Almanac

Viewpoint - March 26, 2014

Guest opinion: Initiative supporter explains why she supports a vote

by Patti Fry

Predictability about development in Menlo Park is important. Developers want as much certainty as possible about what they can build, and residents want predictability about their quality of life.

The El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan was sold as a guide for the city's growth over the next several decades, balancing new community-serving retail, restaurants, housing, offices. But now, less than 18 months into the Plan, two major projects propose to build at least 50 percent more new office space than residents were led to expect for the 30-year life of the Plan — in the entire 130-acre Plan area.

This additional office space brings not only more commuter traffic than anticipated, it also means that actual development may never attain the expected retail/restaurants, small-scale offices, hotel, and transit-oriented housing. The Plan has a maximum buildout of 680 housing units that our crowded schools already would struggle to accommodate; this much additional office space puts significant pressures on Menlo Park to plan for even more housing.

The Plan's rules aren't working properly to support the Plan's vision. These first two El Camino Real development proposals caused the local Sierra Club to write to the City Council last November, which said: "...[a] closer examination of the Plan has exposed a misalignment between its goals and the development standards formulae." Specifically pointed out was that the Plan's "limit" of 50 percent office should actually be 20 percent office to align development with the Plan's environmental impact report and its expected office/housing balance. The letter concluded, "the city cannot have it both ways — a jobs-housing balance as articulated and supported by the public process and also 50 percent FAR (floor area ratio) for office. It has to decide which direction it wants change to happen in the downtown and El Camino area."

The Sierra Club gets it right. The Plan's rules are not resulting in the "most reasonably foreseeable" scenario of balanced growth and revitalization for the next 30 years, as defined and analyzed by the city's teams of expensive consultants. Rather than an "invalidation of the Plan," SaveMenlo's initiative honors the Plan by adopting as firm limits the same amount of new office space (240,820 square feet) and total non-residential space (474,000 square feet) as in the consultants' scenario, so residents can be more confident in the experts' predictions of both the environmental and financial impacts of the Plan, positive and negative.

The initiative's new limit of 100,000 square feet of office space in any single development is believed to affect only three sites: Stanford's, Greenheart's and the Cortana (Big 5 shopping center) sites, each about 6 acres or larger, and each well- suited for multi-unit housing to address Menlo Park's jobs/housing imbalance, not worsen it. This provision should provide more certainty to property owners of smaller sites that they could include some office space without triggering costly environmental reviews the Plan was supposed to help them avoid.

The initiative also removes balconies and upper level decks from counting as project open space, providing more ground level open space for livable, walkable new development consistent with our town's desired character. Participants in the Plan visioning process were clear that they did not want the urbanized character of "stack and pack" development of other peninsula cities.

Contrary to some assertions, the initiative does not shrink or alter the total development any particular project can build under the Plan. It does not change the allowable height. It does not change the amount of retail, restaurants or other non-office uses that would make up the rest of the Plan's maximum build-out of non-residential development. It does not change the Plan's maximum build-out of housing units. It adopts Plan definitions to make it clear how office and open space would be counted after the initiative is adopted.

Voter approval is not required for individual projects. However, rather than returning to the old ad hoc project-by-project negotiations when a proposed project would exceed the initiative's or Plan's limits, the initiative requires a vote of residents (not a Council majority) to decide when it's appropriate to modify the initiative's limits, whether that's sooner or later than the Plan's 30-year life.

Initiative supporters are gathering signatures to give Menlo Park residents the opportunity to vote for or against a few new controls so future development might conform more closely to what residents were told to expect. After all, once huge buildings are constructed, they will affect for generations the walkability, livability, and character of our town.

Patti Fry, former Menlo Park planning commissioner

Comments

Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 27, 2014 at 9:12 am

When a 30 year development plan is exceeded in just two years something must be done. Nice piece Patti.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 27, 2014 at 9:32 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If you own a lot and want to build a ten room house that fully complies with the zoning ordinance do you think that you should only be allowed to build one room a year?

Of course not.

The Specific Plan establishes what is permitted but quite properly says nothing about any schedule for that development.

The January 2013 staff report made this very clear - of course many people were not paying attention:

"The potential for large projects to account for a significant percentage of the Maximum Allowable Development thresholds was discussed by the City Council prior to adoption of the Specific Plan. As noted at the time by staff, because the thresholds are based on net new development, it should not be surprising if a project on a large and primarily vacant site would represent a large proportion of the Maximum Allowable Development. Conversely, more modest projects that propose redevelopment of sites with currently-active uses will typically result in smaller net new development totals."

Facts are important to this discussion.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 27, 2014 at 10:15 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Unfortunately when posters start a new thread that duplicates one already in existence readers are often unaware of the lengthy dissuasion that has already gone on under the first time the topic was posted.

Therefore, I will repost my concerns regarding the petition.

A - Process
1 - The petition was created in secret
2 - Without any opportunity for public review
3 - And hence without the opportunity to improve/clarify the initiative to reflect the concerns of those outside the small group that wrote it.
4 - Once the first signature is gathered the language cannot be changed without starting the entire filing process again.
5 - No effort has been or seems to be planned to ensure that potential signers of the petition have even read it.

