News - September 28, 2011

No last call yet for Menlo Park downtown plan

• Council extends review timetable; next discussion Oct. 4.

by Sandy Brundage

It was, perhaps, an optimistic schedule — three meetings to evaluate the draft downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, then on to other business. And indeed, the Menlo Park City Council found that three meetings weren't nearly enough during what was to be the final discussion on Sept. 20.

The plan aims to describe the types of new development and building dimensions allowed downtown and along El Camino Real for the next 30 years. Given the complexity, the plan will continue to grace the agenda during October so that the council can hone its vision, continuing to build on the work carried out this summer by the Planning Commission.

Many of the 22 people who addressed the council during public comment, including educator Chuck Bernstein and former Planning Commissioner Patti Fry, seemed to agree there was a lot left to discuss.

Bike lanes

That is not to say, however, that nothing was accomplished at the Sept. 20 meeting as it stretched past midnight. At least a dozen bicycle and pedestrian advocates appeared delighted by the outcome of the council's decision to accept many of the nine suggestions made by the Bicycle Commission, in particular, concentrating on bike lanes rather than bike routes through downtown and El Camino Real.

Adina Levin, founder of the Drive Less Challenge, told the council she was excited to see bike parking stuffed full outside council chambers. During a presentation co-authored by Andrew Boone, she laid out a way to add 13 miles of bike lanes on eight streets, compared with the specific plan's one mile on two streets, through strategies such as restricting street parking between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and adding shared lane markings called "sharrows."

She asked the council to reconsider the specific plan's option to widen El Camino Real to six lanes. "One of the real risks with transit-oriented development is if transit-oriented development is in little pockets separated by wide car avenues, then people wind up getting in their car to cross the street and you don't get the benefit of vibrancy, the benefit of a walkable, ride-able community," she said.

However, the council opted to keep the six-lane option open, while city staff said that implementing any changes would require a full public review. "Just to make it clear that it's not a done deal," said Associate Planner Thomas Rogers.

Bulb-outs also remain controversial. The Planning Commission recommended removing sidewalk extensions, which provide safe havens for pedestrians attempting to cross a street, from the specific plan to avoid obstructing bike and bus lanes. The council agreed, but advocates argue that the law requires bulb-outs to be installed in a way that doesn't interfere.

The council expects to continue its specific plan review on Tuesday, Oct. 4, with a focus on El Camino Real. It may also revisit how to incorporate public benefits from new development and fire district concerns, before voting on their final package of recommendations.

Go to to review the draft specific plan and associated reports.


Posted by Elizabeth H, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

When Menlo Park and Palo Alto so many years ago chose NOT to put Sand Hill thoroughfares to Middlefield, Willow or Embarcadero roads they, in fact, chose that Menlo Park was to retain it's rural, small town feel. Quite simply, traffic (mostly Stanford traffic,) dictates that it remain that way.

What the current downtown "visioning" plan plans to do is make downtown Menlo Park an Urban Center when the street arteries can't handle the traffic. How does cement and steel create community? How does 6 story, office w/ little housing on El Camino create community? How do more hotels create community? How does 51% office space, 19% Hotel in-fill create community? It doesn't, however, if you look at the new and improved Town and Country Village (despite horrible traffic,) the place, single story, street level parking is booming with business. It's the hot new place to hang out for local folks (creating community,) all while generating local sales tax...

Come on City Council, City Staff, and Planning Department, give us a plan we can ALL feel good about. You can do much, much, much, better.

Posted by Elizabeth H, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I commend the City Council for taking more time reviewing a plan that has such a huge impact on all neighborhoods around the downtown. It is my hope that when the plan is more finalized that the City do a scale model so that people really can 'see' and understand what impacts this re-zoning will have. Also, put it to a vote or better yet don't kill the review process so that people can have their voices heard years from now.

Posted by Long Time Menlo Man, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Thank you council for not heeding the naysayer's gloom and doom rhetoric. It's a 99% GREAT plan. The city staff and consultants have done a fantastic job! Tweak it if you must but let's get going!

Posted by Patti Fry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I am thankful the Council is taking extra time to consider the complexities and potential consequences of the draft Specific Plan. Many of its details were never discussed in the community Workshops: the project approval process, potential size of buildings (only height), guidelines, nature of parking plazas, parking requirements, the mix of uses allowed "by right", a new Base level of development that doesn't require an exchange of Public Benefit. Now is the time to dig into such details, and test them for reasonableness and for potential unintended consequences.

