriately-sized TOD projects can respect the "small town feel" of places like Menlo Park, while at the same time delivering the environmental, traffic, affordability, and downtown vitality benefits that come with downtown housing.

Projects that include housing inevitably run into opposition, usually from neighbors. We've seen it with nearly every other housing-oriented project ranging from a previous apartment project at this same location to the recent Habitat for Humanity proposal in Belle Haven. The issues are real: traffic, school impacts, density and mass vs. small town feel, and more.

But the need is also indisputable. Without a growing housing supply, prices will continue to soar well beyond affordable levels for all but the very wealthy. And pushing housing to other regions simply exacerbates traffic, pollution, and CO2 issues.

In this case, the developer needed a zoning change to enable some small changes to height and parking density. As part of our agreement to make those changes, we should have insisted on the inclusion of housing. The developer outlined one alternative that included a modest housing element (36 units), but he clearly preferred the version without them. We should have required him to choose the housing option.

As a compromise, I proposed we grant the developer an approval of the project "as is," but with a condition that he essentially delay it for up to a year, while he would work with the city to develop a new proposal that would leverage the evolving new Specific Area Plan for our downtown. We'd have benefited from this "test case" of a real development being defined in parallel with our proposed new downtown zoning and other guidelines.

The developer would benefit by being able to take advantage of what will likely be more generous zoning allowances vs. the current rules defined decades ago. If we were unable to work out a new plan that matched up well with the evolving Specific Area Plan, then the developer could simply reactivate the approval of the current project. In reality, he's not likely to be able to start construction for close to a year anyway, due to other conditions that were imposed and still have to be worked out.

We missed an opportunity at 1300 El Camino, but we have an opportunity to improve the situation going forward. We are several years already into the process of creating a Specific Area Plan for our downtown. It is critical that we finish that work in a timely manner � and with full participation from everyone in our community. This week's council meeting will focus on this project. I invite you to join us and to share your views.

John Boyle is a member of the Menlo Park City Council.

Comments (15)

Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 15, 2009 at 9:20 am

We always thought of John as a libertarian, laissez faire kind of guy. But that opinion piece proves that he's just a plain old crony capitalist. Whatever happened to letting the market decide, John?

Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Living close to the train tracks with the train noise and the future prospect of high speed rail might make it hard to get people to live around there.

Posted by Balance
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm

First, I thought Planning Commissioner John Kadvany's letter to the editor on this brought important perspective -- namely, one doesn't need to have housing on EVERY parcel around there for us to increase transit oriented and hopefully more affordable housing near the train station.

In fact, I also plainly heard at least 3 of the 4 councilmember who voted that night for the project -- as proposed by the developer -- say they really did want to see housing if possible and the developer was open to coming back with a secondary proposal to do this. This will be determined by market forces.

Although the El Camino Specific plan is getting much clearer, it has not been adopted - and rightly so: it take time to gain community input and acceptance of such significant change even when it's change for the beter. Thus the 1300 ECR project basically reflects the current zoning there.

The City should complete the ECR SPecific Plan next year so it can guide other future development, but the Council was right not to hold up a good project that will remove a huge eye sore, as noted by COuncilmember Boyle. If the Council had failed to approve, they would be being criticized for THAT!

Are we seeing here a pre-campaign "trap" being set?

Posted by Here's Kadvany's letter in full
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 15, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Here is John Kadvany's letter to the Editor on this topic, in full (from page 14 of this week's almanac right uynder Boyle's OpEd Piece)

Why commissioner voted
for office, retail

I voted as a planning commissioner
for the office and retail
option at 1300 El Camino Real
(old Cadillac dealer site) without
housing. Why?
First, I was reasonably convinced
by the developer’s suggestion that
a pure retail/office mix at 1300
El Camino would motivate a new
housing proposal at the neighboring
Derry site. Instead of creating
housing competition, office/retail
at 1300 would complement the
housing nearby. A larger office
building could also be attractive
to a large anchor office tenant, a
plus for Menlo Park downtown
What about the goal of transit-
oriented housing along El
Camino? Well, that doesn’t mean
housing on every single parcel.
A great deal of free space is
still available on El Camino for
housing and will be developed
through the new Specific Plan.
More importantly, my vision is for
the Derry site and 1300 El Camino
to be planned together as a unified
neighborhood, especially along the
“seam” connecting the two sites
from El Camino back toward the
train tracks. The goal is to facilitate
pedestrian traffic back toward the
tracks, and to motivate walkers
and bicyclists from the trackside to
come over to the new development
by avoiding El Camino.
I discussed this issue several
times in Planning Commission
meetings on 1300 El Camino.
Unfortunately, with only the 1300
project up for review, little could
be done to coordinate planning of
the combined eight acres. There’s
now a narrow walkway planned
between the two sites, the best
possible option without a design
for the Derry area. It’s far from
what’s needed to make the overall
plan a great one.
My conclusion, especially recognizing
the developer’s lack of motivation
for creating a housing project,
was to get their project going,
and take a risk that the remaining
Derry site will have a great deal of
housing. Most of all, I wanted to
set strong expectations for how the
two projects are to be integrated
into a well-designed urban neighborhood.
This is our best shot at
meeting goals of neighborhood
design, vibrancy, and walkability
for this area. I look forward to seeing
a project meeting those goals
proposed in the near future.

John Kadvany, Menlo Park
planning commissioner

Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Oct 15, 2009 at 3:11 pm


We had our various reasons for voting the project forward, but three items I'd like to clarify.

