The other big project in downtown Menlo Park

Greenheart previews its 420,000-square-foot project on El Camino at Oak Grove

While attention has been focused on what Stanford University plans to build in Menlo Park, another developer has quietly acquired the long-empty site that used to be a Cadillac dealership at 1300 El Camino Real, along with the former Derry project site. Greenheart Land Company sat down with the Almanac to unveil "the other project" -- the mixed-use development of office space, retail and apartments it plans to build there on its 7 acres.

Greenheart principal Steve Pierce and real estate attorney Tim Tosta came by on Oct. 30 to go over the preliminary site design. Composed of 210,000 square feet of office space and 210,000 square feet of apartments, the project would include 16,000 square feet of retail in the commercial buildings and 7,000 square feet in the residential.

The office space is divided between two three-story buildings. Mr. Pierce thought likely tenants would be "walk-up services" such as insurance brokers. Retail would focus on destination restaurants and perhaps specialty food stores, he said.

Designed by BAR Architects, the complex "looks more Stanford than the Stanford project," with red tiled roofs and a Spanish flavor to the building design.

For comparison, Stanford and developer John Arrillaga want to build a mixed-use complex on 8 acres of land -- now mostly vacant car lots -- at 300 El Camino Real with 199,500 square feet of office space, 10,000 square feet of retail, and up to 170 apartments.

Unlike Stanford's project, Greenheart's proposal aims for the bonus level of allowed floor area ratio at 150 percent, rather than the 110 percent, which would let the two office buildings go to three stories -- 48 feet -- with the top stories setback. With residences on nearby Merrill Street going up to 46 feet, Mr. Pierce said, Greenheart's scale is in line with the surrounding neighborhood.

"There will be public benefit," he said. Greenheart plans to submit the proposal to the city this week to start the evaluation process for figuring out what the benefit could be.

The residential portion of the development consists of 215 apartments with an average 825 square feet each. Sixty-seven percent will be studios or one-bedroom units; 30 percent two-bedroom apartments; and the remainder will have three bedrooms.

Acknowledging that selling luxury condos in the overheated Menlo Park real estate market would be easy, Mr. Pierce said Greenheart consciously decided to go in the opposite direction with rental housing targeted at young professionals without families, a demographic underserved by the city's current housing inventory and that tends to live in Palo Alto and San Francisco instead.

Also a factor in the dispersion of young workers is the city's lack of vibrant nightlife. Greenheart hopes the retail and restaurant aspect of its development helps correct this.

The company will retain control of the complex after construction, according to Mr. Pierce. "We build it, we own, we live it." Both he and partner Bob Burke have spent many years in the area, he said, so they looked for projects that would add value while maintaining "a nice living environment."

The preliminary design shows three public gathering spots: an office plaza off El Camino Real that could incorporate outdoor dining; a plaza near Oak Grove and Merrill Street; and a park bordering surface parking off Garwood Way.

Speaking of Garwood Way, Greenheart plans to renovate the street and add a bicycle/pedestrian path to connect with the Caltrain station on Merrill Street. That could require some negotiating with the nearby Marriott Residence Inn, which holds a five-year lease on 39 public parking spaces along that street.

"When we improve Garwood that parking will go away," Mr. Pierce said.

Menlo Park came under fire earlier this year for allowing the new hotel to reserve the spaces for its guests in exchange for meeting transient occupancy tax targets; after five years, the city is supposed to charge fair market rent for the parking spaces -- but only if Menlo Park's tax revenue from the hotel in a given year drops below $700,000.

At the time the agreement was approved, city officials stated the deal made sense because of low demand by the public for those spaces, and that the hotel's representatives said the spaces were necessary to make the project financially viable.

With Greenheart's plans, however, it may be time to look for another solution. Mr. Pierce said they're hoping that in five years those spaces won't be considered essential to the hotel.

"Studies are being done" to estimate the traffic volume created by Greenheart's development, Mr. Pierce said. The project's proximity to the Caltrain station should help decrease the number of car trips, and 95 percent of the on-site parking will be provided by an underground garage, with entries off El Camino Real and Garwood Way.