B - Substance
1 - The initiative is lengthy and covers a number of different issues
2 - Therefore the opportunity for mistakes and conflict are significant
3 - The initiative is a 'forever' document which will, as intended, preclude some changes to the Specific Plan without another vote and will also, as an untended consequence, make it difficult to make any changes to the Specific Plan, particularly given the Priority Clause:
"PRIORITY.
5.1. After this measure becomes effective, its provision shall prevail over and
supersede all provisions of the municipal code, ordinances, resolutions,
and administrative policies of the City of Menlo Park which are inferior to
the Planning Policy Documents and in conflict with any provisions of this
measure."
4 - Some of the language, as noted, does not and cannot accommodate changes in commerce such as banking and medical offices.
5- The initiative would force individuals with adjacent parcels to develop them separately thereby precluding integrated design and shared amenities.

C - Impact
1 - The initiative, even if not passed, will signal to any interested party that Menlo Park's planning process and established rules cannot be relied upon and they will make their investments elsewhere.
2 - The initiative, even if not passed, will delay moving forward with the Specific Plan.
3 - The initiative, even if not passed, will send a chilling message to the Planning Commissioners, the City Council and the planning staff that their efforts to have an open and inclusive process can be thwarted by a small group of disgruntled citizens.

I am sure that others can add concerns that I have overlooked.

My concern is that each of the petition signers actually read the entire proposed initiative before they sign their names. Typically the signature sheet only includes the title of the proposed ballot measure. Hopefully all the parties involved will work collaboratively to make sure that each prospective signer is fully informed as to the contents of the proposed initiative.

The irony is that Save Menlo is proposing an initiative whose language has never been presented for public comment and which they want to be binding over all other city ordinances for thirty years. No public discussion, no opportunity for revisions or corrections - just take it or leave it. Correcting even a single error in the initiative ( and a 12 page document produced in secret without public input and review is likely to have a number of both errors and policy misstatements) would require another expensive ballot measure:
"the voter adopted development standards and definitions set forth in Section 3, above, may be repealed or amended only by a majority vote of the electorate of the City of Menlo Park voting "YES" on a ballot measure proposing such repeal or amendment at a regular or special election."

Save Menlo wants to substitute their judgement and their choice of words for a multi-year, deliberative, iterative process including scores of open forums, Planning Commission meetings and Council meetings, all with public input, that produced the current Downtown ECR Specific Plan.

I welcome debate on the specific language in the initiative and I am confident that such debate will illuminate its flaws and educate the voters.


Posted by I signed, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Thank you, Patti, for your clear and articulate description of the need to refine the wording in the specific plan. We need to close the loopholes that let deep-pocketed developers avoid the original objectives of the plan: to retain our town's village character and encourage development that serves the needs of residents, not the bank accounts of the .1%


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Save Menlo disinformation campaign continues with their yard signs which proclaim:

"No Vacant Lots" when that is exactly what will happen if their initiative passes
and

"Yes to Balanced Growth" which will not happen if owners of adjacent parcels are required to develop them separately with multiple ECR accesses and no shared amenities.


Posted by Observer, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Mar 28, 2014 at 9:30 pm

As Mr. Carpenter notes: There is a thread under another recent Almanac article on this topic with 75 comments to date. But so far, no response this this one:

If "Save Menlo" would say who they really are and what they are truly "for" as they try to supplant MP's elected representatives and open/public processes, that would be a productive first step.


Posted by Patti Fry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 31, 2014 at 9:40 am

Please explain why vacant lots "will happen" when the initiative passes. It allows the same amount of development that was forecast under the Specific Plan.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 31, 2014 at 9:48 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Please explain why vacant lots "will happen" when the initiative passes. It allows the same amount of development that was forecast under the Specific Plan."

Great question - if developers who currently hold large acerage consisting of multiple adjacent parcels are limited to 100,000 sq ft then they would have no incentive to produce integrated plans that combine their individual parcels and would simply leave some of them empty - particularly ones which, if developed, would require a gift of land for a public plaza and a financial contribution to a pedestrian tunnel.

This is a great example of the unintended and undesirable consequences of a poorly written initiative.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 31, 2014 at 10:02 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Bob Burke, a principal with Greenheart, told me that the measure would mean "our proposed project wouldn't work.
"We'd have to go back and start over," he said. "That would be a long delay. And financially, it doesn't make sense. You'd have to alter the project significantly. Now the retail isn't as viable because you don't have the daytime population of the office."

Equals Vacant Lots.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 31, 2014 at 10:15 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The above quote is by

Nathan Donato-Weinstein
Real Estate Reporter-
Silicon Valley Business Journal

Mar 19, 2014, 6:51am PDT


Posted by Patti Fry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 31, 2014 at 11:43 am

The 100K limit is only for office. Mixed use opportunities remain for any site.

Retail can be well supported by nearby residents, who are around during day, evening, weekends.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 31, 2014 at 11:50 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Retail can be well supported by nearby residents, who are around during day, evening, weekends. "

Sadly the existing day time population of Menlo Park already does a very poor job of supporting the existing retail stores - how are they possibly going to support more retail? There is a clue in the fact that property owners are not willing to invest in Menlo Park retail because the retail demand is simply not there.

"The 100K limit is only for office" Do you support up to 100k for any individual parcel? Stanford has 6 parcels and Greenheart probably has at least 4 parcels.


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