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A very thoughtful memo on Menlo Park's development policies

Original post made by Peter Carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood, on Jul 6, 2019

Suggestions from Lynne Bramlett, July 5, 2019 1
To: City Council
From: Lynne Bramlett
Date: July 5, 2019
Re: Suggestions for City Council District 1 and Districts 2-5 Subcommittees _________________________________________________________________
I’m writing with suggestions for Council to consider. At your June 11 meeting, the public expressed grave concerns about the cumulative negative impacts of new development, without the corresponding infrastructure. District 1 residents suffer the most severe impacts due to the City’s ConnectMenlo-related decisions to maximize new development in District 1.
I applaud Council’s sincere desire to tackle these serious problems. However, much work will be needed and I and other residents want to help. The problems are so serious and so urgent that we cannot wait for lengthy studies and/or Staff to have time to work on solutions. Plus, it’s reasonable to ask if it would not be better to have a “fresh focus” via resident-led working groups that research and propose solutions to specific topics. Waiting to take action, especially in District 1, would perpetuate what has become a toxic status quo that appears to value the revenue stream from development, and the interests of large property owners, over the quality of life for residents. District 1-Subcommittee Proposed Ideas
1. Discuss and Pass a Resolution to maintain the current Office Space development caps. As I understand it, the caps are on the bonus-level development options in the M-2 and downtown-specific plan. The bonus levels can more than double the overall size of a project allowed under the base-level only. This represents a significant financial windfall to the property owners, even after paying for a bonus-level amenity. Already, there are multiple projects in the pipeline that will exceed the development caps. Yet these projects are moving forward without any apparent plans to reduce the project size. This builds too much momentum, making it difficult later to stop or adjust the project. It also suggests that the developers believe that Council will increase development caps or possibly amend the General Plan to allow the projects. Have private assurances already been given?
2. Add a Growth Management Element to the General Plan. Although not a state mandated General Plan element, a Growth Management Element would mandate that growth and development be based upon the City’s ability to provide an adequate circulation system. A Growth Management Element establishes policies and standards for traffic levels of service and performance standards for police, fire, emergency vehicles, sanitary facilities, water, road infrastructure, etc. to ensure generally that growth takes place in a manner that will ensure protection of the health, safety and welfare of both existing and future residents.
Other cities facing similar challenges of rapid growth, without the necessary infrastructure, have adopted a Growth Management Element. These cities include: Loma Linda, Pleasant Hill, El Cerrito, and Mission Viejo. Contra Costa County also requires a Growth Management Element.
Effective growth management would also establish parameters for periodically monitoring the impacts that growth has on the community, and also define the methods by which impacts are addressed.
Suggestions from Lynne Bramlett, July 5, 2019 2
3. Conduct an Analysis of the General Plan’s Land Use and Circulation Elements Goals, Policies and Programs. Determine if any statements need clarifying, revising, updating or removing. Also review the adequacy of the measurement and reporting system for each. A parallel task would be to determine if the ConnectMenlo Guiding Principles (values statements) have actually become embedded into the Goals, Policies and Programs. (See next suggestion). Develop recommendations based on municipal best practices and MP’s current situation.
4. Elevate the Role of the Guiding Principles to Guide Development in Menlo Park. The Guiding Principles represent the public’s most current statement of Values. The public trusted the Guiding Principles, and Council’s assurances that they would be followed. Unfortunately, they lack shared definitions and metrics, and some statements are overly broad. It’s time to clarify, as necessary, the statements and to add metrics and a quarterly reporting system for each. Right now, the Guiding Principles are more platitudes than value-statements that actually guide land-use decisions in Menlo Park. The Guiding Principles need to be followed and more clout in the form of a Council Resolution that would include Council’s expectations for metrics and a quarterly reporting system.
5. Conduct an Analysis of the General Plan’s zoning ordinances. Some topics to consider: Is the zoning equitable across all parts of Menlo Park? Where does the zoning need changing to increase housing, especially affordable housing? Or where does it need changing to reduce “Ghost” ownership by corporate interests? Should the bonus-level options be rescinded or scaled back. Is the current bonus policy too generous towards property owners at the expense of the public’s quality of life?
6. Conduct an Analysis of the City of Menlo Park’s General Plan compared to the criteria included in State law. Also evaluate the degree to which the Menlo Park General Plan complies with the State’s Guidelines for General Plans. While the Statute of limitations has more than passed for any legal challenges, the review would be helpful in pinpointing opportunities to improve the current General Plan.