As for existing tenants on the Derry site -- which includes Foster's Freeze -- Greenheart said those leases were structured with the understanding that the property would eventually be sold and developed, and that it will honor those arrangements.

Greenheart paid $47.6 million for the 7 acres of land for its El Camino Real project. The company also recently acquired seven parcels for $8 million from the city's now defunct redevelopment agency as well as other lots between the Mount Olive Apostolic Original Holy Church and the shopping center at Willow Road along Hamilton Avenue. Greenheart plans to build apartments there as well, with approximately 30 housing units per acre.

The real estate company is watching the city conduct a review of the year-old downtown/El Camino Real specific plan with some trepidation. The new regulations are meant to give certainty to developers about what could be built and where, as opposed to Menlo Park's previous practice of leaving nearly everything up to the discretion of city officials, according to Mr. Tosta.

"We don't think the council will change the specific plan," Mr. Tosta said, but noted that if it does, that could delay Greenheart's project anywhere from six months to a year and a half. "One little tweak triggers levels and levels of review."

That makes developers a bit nervous. The last two projects approved on these parcels ran out of time as the economy nosedived; Greenheart doesn't want to wind up in a similar position.

"That's our greatest fear," Mr. Pierce acknowledged. "We have a great market right now."

Still, "if everything moves along smoothly," the company hopes to debut a new mix of housing, restaurants and office space in Menlo Park a little more than three years from now, in 2017.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


1 person likes this
Posted by Enuff
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

It is misleading to say the Stanford project is 199,000 square feet of office and up to 170 apartments. As I recall, the project clocks in at over 450,000 square feet. And only 10,000 of these are earmarked for retail. Probably a lunch counter for all those office workers.
Unfortunately, both the Stanford project and the new incarnation of the Derry project are mammoth in density, and heavily biased to office, which is of the least benefit to residents and to the city, in terms of providing goods and services and taxes to fund city services. Retail is what creates vibrancy,and what best promotes a city's economic vitality.
Menlo Park is being woefully shortchanged. The Planning Commission and the City Council should be fighting these scenarios tooth and nail.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Cue the NIMBYs on 3... 2... 1...

1 person likes this
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:51 pm

@Enuff--here you go again. Roll out SaveMenlo. This is getting absurd, Menlo Park spends 3-4 years and millions of dollars to put a downtown specific plan in place so as to attract investors to begin rebuilding the village. But, OMG, you mean the DSP actually gives investors an incentive to build something; it pencils out--NO! We must go back and redo the DSP so it doesn't work for investors; so our CC needs to fight anything consistent with the DSP "tooth & nail" until we, SaveMenlo, can come up with a DSP that truely repels any investment in the village. Pitchforks and torches on ECR in true Village-Style!"

1 person likes this
Posted by NSS
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm

This project looks beautiful! The architecture is gorgeous. It reminds me of the wonderful mission-style buildings on Ramona Ave. in downtown Palo Alto.

Steve Pierce has previously developed some of the highest quality homes and projects in Palo Alto. We'd be lucky to have him work on a project like this in Menlo Park. Menlo Park residents deserve a vibrant, high-quality downtown. This project looks like a great start, and will hopefully be one piece in a much larger puzzle of a better Menlo Park.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

More tiny apartments means more people squeezed into the area. High density living may suit developers, but I doubt that it's good for the people living one on top of the other. The developers want to create a nightlife for its young, professional tenants. I've seen that nightlife in San Jose and elsewhere. It's raucous and leads to drunken fighting on the streets; will the developers pay for extra police services?

I suppose since it won't directly affect me, I shouldn't care, but I hate to see Menlo Park become over-developed with too much office space and cubicle apartments. I'm just glad I won't be living next to the railroad whistles and in one of the boxes.

