Almanac

News - November 20, 2013

Menlo Park: Specific plan review moves to council

by Sandy Brundage

Rarely does a week pass without mention of Menlo Park's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, and that will continue to be the case for a while, now that the City Council has a chance to evaluate modifications proposed by the Planning Commission.

The suggested changes are more along the lines of fine-tuning rather than major revisions to the specific plan. The commission, during a review that stretched over five meetings, made recommendations that included:

• Allowing the city to evaluate proposed renovations within the specific plan area for compliance with criteria such as sidewalk width. Currently new projects must meet the standards, while remodels of existing structures may not, as recently demonstrated by the renovation of the Mermaid Inn at 727 El Camino Real.

• Letting construction of a pedestrian-bicycle railroad undercrossing at Middle Avenue start regardless of the status of high-speed rail construction. "I don't want the (undercrossing) to be happening 15 years from now," Commission chair John Kadvany noted during the Nov. 4 discussion. The commission also wants the city to prioritize building a downtown parking garage as funding becomes available.

• Permitting some flexibility in building break, parking and setback requirements for parcels in the southeast portion of El Camino Real, which includes the Stanford lots, to allow the creation of an "optimal" public plaza at Middle Avenue. Commissioner Henry Riggs commented that a plaza design that had chairs next to a garage entrance — i.e., a plaza compromised by vehicular traffic — wouldn't make it past the commission's architectural review.

• Creating a transportation management association, open to entities within the plan boundaries, to coordinate and monitor traffic-reduction measures.

Go to tinyurl.com/m5gdsrl to see a summary of the Planning Commission's recommendations and staff analysis.

The specific plan has come under fire as projects started appearing under the new regulations. Stanford University and John Arrillaga proposed building an 8.43-acre mixed-use project that would replace mostly vacant car lots along 300 to 500 El Camino Real with 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.

The university has agreed to make "a substantial contribution," with the exact amount yet unknown, to construction of the Middle Avenue railroad undercrossing as well as to participate in a city-led design group for the public plaza.

A second project, designed by Greenheart LLC, would create 210,000 square feet of office space and 210,000 square feet of apartments, with 16,000 square feet of retail in the commercial buildings and 7,000 square feet in the residential, on 7 acres located at 1300 El Camino Real at Oak Grove Avenue.

Save Menlo, a grassroots coalition organized to oppose the Stanford project, surfaced with its own suggestions, compiled with the support of the Sierra Club. In an email sent Nov. 18, the two groups asked that the city change the specific plan to cap office space at 25 percent of a building's floor area; limit building height to a maximum of 48 feet; and add a development impact infrastructure fee for new projects. These changes would help reduce traffic impacts and improve safety and quality of life, they said.

Early in its review the commission had indicated through informal votes that a majority were "favorably disposed" toward the density and floor area ratios — the scale, in other words — of buildings allowed under the specific plan. Katherine Strehl and John Onken abstained since they are recused from voting on certain zones of the specific plan.

Whatever happens, this is far from the last chance residents, developers and city officials have to weigh in on how well the specific plan is working, as noted during the Planning Commission discussions.

"We'll be reviewing this again in 14 months, so don't worry," Commissioner Katie Ferrick noted on Nov. 4.

The City Council was scheduled to start its specific plan review on Tuesday, Nov. 19, after the Almanac's deadline. Check AlmanacNews.com for updates.

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