7. Conduct an Analysis of the City’s Public Noticing Policy for Development Permit Applications Reviewed by the Planning Commission and/or City Council. I would add notices in Spanish (not just the one sentence that I’m seeing in the Daily Post notices) for all developments in District 1. As the Daily Post is not widely available in District 1, also post notices in the Almanac. Also use the City’s communication methods to post notices of EIRs. For example, the Belle Haven newsletter could include EIR notices and these also could be posted on social media, such as NextDoor. The City’s website could include a way to sign up for EIR-related notices, via a link at the Notify Me, page. Developers could also play a stronger role in the process as per Ann Arbor’s Citizen Participation Ordinance Guide for PUDs, Planned Projects, Rezonings & Major Site Plans. Menlo Park could adopt a similar approach that puts more of the expectations, in specific and measurable terms, on the developers.
The EIR-related notices (and staff reports) also sometimes use names for the projects that the public may not recognize. Instead, the projects should be described so as to alert the maximum number of residents about the proposed development.
Also review the City’s website for opportunities. The Public Notices page has a link to a Development Notices page that contains little information. The Notice of Application Submittals sub link contained only one link to one project. There are other opportunities.
Suggestions from Lynne Bramlett, July 5, 2019 3
Districts 2-5-Subcommittee Led Proposed Ideas 1. Review the General Plan’s Bonus-Level Development Process. First, the current “value analysis” for considering bonus-level development is very focused on the amount of revenue generated for the City from the grant of a bonus-level development. This analysis needs to be expanded to quantify ALL the benefits and liabilities from the proposed granting of a Public Benefit Bonus. Second, it is important early in the EIR process to determine the economic value that the developer receives from the Public Benefit Bonus. The Fiscal Impact Analysis should be conducted at the beginning stage of the EIR process. Waiting until later in the cycle gives a project too much momentum. As you likely know, the residents in District 1 are mostly still waiting for amenities they thought they would get years ago. There is too much wiggle-room” in this process. Developers need to be held accountable and the EIR documents need to more explicitly protect the residents’ interests. Third, there needs to be an explicit consideration of the negative cumulative impacts of the proposed development on the residents’ quality of life. Fourth, the economic value (in hard numbers) to the developer should then be tangibly tied to a concrete public amenity selected via a public process from a pre-determined list. The public amenity should represent a concrete and tangible public benefit that will help to ameliorate the detriment caused by the development. The public amenity should also be located near the residents most impacted by a particular development. A cash payment to the City, which is apparently commonly done, should not be allowed except for very rare circumstances. Finally, a Public Benefit Bonus should only be granted when the total value to the City minus the negative impact on the residents’ quality of life is comparable to the economic benefit received by the developer.
2. Develop a well-defined outcome for public benefits/Community Amenities. The lack of a well-defined outcome was detailed in Staff Report #15-063. The R-MU Residential zoning incudes information about bonus-level amenities, but without enough specifics. Separately, I've also seen a list of District 1 desired amenities but this should be readily available in a more public spot. These also need price tags and a process. The recent notice of preparation of an EIR for a project at 162-164 Jefferson noted that the “project is proposing bonus-level development, although the proposed community amenity has not yet been identified.” Instead, the amenity should be agreed-upon before a major development project has too much momentum.
3. Review the City’s Development-related policies. Only three are posted as policies at the Planning Division site: 1) M-2 Implementation Policy, 2) Parking Reduction Policy and 3) Public Noticing Policy. Are more policies needed to address current problems?
4. Expand the City’s General Plan Annual Report to the State on the Status of our General Plan Implementation. Currently, ours focused on providing a Housing Element update. While not required, a report that included an update across all adopted elements would give Council more information for annual planning purposes. Please see the example from the City of Escondido and the State’s requirements.
Suggestions from Lynne Bramlett, July 5, 2019 4
5. Conduct an Analysis of the ConnectMenlo EIR-Related Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program Measures. The program-level EIR was detailed in Resolution 6356. Individual major developments also have EIRs that likely also include mitigation measures. The status of these mitigations needs more transparency and perhaps also accountability and oversight. Conduct annual progress reviews to ensure that all required mitigation measures are implemented and completed in a satisfactory manner before and during project construction and operation. Require Annual reports to update the public on the mitigation. Identify ways to increase accountability, oversight and transparency, as needed.
The City could also start to report yearly “Mitigation” status via using the yearly Annual Report on the Status of the General Plan required by the State.
6. Discuss Staff Priorities Pertaining to Development vs. Residents’ Quality of Life. The excessive Development has delivered value to property owners and the Staff Organization, but little (if any) value to residents. For projects to be considered successful, all main parties must see value. Increased development supports specific Staff positions and it provides revenue to support the overall Staff Organization. The 2019 Budget document states that “Personnel costs…represent 65 percent of total General Fund expenditures and total $45.30 million for fiscal year 2019-20, up 11.6 percent when compared to the amended budget for fiscal year 2018-19” (32). The management-level Staff may be spending more time with developers and major property owners than residents, which creates an imbalance and an opportunity for disproportionate influence. Openly discuss this topic towards the broader goal of establishing a more transparent and resident-focused culture in Menlo Park. The underway Community Development Department Review might also identify possibly solutions.