Like this comment
Posted by TAB
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:59 pm

As a lifetime resident of Menlo Park (over 50 years), I am sick and tired of the empty car lots on ECR!
Steve and Co. Are attempting to improve our blighted corridor!
"When you stop growing, you start dying!"

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 5, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"This is getting absurd, Menlo Park spends 3-4 years and millions of dollars to put a downtown specific plan in place so as to attract investors to begin rebuilding the village."

Absolutely correct!! And now that the ECR Specific Plan is being reviewed there has hardly been a single suggestion made as to how it can be improved - just ''I don't like it..."

Time to move on.

Like this comment
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Nov 5, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Overall, it's pretty undeniable that development of the former Cadillac lot (and that section of El Camino in general) is long overdue. I live walking distance from this and for the most part, based on what's being presented here, this sounds appealing. So those who instantly oppose this are just being obstructionists in my opinion.

However, I think it's reasonable to have some concerns about the scale of this project. My concerns include:

1) parking: will there be adequate parking for residents, office workers and retail customers? Parking spilling over into nearby communities would be bad, either because residents would be adversely affected, OR residential permits will be implemented, resulting in customers not having parking which would potentially kill the retail aspect of this development.

2) impact on infrastructure (water, waste, etc).

3) impact on el camino and middlefield traffic. Both roads are going to remain 2 & 4 lane roads in the foreseeable future (you'd have to knock down businesses and residents to change that. Never happen in my lifetime).

4) there's already a lot of office space coming online now and in the near future. Menlo Park should be very wary of becoming overdependent on office space as part of their tax base, as that is particularly susceptible to the economy. Over-dependence on the auto industry is the reason these 2 El Camino properties are available in the first place.

5) green space. One of the reasons Palo Alto is so appealing (besides the schools and vibrant downtowns) is because they have a lot of parks and green space. Green space increases property values for both homes and businesses. But developers don't always see it that way, since the short-term profit goals require maximizing the square footage. I hope Menlo Park makes a point of ensuring there's green space in this development.

Like this comment
Posted by JK
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 5, 2013 at 7:27 pm

No more empty lot?! I am glad to see SOME development in this City that seems to oppose building anything. Suggestion to developer: more 2 BR apartments? As the mother of a twenty-something young person--they can't afford to live by themselves in this area!

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm

This project certainly seems better than seeing empty lots and abandoned buildings. But I guess the "no growthers" would rather look at what we have now than some improvements. MP definitely needs some revitalization.

Like this comment
Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:57 pm

More young people living in Menlo Park? Good.

1 person likes this
Posted by Go Away!
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Honestly I'd rather look at empty parking lots from old car dealerships than massively overbuilt and over-developed buildings that block sunlight, bring throngs of new traffic, residents, pollution, burden the infrastructure (water, sewer, storm, electrical and energy grid, and roads) in town.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 6, 2013 at 7:59 am

So is MP turning into another coastside community that divides the town into growthers and no growthers?

3 people like this
Posted by Save Foster's Freeze
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 6, 2013 at 8:19 am

Has there been any attempt to find a new location for Foster's Freeze? It is a part of Menlo Park and we will be losing a big part of our small town character if it disappears. It dates back to the 1950s at least and has been a gathering places for teens and their parents since then. Frostie, anyone?

Like this comment
Posted by chimera
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Nov 6, 2013 at 9:13 am

Train & Grade Separation ---

It may be time for Menlo Park to consider the need for some type of grade separation and make that part of any development that occurs near the tracks. There is an ideal opportunity to plan a grade separation while all the former auto dealerships are vacant instead of letting development to occur right up to the railroad tracks which would then make it impossible to do anything reasonable in the future.
(Palo Alto is commissioning a study on what to do with their tracks -- see the Palo Alto online article (Nov. 5 - "Caltrain trenching study wins green light")

Why wouldn't it make sense for the developers to pay for the section of track that abuts their development?

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Why wouldn't it make sense for the developers to pay for the section of track that abuts their development?"

You could set up an assessment detract for this purpose BUT should a district would have to include ALL the adjacent properties - commercial, residential and city owned. Given the cost of a trench you would probably end up with mostly vacated and abandoned properties in said assessment district.