Most people think they know what the Vision meant – goodbye to weedy El Camino lots, hello to more senior housing and a more lively Downtown.

But the Plan makes many other changes. As proposed, the Plan creates more jobs than housing, adding commuters and increasing – not reducing - the current jobs/housing imbalance. It shuts out the voice of neighborhoods and local businesses by eliminating the current public review process for uses that might affect them (e.g., food and beverage sales, medical office, take-out restaurants, dense housing) while allowing significantly larger structures and requiring less parking.
It allows 5 story office buildings with 10 foot setbacks. It removes 35 parking spaces from behind Trader Joe's and 32 from the Farmers Market lot. It is expected to result in less retail/restaurant on El Camino. Over half of the new development is expected to be offices (one reason the Plan will increase - not decrease - Menlo Park's greenhouse gas emissions.) The consultants conclude at least one hotel is required for the Plan's financial viability.

I urge the Council to continue its careful review and modifications. They're just getting into the issues that will make the difference between the Plan fulfilling the Vision of a well-connected, vibrant small town and the possibility of over-developed grid-locked urbanization that benefits private developers at the cost of our residential community.

Posted by Dharma, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Odd that Patti Fry, a self described former planning commissioner, thinks the Downtown Plan will create 5 story buildings. At least that's better than Elizabeth Hauk who thinks its 6. The permitted height on El Camino is 4 stories on the car dealer side, less on most of the west side, shorter on Santa Cruz.

And besides, this zoning plan doesn't create any buildings at all, it only allows them, and with new tighter rules so that the commissions don't have to say the same things at hearings and more hearings.

Enough with the hand wringing people. There's a reason why there are no new buildings in Menlo, its the no-growth zoning. Can we move on yet?

Posted by slow and steady, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm

The permitted height is not 4 stories but 60 feet, which is most likely 5 stories. (That's mostly irrelevant, because if you are walking or driving down El Camino, you don't care how many stories are in the building. Height does matter, especially if it makes the street feel like a tunnel.

Patti is right on target with her issues. She has studied the EIR and the plan -- can any of the rest of you say the same? (I can't!) She is an unpaid advocate for everyone. Well, except for the developers who don't care if El Camino ends up looking like garbage as long as they get their money out first.

I also wonder how many of you have driven El Camino from San Jose to San Francisco? At various times, I think I've been on every stretch of that road. There are cities in which El Camino is a bustling, relatively attractive and walkable street, like San Mateo/Burlingame, and cities where El Camino looks as though it belongs in a different part of the state. Most residents do not want an ugly or gridlocked El Camino.

We can enhance our town's look and upgrade the buildings and streets for future use without sacrificing our special character. Beware of those who tell you to ignore all the concerns and move ahead blindly -- they are thinking about their interests, not yours.

Posted by Patti Fry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Dharma - I served on Menlo Park's Planning Commission for 4 full years. Look at page E25 of the draft Specific Plan and you will see the proposed new permitted heights of buildings. Downtown (except for garages) is limited to 38'. Between Oak Grove and Menlo/Ravenswood on both sides of El Camino and on Alma, the height limit is 60' (5 stories), and along the east side of El Camino from there south to Palo Alto the height can be 60' (5 stories). You may disagree with my conclusions, but let's start with facts.
A number of El Camino projects have come forward in recent years under current zoning rules. Two big reasons they aren't built - the economy is one (even the Bohannon Menlo Gateway hasn't started), and another is the lure of being able to build a lot more if the draft Plan is approved.

Posted by Long time resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 10:21 am

Anyone who looks closely at the sad state of our blighted El Camino, side streets choked with cars, dirty narrow sidewalks downtown with rancid garbage cans, parking lots with chaotic power poles and wiring, and undersized turnabout spaces for cars- can see this plan is way overdue.

Patti Fry is part of an old,vocal minority that killed the Derry project through a misinformation/referendum campaign. She left us with a closed car wash, an abandoned autobody service and a vacant cleaners in its place. She is opposed to growth.

Posted by Patti Fry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Sorry to disappoint you, long time resident, but I helped negotiate a revised Derry project that exceeded existing zoning rules. And it provided substantial public benefit. That project was approved by the Planning Commission and awaits approval by the Council whenever the project owner brings it forward.
It's easy to anonymously label people and blame them for things you don't like, but please consider the following:
There is a new medical office at 1906 El Camino that has been standing empty for quite some time. The approved Menlo Gateway project hasn't broken ground. Isn't it reasonable to think that economic conditions might be playing a role in why there are vacant lots on El Camino and why approved projects haven't been built?
On Santa Cruz, there is no reason in the zoning code for why retail storefronts should be empty (retail and restaurants are Permitted Uses), so perhaps the economy or rents are the reason. But I guess you'd rather vilify me than to tackle the real underlying problems.

