News - June 22, 2011

Menlo Park: Downtown Alliance hires law firm

by Sandy Brundage

Putting its money where its mouth is, the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance hired a law firm to evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed downtown specific plan, and won't dismiss the possibility of a lawsuit.

"We'll keep all options open," said co-founder Nancy Couperus. The group asked Shulte, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP to take a look at the draft environmental impact report (DEIR). The law firm found the report lacking in eight areas.

The main criticisms focus on the lack of analysis regarding environmental impacts if the downtown and El Camino Real corridors are built out to the maximum allowed by the proposed specific plan, and lack of project-level review for items such as a parking garage. The law firm also questioned the DEIR's reliance on mitigation measures that aren't guaranteed to happen.

The law firm didn't skimp on details; it even dug into the history of parking plazas in Menlo Park and suggested that replacing a plaza with a garage would destroy a piece of history. "Indeed, Menlo Park's parking plazas served as models to California and the Nation," said Shulte, Mihaly & Weinberger.

An attorney with the firm, Heather Minner, told the Almanac that there have been times when a review uncovers only minor deficiencies, but that the specific plan DEIR contains serious omissions and flawed analyses that need revision.

Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs called the possibility of a legal challenge unfortunate. "This will cost us all, and for what purpose?" he said, noting the open forum for discussing the plan continues. "Some just do not want change under any circumstances."

Mayor Rich Cline and Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith, along with senior city staff, met with Downtown Alliance members on June 2. Both councilmembers said they didn't know the group planned to have lawyers review the DEIR before the meeting.

"But the concern is understandable," said Mayor Cline. "This is a big deal and a big change and it can have very positive impacts, but also negative impacts. I still maintain this makes the plan better in the long run. We can have a good open public discourse and find common ground in the end."

The Planning Commission begins its review of the specific plan and the DEIR this summer. Thomas Rogers, associate planner for Menlo Park, said if the report requires extensive revisions, the city may need to hold another 45-day public comment


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