7. Conduct an Analysis of the EIR process and outcomes to identify ways both could improve to better balance the needs of residents with the goals of Staff/developers. Some initial ideas include posting a chart with the key EIR milestone phases. Then label each EIR with where it is in the EIR process. The EIR documents are daunting, so ways to simplify the language and use more graphs and charts might help. It’s difficult to catch any flawed premises and/or serious environmental concerns that have been brushed over or dismissed. The process also seems too weighted to agree to a development, despite serious environmental impacts. Then the tracking of the EIR mitigations needs a more transparent process with accountability. Many individuals and groups have taken considerable time to write thoughtful feedback on an EIR, but their input does not seem to have been taken into account. Instead, the revenue stream from new development seems more important. Having more EIR “checkpoint” stages might help along with resident-focused priorities for the Staff.
Projects that Council Could Delegate to City Advisory Committees/Commissions
1. Conduct an Analysis of Corporate Ownership of Housing in Menlo Park. Determine the extent of “Ghost” properties and properties typically rented out for short-term rentals. Based on the findings, propose recommendations to Council that could include zoning changes. The Housing Commission could be asked to lead this effort, resulting in a report to Council.
2. Implement Training on the new Environmental Justice General Plan Requirements. Senate Bill 1000 took effect in 2018. When the City concurrently updates 2 or more elements of its General Plan, SB 1000 requirements start. The City could start with training sessions on the bill’s requirements with a broad invitation list. The Environmental Quality Commission, in conjunction with the Planning Commission, could lead this effort.
Suggestions from Lynne Bramlett, July 5, 2019 5
3. Establish an annual reporting process for Development agreements/Term Sheets to increase transparency. For each, include the negotiated public benefit(s), in-lieu fees, proposed housing, on-going yearly revenue streams and anything else that was a material aspect of the agreement. Changes to the initial agreement also need a reporting process, so the public is able to track any changes. Status reports for each major one could be available via the City’s website. The Finance & Audit Committee could be asked to conduct an analysis and then make recommendations to Council.
4. Review the City’s Annual Report on the status of the transportation impact, storm drainage, recreation in-lieu, below market rate housing in-lieu, and building construction road impact fees collected yearly. Consider ways to improve current report format so that it makes tracking the financials easier for the public. The Finance & Audit Committee could be asked to review the report format and make recommendations to Council.
5. Review current business taxes to determine if these are adequate and fair. The FAC could be asked to conduct an analysis and to make recommendations for Council to Consider.
6. Ask the Planning Commission to discuss ways its role could evolve to include a more proactive approach to planning.
7. Review the City’s Parks & Recreation-related public-private partnerships. Determine if each arrangement represent fair value to the public. The Parks & Recreation Commission could review each and prepare a report on the topic with recommendations to Council.
8. Review the Benefits of Transitioning to a two-year budget developed in the cycle of a five-year financial plan. A two-year budget process allows for a more stringent approach to analyzing data, tracking trends, and potential problems, and calling for corrective budget action much earlier. It would give more time for community engagement, and the Finance staff more time for other financial-transparency-related projects. The City of Irvine recently transitioned to a two-year budget cycle, and I recently read that Redwood City plans to do so too. The FAC could prepare a report on this topic with recommendations to Council.
General Ways to Reduce Costs to Reduce Need for Development Money
1. Conduct a Staff Organization size & efficiency review. Several have suggested that the Staff organization is large when compared with other cities our size. An organizational review, by an outside organizational consultant reporting directly to Council, would likely generate recommendations that would allow for greater efficiencies. Over time, the Staff Organization could then be reduced via attrition – not layoffs. The ConnectMenlo zoning changes were explicitly designed to maximize income coming from new development. Reducing the size of the Staff organization would reduce the need for new development as an economic stream to pay for staff salaries, benefits and pensions. The Development Agreements also bring in cash that goes into funds that might be used to pay for Capital Improvement Projects that Staff values, but that are not necessarily valued by residents. Less development money flowing into/out of Menlo Park would help to turn the City into more of a resident-focused City.
2. Pay down long-term debt and adopt a pay-as-you-go approach to large Capital projects. Ask residents what services they don’t want and would like to cut for more ideas. Our long-term debt payments represent a significant amount of money. We are also still paying for facilities developed years ago.

