The redevelopment of Fire Station 6 on two lots at Oak Grove Avenue and Hoover Street seems an unlikely ground zero for Menlo Park's pitched battle over its new downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, but it has turned out to be so.
On Monday night the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted 3-0-1, with Virginia Kiraly abstaining and Charles Bernstein absent, to look elsewhere for a site to construct a new fire station downtown.
"After 7 years of working to replace Station 6 we have gotten nowhere while in half that time we will have built a brand new and dramatically better station in East Palo Alto with the full support and assistance of the City of East Palo Alto," director Peter Carpenter said in an email.
"After a full discussion the Fire Board voted ... to make no further expenditures for the replacement of Station 6 at the Oak Grove site and to consider alternative sites which will allow us to fulfill our obligation to serve the downtown area," Mr. Carpenter said.
The parcels that were slated for a renovated station straddle the boundary of the specific plan, with 700 Oak Grove on the inside and 1231 Hoover St. outside. Mr. Carpenter, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the board, said that creates issues that could kill the renovation should a proposed initiative to alter the specific plan's regulations get approved by voters in November.
Mr. Carpenter is a staunch and highly vocal opponent of the initiative.
The initiative, put forth by a grassroots coalition known as Save Menlo, includes clauses that would, within the specific plan's boundaries, restrict office space for individual projects to 100,000 square feet; limit total new office space to 240,820 square feet; and cap overall new, non-residential development to 474,000 square feet.
In addition, voter approval would be required to revise the ordinance, including its definitions, or to allow projects that would exceed the non-residential development limits.
That voter approval clause, as far as Station 6 is concerned, has drawn Mr. Carpenter's ire. He said that merging the Oak Grove and Hoover Street parcels could require redefining the specific plan's boundaries to encompass the entire combined lot. Under the initiative's terms, that means a city-wide vote would be required to allow it, he said.
The district started planning for a replacement station in 2007. When the fire district asked Menlo Park this May to expedite the station's remodel so that project approvals would become effective this year -- before the initiative's regulations would take effect -- Mr. Carpenter said the answer was no.
The city staff's response, according to a report by fire district staff for the June 30 fire board meeting, was that since the process could not be expedited, the city would have to determine whether the project is subject to the new regulations, if the initiative passes.
"In the event that the City makes the determination that the Initiative applies to the Station 6 Project, the District would either have to contest that determination in court or obtain voter approval for the Station 6 Project. This would delay the Project by at least six months to a year and cost the District approximately $95,000 in election costs," the fire district report states.
From Mr. Carpenter's perspective, this is an example of city staff allowing the initiative to impact current projects.
Asked whether development staff shortages and heavy workloads could be responsible for the city's inability to accommodate the district's request, he replied in an email: "Not in my opinion. The Fire Board passed two resolutions on this matter and the staff refuses to even refer those resolutions to the Council."
Calling it shameful that something as important as upgrading a fire station has become politicized, initiative co-sponsor Patti Fry said the reasons for the protracted approval process have nothing to do with the proposed ballot measure.
The problems are between the city and the fire district, according to Ms. Fry. She said that for unknown reasons, the City Council, which includes former fire board director Peter Ohtaki, hasn't resolved the issues even during last year's specific plan review.
"Now the initiative is being blamed," Ms. Fry said. "We want Menlo Park residents and businesses to know that these issues have nothing to do with the specific plan initiative. We believe in public safety and support the district's pursuit of a viable plan for the downtown station's upgrade."
The fire board met June 30 to discuss its options regarding Station 6. Three choices were outlined: Proceed as planned despite the potential complications; eliminate the lot merger and process the project as two developments on two lots; and find a new replacement site entirely outside the specific plan's boundaries.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he was asked on June 27 why his staff hadn't recommended one option over the other. "I had to say, after many hours of research and debate with staff and legal counsel, I don't like any of them! They all present a potential risk or additional cost to the district and its taxpayers. They could also draw us into the political fray, which I would prefer to avoid."
The chief noted in an email that it shouldn't be this difficult to replace a worn-out station.
"Can I say it again, I just want to be able to expeditiously rebuild the fire station!" Chief Schapelhouman said. "We have the funds to accomplish this important task, we are not asking the taxpayers for a bond, additional tax or a penny more to do this. Delays, uncertainty and complexity have all led to the additional time and expense necessary to research and navigate this project and have created barriers to what should be, at this point, a straightforward task."
Editor's note: The original version of this story reported the vote as 4-0.