News - September 7, 2011

Downtown plan: Bernstein calls for rejection of fiscal analysis

by Sandy Brundage

A relatively peaceful Menlo Park City Council discussion about the draft downtown plan on Aug. 30 was followed later that week by harsh criticism again targeting the plan's fiscal impact analysis (FIA) and calling for its withdrawal.

Educator Chuck Bernstein, who holds an MBA from Stanford University, asked the city to reject the FIA because of what he said were documented gross errors.

"I am requesting that you formally reject the FIA as both erroneous and incomplete, and withdraw it from further public consideration until it can be revised and rewritten," he said in a letter to the City Council on Friday, Sept. 2. "Based on the example that I have been able to explore below, it displays such ignorance of basic economic principles as to call into question not only all the other finding in the analysis, but also the calculations performed by Strategic Economics for the Specific Plan itself."

The example he cited involved the calculation of sales tax from retail sales expected to be generated by 2030 through implementation of the specific plan. The city had acknowledged the consultants forgot to subtract vacant space in their estimate, which then alerted Mr. Bernstein to other underlying potential mistakes. He said he'd also consulted two Stanford Graduate School of Business professors in his quest to clarify the method used to perform the calculations.

Mr. Bernstein emphasized that by his calculations, the plan would generate more revenue than reflected in the FIA. "I am not trying to attack the plan by delving into the numbers; I want to understand what the financial implications are," he wrote.

Rather than withdraw the report, Assistant City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson said the city expects Strategic Economics to respond to the critique this week.

Council evaluation

Earlier in the week, during its Aug. 30 meeting, the City Council evaluated the Caltrain station area and southeast El Camino Real portions of the specific plan in a comparatively tranquil fashion.

Comparatively, because some interested parties raised objections. Stanford University challenged the specific plan's requirements for the vacant car lots it owns along southeast El Camino Real, while the council said the university needs to commit to developing the parcels, particularly with a hotel that could help financially support the specific plan's implementation.

Others, including Richard Draeger of Draeger's Supermarkets, voiced concerns about replacing portions of parking plazas with mixed-use retail developments.

Overall, the council's preliminary recommendations followed the tone set by the planning commissioners during a series of reviews held during the summer.

Among the highlights:

• Curb extensions, which allow sidewalk segments to spread into the street, providing a haven for pedestrians but an obstacle for bike and bus lanes, should be removed from the plan.

• Increase safety by installing quad gates at the Ravenswood and Oak Grove Avenue railroad crossing that would prevent drivers from attempting to cross despite the warning signal.

• Increase the upper-floor setback on Alma Avenue to 15 feet.

Go to to review all documents associated with the specific plan, including recommendations.

The council also supported the Planning Commission's request that the Finance Audit Committee prepare an executive summary of the FIA. According to Assistant City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson, the committee will meet on Sept. 12 to compile the report.

Mr. Bernstein said the committee "should not waste its time on the present document."

Upcoming meetings of the council will focus on different areas of the draft plan: Downtown Menlo Park and the remainder of El Camino Real on Sept. 13, and the FIA along with public benefit during a last review on Sept. 20. Final versions of both the specific plan and environmental impact report may start circulating by winter.


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