Comments (9)

7 people like this
Posted by David Forter
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 6, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Lynne's suggestions are very well thought out and thorough. I believe that they are right on point. I hope that the Menlo Park City Council, Planning Commission and staff take them seriously. These suggestions certainly reflect the wishes of many, many residents.

8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 6, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Subject: Please place a moratorium on the granting of Public Benefit Bonuses
Date: June 11, 2019 at 12:56:12 PM PDT
To: menlo park city council

Dear Council,
Whatever the adverse impacts are of the current General Plan and zoning ordinances those impacts are dramatically increased when a Public Benefit Bonus is granted.

It is also not at all clear under the existing procedures that the reputed “Public Benefits” are in fact beneficial to the public. For example, the granting of a PBB for the payment of otherwise legally required Hotel Occupancy Taxes makes no logical sense and is in fact a Blight Tax imposed on the surrounding properties who bear the impact of the PBB but who receive no value from that so-called public benefit.

Moratoriums that can withstand legal challenges and are also effective without having unwanted impacts are difficult to craft however placing a moratorium on the granting of Public Benefit Bonuses is explicit, discreet and well defined.

Please place a moratorium on the granting of Public Benefit Bonuses

Peter Carpenter
Park Forest

8 people like this
Posted by Scott Barnum
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 6, 2019 at 4:27 pm

Thank you, Lynne, for a very well written and comprehensive analysis with interesting potential prescriptions for the City to consider. This is a perfect time, during the ECR Downtown Plan review, for more citizen involvement in the development planning direction for Menlo Park, not less. Our city has a fair number of well-informed and passionate taxpayers who seek a reasonable balance between development and quality of life. I'm sure we could find folks from all neighborhoods within Menlo Park, given the diverse development issues involved, to be represented on citizen committees who would be glad to collaborate with the City to make sure their interests and ideas are considered.

Thank you for taking the time to proffer this thought provoking communication to the City Council and Planning Commission. I hope the City takes you up on your idea for more citizen involvement in crafting development direction and will explore building out at least some of your specific proposals, if not all of them.

1 person likes this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 7, 2019 at 12:44 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Thank you David, Peter and Scott. I hope you will also attend the upcoming July 15 Council meeting and/or send in comments. Web Link At that meeting, Council will discuss TBD Staff Reports related to the Council Subcommittees planning and zoning updates. Hearing from the public with actionable ideas and offers to help would be timely.

Council recently approved a Staff-initiated request for a new full-time position to focus on Public Engagement. This suggests Staff/Council recognition of a problem that needs new approaches.

The Primer on Public Engagement from Public Agenda presents "authentic public engagement vs. business as usual." Useful reading.

