Viewpoint - January 16, 2013

Guest opinion: Hard lesson learned in downtown plan

by John Kadvany

Some Menlo Park City Council members and others have expressed dismay that the proportion of housing and retail is small in Stanford's proposal for its eight-acre property on El Camino Real, especially in the context of current housing goals forced on the city through the state housing element process. As a planning commissioner, I voted for Specific Plan criteria allowing such a project. What happened?

A guiding assumption in the Planning Commission's discussions was that the build-out would be gradual — an acre or more here, an acre there. A review process every two years or sooner meant the City Council could change the Plan's parameters as needed. If one five-story project looked like enough for an area, building height could be limited in the future.

But there was little discussion that the Specific Plan authorized, in the case of Stanford, a potential eight acre build-out all at once, with no review of the mix of housing, retail and office space, as long as plan parameters were met. Allowing this to occur was great foolishness by all involved, except, of course, Stanford. That doesn't mean Stanford's current proposal is good or bad. Nor that Stanford should have to "pay to play" through a benefits package.

Only that an automatic green light for such a large project was a gross error of plan implementation. How could such a complex project be validated in advance with such broad developer discretion, and little chance of review beyond the Planning Commission's architectural control?

Mandating an additional review step for projects of several acres or more could have been easy. For comparison, the proposed downtown "paseo" and sidewalk extensions require pilot testing to see what works, and then adjust.

Why was no such safeguard enacted for the vastly more consequential El Camino Real?

One factor leading to Stanford's planning freedom was to avoid micromanaging the mix of retail (downtown an exception), office/medical space, and housing, beyond the Plan's broad parameters. That would streamline the development process and avoid second-guessing what proportions of uses are sensible at many different locations. Not every block on El Camino needs retail, for example. The hope was that flexible standards would lead "on average" to good outcomes. But if a developer chooses to skew the balance of uses on a large project, that assumption doesn't hold. It may be that the mix proposed by Stanford is appropriate for the site — I'm not judging the project, which may yet be revised. The point is that the City should have to be convinced that a big project is right, not to have that choice dictated with hands tied.

The lesson here is that Menlo Park needs to take a hard look at its control and the public benefit parameters now in the Specific Plan. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

John Kadvany is a Menlo Park Planning Commissioner.


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