Never before in Menlo Park has there been a more grave question. As former mayors we weathered many controversial issues, some that were decided by a referendum, an initiative or an election that had political ramifications. None were easy.
Facing our council today is an initiative that was launched by a neighborhood grass roots organization that feels its council has let it down. It was a bold step, as their only recourse was to take their case to the real stakeholders, their fellow residents, the voters. We believe their case is strong.
The Specific Plan (SP) began with good intentions that we supported. The Plan's 12 goals described in clear and reassuring terms what the residents expressed, both at public meetings and through mail surveys: to maintain the town's village character while providing greater east/west connectivity, revitalizing underutilized parcels, expanding shopping, dining and neighborhood services to ensure vibrancy, providing new residential opportunities and including accessible public open space. A promise that resonated was that the Plan would "ensure that El Camino Real development would be sensitive to and compatible with adjacent neighborhoods."
Unfortunately, the reality of the two large proposals before the City contradicts the vision promised during the SP process. Large office complexes were not sought by the residents. Residents heard descriptions and saw renderings of moderate developments that featured a balance of retail, restaurants, a hotel, office, plaza and undercrossings of the train tracks. We believed that the Plan would make revitalization more predictable for developers, and the rules would support the community's vision.
When, in the first two years of a 30-year plan the first two development proposals on El Camino Real exceed by 50 percent the projected office growth and are 88 percent of the non-residential growth projected, there needs to be a serious re-evaluation. The proposals from Stanford and Greenheart have revealed the flaws in the SP that will rob from other property owners in the Plan Area the opportunity to easily redevelop their properties.
This is in stark contradiction of the SP's purpose.
The city needs a long range plan that provides certainty for property owners and
residents alike. The initiative corrects three flaws in the Plan and offers a more moderate approach by capping office uses on the three largest parcels on El Camino Real to 100,000 square feet, so as to preserve space for retail, hotel, housing, and local serving businesses.
When the SP's growth limits have been reached for office and non-residential development, any amendment to the SP that would increase the square footage limits that were approved July 12, 2012 can only be approved by Menlo Park voters.
The initiative also modifies the definition of open space so private balconies above the first floor are not counted as project open space. A private balcony should be private.
The $150,000 the Council recently allocated to study the initiative should be used to determine if the SP can actually work for the next 28 years, considering that the limit for office development has almost been reached in the first two years. When the build-out limits are reached, will the city amend the Plan to allow more development and return to a piecemeal approach? Impacts to traffic, the city's budget, the balance of jobs/housing, and school classroom size seem to have been severely underestimated.
The Greenheart and Stanford proposals have opened our eyes to the flaws in the SP. As currently written, it will not assure a reasonable projection of balanced growth for the next 28 years. We strongly encourage Menlo Park residents to sign SaveMenlo's petition, which we see as a conservative compromise that will confirm the Specific Plan's goals.