Like this comment
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 6, 2013 at 8:45 pm

We are all used to Menlo Park's El Camino but look closely and you'll see it's all just a long stretch of eyesore buildings. It's not a 'village' atmosphere, it's a disaster, what well managed communities have torn down a long time ago. My thanks go out to the developers who are cleaning up our burg.

Like this comment
Posted by cassandra
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

Some of you sound like little kids in a candy store. No wonder you lash out like kindergartners at anyone who questions your choice of lollipop.

Fact is, Menlo Park has done a terrible job of managing development on El Camino. If they instituted an anti-blight ordinance, property owners would be penalized for letting their land go to weeds. The city should also make sure that the zoning reflects the best interests of CURRENT residents who need more recreational space, more groceries, more retail (and more space for schools, though we all know that's not going to happen).

I have to laugh at the people who giggle with joy at the idea of young people moving in. If we want to attract 20-somethings -- maybe because they'll pay taxes without overcrowding our schools? -- then we need to add a lot more restaurants and other retail. (Which will also serve the existing residents. Win win!) But let's face it. We're never going to be San Francisco. And as long as Facebook and Google run employee shuttles between their campuses and SF, recent college grads have no incentive to move here.

And, just for fun, let's think longer term. Those recent college grads are going to get older. It happens! They're going to get married and have kids and...guess what? Menlo Park, which has traditionally been a great place for families, won't have anything to offer them. They're not going to be interested in tiny apartments on El Camino. (In fact, I'm not sure who does want to live in those tiny housing units on the tracks, but I guess we'll find out given that hundreds of them are being built.)

Bottom line, no one is thinking of the big picture. We're adding lots and lots of people but barely giving lip service to traffic impacts, effects on schools, or overall quality of life. But people who ask the tough questions are ridiculed here and in the council chambers. The developers will make a mint and the residents will wake up one day to realize that Menlo Park has become a pretty miserable place to live, no matter how old you are.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Menlo Park traditionally a great place for families? Hardly. They don't or didn't call it "God's waiting room" for nothing. When I moved here 20 years ago the place was over run with old people and not very many children. It's only been relatively recently, as those same old people have died off or moved away that families have started moving in. Hence the great growth in school age children.

I think it's the old people that are left that bitch the loudest about changes to our town. Hint: the don't want ANY.

Like this comment
Posted by Linda
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 7, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Many of us locals would love a "gourmet alley". Could this possibly be a public benefit somehow? A little alley way for an "off the grid ala Fort Mason" type venue. That could add some vibrancy !

Like this comment
Posted by cassandra
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm

This is not Florida. I've only ever heard one person refer to Menlo Park as "god's waiting room" and s/he has posted that comment repeatedly on this forum!

I have two kids in school and am involved in local kid programs. Menlo Park is a great place to raise a family,and the diversity of ages and individual backgrounds makes this city even more appealing. But the concerns about schools, about recreational areas, about safety are very real, and they affect everyone, not just families with young kids.

Everyone I've talked to wants to see change. But we want the change that we were shown during the El Camino rezoning process. The plazas, the cafes, the shops. Not mammoth office buildings that offer us nothing and just create more congestion. A gourmet alley would be terrific! I've also heard references to the shops at the SF Ferry Building, and I think most residents would love to have those kinds of retail options.

The city has done us all a disservice by zoning that allows hundreds of thousands of square feet of office with only a token amount of retail and no public benefit to offset the negative impact that additional density and traffic will create for all of us.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Nationally renowned Indian restaurant expanding to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 3 comments | 2,849 views

Summer travel: Is anything changing?
By Sherry Listgarten | 14 comments | 1,276 views

Premarital and Couples: "Our Deepest Fear" by Marianne Williamson
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,054 views

Cap On? Cap Off? Recycling Bottles is Confusing
By Laura Stec | 20 comments | 928 views

Swimming with the kids
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 687 views