Almanac

News - August 31, 2011

Planning Commission votes 6-1 to send downtown plan to council

by Sandy Brundage

When the City Council takes up the Menlo Park downtown/El Camino Real specific plan on Tuesday, Aug. 30, it will also have a package of recommendations from the Planning Commission to consider.

The 6-1 vote in favor of recommending the plan to the City Council didn't quite reflect the heated debate voiced by the Planning Commission at its Aug. 22 meeting. While most of the commission appeared to support the plan, the recommendation came with some proposed modifications that inspired argument, such as upgrading bike lanes along El Camino Real to a higher level than planned. The vote to upgrade was 6-1, with Commissioner Henry Riggs opposed.

Curb extensions proved to be one of the more controversial components of the El Camino Real portion of the specific plan. Extensions allow sidewalk segments to spread out into the street, providing a haven for pedestrians but an obstacle for bike and bus lanes. On a 4-3 vote, with Commissioners Ben Eiref, John Kadvany, and Peipei Yu disagreeing, the panel decided to recommend deleting curb extensions from the specific plan.

Other suggestions, including a request that the council lower allowed new building facade heights from 45 feet by one full story, found consensus.

After casting his dissenting vote against recommending the plan to the City Council, Commissioner Kadvany, participating by phone, expressed his frustration as the meeting ended close to midnight.

"I just want to say I told people yes, I would just try to bring this stuff up for you, stuff I didn't even agree with, and now I can't. I just have to say, 'Sorry, we ran out of time," he said. "This whole thing has been hurry up, then wait, since this whole project started. It's not right."

The vote allowed the commission to forward the plan to the council, subject to suggested revisions, with the caveat that "not everything was discussed."

Mr. Kadvany told the Almanac that one outstanding issue is the allowable dimensions of 60-foot-high buildings near the Caltrain station and on El Camino Real.

"(The commission chair) said that residents probably didn't understand, today, the 60 foot building standard being used for larger buildings — that's taller than Borrone, Schwab, Menlo Square — and there could be a real 'shock' when the first proposals come through," he said, adding that the council will have to decide if it's worth paying consultants Perkins and Will to rethink building scale.

A second issue concerns the vacant car lots Stanford University owns along southeast El Camino Real. "To prevent large masses of 60-foot, four- or five-story buildings joined together, the draft plan calls for building separations and open space for this large site," Mr. Kadvany explained. However, the university submitted a letter the same day as the commission's final meeting on the specific plan, saying that the requirements weren't appropriate for what it described as narrow lots. The last-minute letter left little time for the commission to weigh its merits.

Chair Vincent Bressler later said the commission had considered every area covered in the plan, and that the point of the commission's five-meeting series was to provide lots of opportunity to receive and respond to public comment before recommending changes to the plan.

"Our goal was to make the City Council's job easier. I expect that it will be difficult for the City Council to come to consensus on this plan. However, without our efforts, it would have been much, much more difficult," he said.

The project's fiscal impact analysis (FIA) also caused a stir at the Monday night meeting. Released just six days before, on Aug. 16, the report came under fire for potential errors.

Educator Chuck Bernstein, who holds an MBA from Stanford University, told the commission he'd documented multiple calculation mistakes. City staff said they would work on double-checking the FIA, which analyzes the impact of the specific plan on the city's revenues, before the council meets on Aug. 30 to begin its own review.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the council ask the finance and audit committee to review the FIA.

Go to tinyurl.com/plan-163 to view all documents related to the specific plan, including the fiscal impact analysis.

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