The July 16 Council meeting includes two District 1 development projects apparently moving to the EIR stage. Web Link projects are both moving ahead despite the recent discussions related to development.

To quote Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister (The Mail, October 2, 1994), "The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes." I sincerely hope that our Council will say "No" to these particular EIR requests and to make the difficult decisions needed to start a recovery process.

4 people like this
Posted by Fred Rose
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 7, 2019 at 5:01 pm

This is an extraordinary call to action, filled with smart suggestions and fine analysis. It is perfect evidence that Menlo Park residents should and must be included as central "planners" in the Menlo Park planning exercise.

There are so many topics covered in this missive, but there is an obvious one that demands immediate comment. As we all have, I have been struck by the near perfect failure of planning that has now surfaced with the Willows neighborhood and environs being battered by the echoes of overbuilding east of the 101. This was an easily-foreseeable upshot that should be prevented much of the current expansion from going forward until important infrastructure issues are resolved. The east of the 101 projects are a failed exercise that must be halted.

In all your many topics, thank you Lynne for this research and suggestions.

4 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 7, 2019 at 7:35 pm

George Fisher is a registered user.

Our fast track to oblivion could use a new perspective, if not a reboot.

3 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 8, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Thank you everyone for your responses. Please also write the City Council and the Planning Commission with your thoughts. You can email City Council at [email protected] and the Planning Commission at [email protected] Writing the Grand Jury to request an inquiry Web Link is another option.

Residents have been sounding the alarm for some time. Please see Pam Jones's public comment at the 8/6/2018 Council meeting. Web Link (Topic is I-3: Status of ConnectMenlo general plan and maximum development potential.) Composed and patient, Pam bravely asks for a moratorium but gets only a vague response from the then Mayor. The related Staff Report, #18-152-CC, Web Link focuses on ideas to continue development above the caps. Instead, the Staff Report should have focused on plans to start fixing the well-known problems with ConnectMenlo. The Staff Report shows a lack of awareness that there is a problem. The Post article is also useful. Web Link

The public also needs transparency into the Development Agreements or Term Sheets. The agreements can include a significant annual amount of money that annually goes to the City, above and beyond property taxes. Council should have an annual report with this information, so they know the amount coming in, how it is tracked, what it’s been spent on, and what amount remains. The City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report could start to include a section with these details. Getting more objective data on the financials would help.

I agree completely that we have a planning failure. I’ve started reading “Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing and Recovering from Project Failure” by Todd C. Williams, PMP. The author believes that when a project is “red” (failing) an outside Project Recovery Manager needs to be brought in and that the Management needs to recognize that there is a problem. Our Council will need to recognize that there is a problem, and be willing to do something about it. This will require firm resolve on their part, a focus on details, and drastic measures.

Thanks for all that you have done to try to bring about needed change in Menlo Park.

5 people like this
Posted by Susan Neville
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 8, 2019 at 5:00 pm

Lynne has done our city a great service by submitting these thoughtful and cogent suggestions. Menlo Park couldn't do any better if they hired a third party consultant to analyze the city planning process. Lynne's analysis is deep, fair, and very well informed. It includes a high level perspective as well as detailed focus where needed.

I'm both impressed and grateful.

2 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 14, 2019 at 1:15 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Thank you Susan and to the rest for posting. Especially enjoyed meeting Fred Rose recently too while out walking.

Residents could certainly help solve these problems, while supplying innovative ideas from their various perspectives. Residents starting to do the various tasks needed also helps, along with proposals. On that end, I'm working on putting together a developer agreements chart as a draft that I plan to bring to the upcoming (July 17) Finance & Audit Committee meeting. The public should be able to see these details and where the money goes when it comes in. Getting residents involved in meaningful ways is urgently needed, and other cities have done this.

For now, I hope that many residents will attend the upcoming July 15th Council meeting and make public comments on the E5 topic, which is a follow up to Council's moratorium discussion. Web Link

Council members trying to take a pro-resident focus, such as Nash and Taylor clearly are trying to do, will face opposition as (unfortunately) major developers and private industry have too much influence over Menlo Park's land use decisions.

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