Voters will have a chance to determine the fate of a grassroots group's proposed changes to Menlo Park's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan in the November election, the council decided on Tuesday night with a 5-0 vote.
Save Menlo's ballot measure's changes include restricting the amount of office space in any individual project to 100,000 square feet; capping total new office space at 240,820 square feet; and limiting overall new, nonresidential development to 474,000 square feet within the specific plan's boundaries.
It would also redefine open space to mean only areas no higher than 4 feet off the ground, thereby preventing balconies from counting as open space.
Voters would have to approve any changes to the ordinance as well as any projects that would exceed the nonresidential development cap.
Council members chose to put the measure on the ballot instead of adopting it. The changes are rife with the potential for unintended consequences, they said, and the voter approval requirement was worrisome.
Councilman Rich Cline described it as "a battle for the soul of downtown." He noted, as did his colleagues, that the specific plan comes up for review at least once every two years and can be changed. The initiative, on the other hand, locks the city into its regulations unless a city-wide vote is carried out.
The measure's proponents argued that the changes are necessary to prevent Menlo Park from becoming one big traffic jam, and to improve the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance by encouraging the development of residential units over office space.
Both the council and Lisa Wise Consulting, which provided an analysis of the measure, agreed that it could have a positive impact on the jobs-to-housing ratio. Mayor Ray Mueller suggested that the question at the bottom of all the debate is whether the community wants a main corridor composed mostly of housing, or whether it wants the vibrancy of mixed-use development.
Speakers on behalf of the initiative challenged the consultant's analysis, but said they felt unheard by the council.
"I was very disappointed that council accepted the Wise report without exposing or discussing its errors, limitations, and overall shortcomings," said former council member Heyward Robinson.
Although Vice Mayor Catherine Carlton admonished both sides of the debate to stick to the facts, he said, the report gets many facts wrong. "Although numerous errors were noted during public comment, the council chose not to pursue these in their questions or discussion, instead cherry-picking points from the report to support a previously held opinion or position. I'm left wondering why the council commissioned this report in the first place," Mr. Robinson said.
Other speakers urged the council to uphold the specific plan.
"It's a terrible -- terrible! -- idea to take the power to make zoning changes away from the council," Shirley Chu said.
Representatives from Stanford University and Greenheart -- two developers that each have proposed large mixed-use projects along El Camino Real -- told the council that if the initiative passes, their projects have to go back to the drawing board, and they weren't sure what would emerge as replacements.
Steve Pierce of Greenheart also said that the changes would result in a minimum two-year delay -- long enough that the company fears a downturn in the currently favorable economy could derail any project. "I think it's a serious risk," he said.
The council also formed a subcommittee composed of Councilman Cline and Mayor Mueller to draft the ballot argument against the ballot measure.