Posted by G, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Just do something! El camino is an embarrassment. This isn't Detroit. Allow growth...and maybe a bar on Santa Cruz. It's not 1950. Change isn't that scary people. This isn't a transplant opinion. I have lived here all my life.

Posted by slow and steady, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 5, 2011 at 10:35 am

Anyone who thinks that rezoning is enough to revitalize El Camino is delusional. There are only two reasons that developers aren't building projects on El Camino:

* They can't get financing/it's the economy!

* Those who do have money are hoping that the council gives them a huge windfall. No reason to hurry when if they wait a few months they might be able to construct a monster building.

I'm not a historian, but I'll bet that Menlo Park during the Depression had s similar rundown appearance because no one could afford to fix it up. Then the 1940s hit, and development began anew. Not because of rezoning! You can't expect the council of our small city to fix a global financial crisis.

On the other hand, our council can and should require Stanford to remove the blight of the abandoned dealerships. Our council seems to be afraid of offending Stanford, why, I do not know.

Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 5, 2011 at 11:58 am

I find it unfortunate that we live next to one of the greatest universities in the world and yet we have third-world traffic light patterns and traffic.

I know many people hate coming through my town on El Camino because the traffic is a joke. Why would there be a green light on one block only to be held back by the traffic stopped by a red light one block ahead?

I'm no expert but wouldn't it make sense for all of the lights on El Camino in downtown to be synced to get traffic moving?

Posted by MP resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Slow and steady: keep telling yourself whatever makes you feel good. There are more than five large scale developments going on in palo alto right are those being paid for? This area is not you read the news? There have been four newly constructed residential developments within three blocks of my house. How were those paid for? Did the developer not get construction financing? Did they not make money?

This construction could be financed, especially if it was phased. And even if it wasn't feasible financially, just pass something! These NIMBY's have been arguing for 10 years now! Get the ball rolling already!

Posted by slow and steady, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 5, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Please reread my second point.

Construction isn't dead in Menlo Park, but some high profile properties have not been developed, even though they have been approved -- even though they conform to existing zoning!

I have yet to meet a NIMBY regarding this plan. Everyone I know in Menlo Park -- everyone -- wants to see the city updated. Everyone complains about the vacant car lots and the ugliness of El Camino. It would be nice if the "I want it all NOW" stance were a productive one, but after four years of effort, the plan still needs finetuning.

I feel for the council because they are in a tough situation. They know the plan as it stands is seriously flawed. Specifically, if one developer builds out to the EIR maximum, the EIR will be irrelevant and the next developer will have to start from scratch. But with an election coming up next year, it would be political suicide to fix the problems. Their best bet is to hold tight and hope that the problems don't become apparent until after the election.

Some of you who are the biggest proponents of approving the plan as is will soon realize its inadequacies. Don't believe me now? You don't have to. But check back in 18 months, when you find yourself outside the scope of the plan because of the inadequate EIR, and you'll wonder that you were so gullible as to think the plan would be your holy grail.

Posted by old timer, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Joanna writes above that the problem with traffic on El Camino is failure of the traffic light system.

Well, Joanna, a few years ago $1 million was spent for a computer driven system, that was supposed to make things rosy. It obviously didn't

The problem is just too much traffic and with the push to add more high density operations in town it is just gong to get worse.

When Staford was given the go-ahead to widen Sand Hill / Alameda we were told everything would be wonderful. How many years has it taken us to get back to exactly where we were ten years go. Just wait until the 240,000 additional clinic appointments per year come about with the Hospital expansion; SF 19th avenue will seem like a cakewalk compared to MP traffic. Of course, by then, new City manager, new Council, nobody left to blame.

The present downtown /El Camino plan is a disaster --- nothing more than a developer give-away. The whole scene is driven by Mayor Cline's view that "we must build our way out of the present financial crisis" and besides "I hate the parking plazas." I heard the other day a good name for it --- Cline's folly.

We (not me) voted them into office --- we will suffer for generations.

Posted by Member, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2011 at 1:10 am

Old timer is hilarious. Now I know why mp is like it is. No one under 70 has the time to shape our town. Times change bud. When more people come, traffic gets worse. I wish I was retired and had time to attend all these meetings. Grrrrr too many people! I hear gilroy is nice this time of year.

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