You weren't on the commission at the time but the 1300 project was previously proposed as apartments while the Derry project was condos. They did not compete.

Second, the designs were fully integrated, including the walkway you put emphasis on. (The parking garages also had the potential to link but didn't.)

Third, the next project north from 1300 is owned by the Beltramo family and they have received City approval to build offices, not housing.



Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 15, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Transit oriented development is a scam being perpetrated by developers who hope to make a quick buck by upzoning. But...

* Housing is the most expensive use of land for a city. And the denser the housing, the greater the long-term costs.

* Our neighbors to the north and south have new housing on El Camino and near the train tracks. Residents of those units do not use the trains or buses. Why not? Because public transit is expensive, inconvenient, and unpleasant.

* Do we really need more people in Menlo Park? Or do we need to serve the people we have with more retail and local services?

Boyle argues that housing will become unaffordable unless we build lots of new cheap housing on El Camino. From what data did he draw that conclusion? Note that the opposite is happening, as young, middle class families are moving into our city in such large numbers that we really don't have enough room to provide them with adequate space for schools or recreation.

As others have suggested, housing should be allowed on El Camino only if it is built without parking. No developer will agree to that because they know better than to believe their own TOD propaganda.

Posted by Lon time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 15, 2009 at 6:19 pm

John Boyle's thoughtful and reasonable analysis is spot on. 1300 El Camino is one of the largest sites near the train station and should have some form of housing. Most developers don't want mixed use projects (retail and/or office and housing) because they are more difficult to fund and manage. They have to be given an incentive in the form of higher density.

Every respected planning and environmental group (including the Sierra Club) is in favor of transportation oriented development because it is the most effective way to meet the demands of our region and reduce the need for the automobile. Building close to alternative transportation trumps all other efforts to reduce the production of green house gases.

I support John's idea and respect his courage and energy for proposing it.

Posted by Big Picture
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 15, 2009 at 8:04 pm

[post seems irrelevant to thread. > editor]

Posted by looking on
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 16, 2009 at 9:11 am

John boyle was elected three years ago, by a slim majority of 100 votes. He continues to pursues a bigger is better agenda and gets plenty of support from his developer friends.

He continues to be an obstructionist, just like this case, where a perfectly conforming project wasn't big enough to suit him. The re-negotiated Derry project, which the developer has thus far not taken to council, although it has been approved at the planning commission, he has told friends, he will vote against also.

He cares little about Menlo Park, as his approval of the High Speed Rail project has shown. Hopefully he will be removed from council at the next general election. Of, course, he has Hank Lawrence backing him, so that may be a difficult task --- chuckle chuckle...

Posted by Besinge
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 16, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Housing on a major transit way is not popular with everyone but it is for many, and they jump at the chance to live on a direct route to SF. I commuted to the City and would rarely take my car - its not just parking, a per mile analysis shows a monthly train ticket is a fraction of the cost of car commuting, and you can work, read or sleep in the train, none of which is too smart when driving. Commuters also win going South where many companies have shuttles waiting at the station - at one point I took the HP shuttle to my (unrelated) office across the street. Of course, those who don't take the train are unaware of all this (including some letter writers). Life is bigger than one persons world - I thought we Menlo types all knew that.

Posted by observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 16, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I commuted by train to SF for a while, and I don't live anywhere near the tracks. It's just plain silly to say that you have to live across the street from the tracks if you want to take the train!

There is a large condominium complex right by the California Ave train station. A member of their homeowners' association recently told me that of the 150 or so units, four people take the train, and this number has been historically consistent.

People buy the near-track units because they are cheap, but don't expect those people to take public transit, especially not when they have a car sitting in the garage. TOD is a nice fantasy perpetuated by self-serving developers, but no relationship to reality. Reality, unfortunately for some of you, is bigger than your little worlds. Meanwhile, those housing units dump more and more traffic on our streets and cram more and more people into our already overcrowded city.

Posted by my take
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 16, 2009 at 10:11 pm

I agree wholly with observer. I understand that only 1 household in the Menlo Square condos uses the train, even though they are just steps away.

TOD has been and is promoted by developers and the concept has no relationship to what is reality, at least here on the peninsula.

We don't even begin to have regional transit that would allow travel without autos. We aren't San Francisco, where indeed there is transit and you get get most places without owning a car.

Posted by train commuter 2
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 18, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Transit oriented housing does not have to be virtually on top of the train tracks, and certainly not sandwiched between a noisy, car-filled highway (El Camino. That goes for park space, too. In fact there are a lot of health reasons not to promote that proximity (noise, air quality, vibrations). Most definitions of TOD call for development within 1/4-1/2 mile, perhaps because that is within walking distance but not so close to cause health issues. Some of us walk from longer distances than that. For some reason there is a push in Menlo Park to plop lots of dense housing right next to the train tracks and El Camino. We should and can do better.
The transit we need to get people out of cars in Menlo Park is east-west. That is not in the foreseeable future, and promoting more density around the tracks won't help our city's problems at all.
By the way, I am fairly certain the approved Beltramo project included housing. It wasn't just office. Planning Commission Chair Riggs should know.

Posted by Share the Joy.
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 18, 2009 at 6:13 pm

It's time to upzone the north side of Santa Cruz Avenue between Sand Hill and Alameda for denser housing.

Share the joy.

Posted by Eoungh already
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Oct 19, 2009 at 10:21 am

Our schools and streets are already filled past capacity- we don't need a single unit more of housing, certainlly not anything "high-density". Low-rise office space or hotels would be much better uses for these properties- more tax income for the town without additional students for our schools.

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