Viewpoint - August 31, 2011

Editorial: Now is not the time to rush downtown plan

The badly needed blueprint that will guide development in Menlo Park's downtown and along El Camino Real for years to come is beginning to take shape after four years of public hearings, including intensive study by the Transportation and Planning commissions. The plan's next stop begins Tuesday, Aug. 30, before the City Council.

Although both commissions gave the plan a resounding thumbs up in almost every respect, we are troubled by developments last week at the Planning Commission, where after weeks of deliberation, members felt they were rushed to approve the measure to the point that John Kadvany said he would like to delay approval until he and other commissioners had more time to review it.

Despite that, the commission voted 6-1 to recommend the plan to the council. Mr. Kadvany sent a detailed list of the comments to the council that he was unable to raise. His criticism came in part from lack of time to consider the long overdue Financial Impact Analysis (FIA), which is supposed to assess the plan's impact on the city's revenues. It was not available until Aug. 16, hardly enough time to digest its findings.

More concerning, in our view, is Menlo Park resident Chuck Bernstein's critique of the FIA, which appeared to find mathematical errors. He told the commissioners that he could not duplicate the calculations in the report, a red flag that indicates potentially serious problems that need to be resolved before the plan gets approved.

But the mathematical errors in the FIA, which we assume can soon be corrected, shouldn't overshadow the work done by both commissions. The Planning Commission considered each section of the plan separately, in most cases coming to unanimous agreement on suggested changes.

Among the high points: agreement was reached on maximum building height along El Camino Real, in the vicinity of the shuttered car dealerships. The maximum height limit would rise to 60 feet to accommodate four-story commercial or five-story residential buildings. All other building heights in the plan area would be capped at 38 feet, or two-story commercial and three-story residential units. By comparison, the Kepler's-Cafe Borrone building on El Camino is 46 feet and the Schwab building across Ravenswood Avenue is 56 feet.

The much more controversial proposals to build parking garages and allow hotels and a permanent market on Chestnut Street remain options. Potential sites for the two garages were expanded to include parking plaza 2 as well as plazas 1 and 3. No sites have been chosen for the hotels, although the large hotel would likely be built on El Camino Real and a smaller boutique version downtown.

The Chestnut Street paseo and market may be tested through temporary installations, according to Thomas Rogers, the associate planner overseeing the specific plan process. He said the market could range from a plaza to open pavilion to permanent enclosed buildings. But "one of the few hard and fast rules for any option is that it complement (not compete with) the farmers' market, and Trader Joe's/Draeger's," he said, which is a sensible approach, in our opinion.

Overall, both commissions have given the City Council a lot of feedback to digest as they attempt to reach a consensus on the plan that will guide downtown development for the next few decades. We hope residents contribute constructive ideas during the upcoming hearings. Menlo Park's downtown and El Camino Real corridor need a makeover, and now is the time to do it.


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