For years, the fenced-off, vacant lot at 1300 El Camino Real hasn't been much use to anyone in Menlo Park, except perhaps as a contributor to the city's ominous moniker, Menlo Dark.
But as of Jan. 24, Greenheart Land Co. has a unanimous green light from the Menlo Park City Council to begin work on its Station 1300 complex of apartments, office space and retail, a project that is about as opposite to a vacant lot as is possible in Menlo Park – a fact some view with excitement, others with apprehension.
It's the biggest development so far to fall within the standards and requirements laid out in the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan, which was approved in 2012.
Many business and political leaders anticipate the complex will transform the downtown area, bringing many new and younger workers and residents to within a block of Santa Cruz Avenue. The development could "jump-start the revitalization of downtown," said Councilman Peter Ohtaki.
On the 6.4-acre site bordered by El Camino Real, Oak Grove Avenue, Garwood Way and the buildings of Naomi Sushi and the Residence Inn, Greenheart plans to build 420,000 square feet of apartments, offices and retail space.
The development will have 183 apartments, up to about 200,000 square feet of offices, and 29,000 square feet for restaurants, shops or "community-serving" businesses, such as exercise studios and salons.
About 10,000 square feet may be converted into either office or retail space, depending on the market, Greenheart's principal developers, Bob Burke and Steve Pierce, said.
There will be a total of 991 parking spaces in a two-story underground parking garage and a small surface parking lot.
The offices will be in two three-story buildings along El Camino, and the apartments in an L-shaped four-story building running along Garwood Way and Oak Grove Avenue.
Garwood Way will be extended to connect to Derry Lane and Merrill Street. The buildings are designed in the "Spanish Revival" architectural style, with brown and red brick tile roofing and white or tan cement plaster walls.
Watch this video produced by Greenheart Land Co. to see 3-D renderings of the proposed development. Some changes may have been made in the designs since the video was created.
Developments within the downtown specific plan area are expected to follow a number of guidelines, including enhancing public space and connectivity, generating vibrancy, maintaining the city's "village character" and promoting healthy living and sustainability.
Because the proposed development is larger than would be allowed under the base-level zoning rules, the city was able to negotiate with the developer to provide a number of public benefits, including $2.1 million in funding for the city; a guarantee of $83,700 in sales tax for the city each year; a publicly accessible and fenced dog park; 10 more apartments to be rented below market rate than would otherwise be required (adding up to a total of 20); and a promise to market the office space to startup companies.
Separate from the negotiated public benefits, the development will have a large public courtyard with a water feature (presumably some type of fountain) and an amphitheater seating area.
Impact on downtown
"It's what, really, the residents of Menlo Park have been asking for," Fran Dehn, president of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, said. "It sends a very clear message that Menlo Park is and wants to be a vibrant community."
The addition of new people and jobs to the downtown area, Ms. Dehn said, will have a "spillover" effect on other downtown businesses. Having new people living and working in downtown Menlo Park means that there will be more people who will visit not only the new restaurants and shops at "Station 1300," but will also explore the rest of downtown Menlo Park's retail and food offerings.
Emerald Reilly, a manager at Left Bank, said: "It's good for the city to be investing in the downtown area. It's going to bring new business into Menlo Park."
Councilman Ohtaki noted that the city has "this missing demographic gap between 18 and 35." Part of the reason for that is there aren't enough one-bedroom apartments and restaurants, he said.
"Between the tech workers during the daytime and new residents in downtown, there will be hundreds of new customers for our restaurants and stores in walking distance to Santa Cruz Avenue," he said.
According to Mr. Pierce, there are expected to be between 600 and 900 employees at the offices and between 325 to 350 residents in the apartments.
Station 1300, when completed, will be about a block from the Caltrain station, and is modeled after the concept of "transit-oriented development," meaning a mixed-use development of housing, office and retail space located near public transportation.
The goal is to create places where people can comfortably live, work and play with no or limited use of a car.
Unsurprisingly, an environmental impact report compiled for the development found that adding apartments, shops and offices on an empty lot would create more traffic around the area.
"There will be increased traffic, and how we mitigate that is going to be a challenge for staff to try to figure out," said Councilman Ray Mueller.
To reduce traffic generated by the development, Greenheart has promised to take a number of steps to discourage solo driving. Greenheart will promote car-sharing and give tenants and workers free Caltrain passes and bike parking.
Greenheart will charge for parking. Office and retail employees will have paid parking from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and apartment residents will have to rent a guaranteed parking space separate from their apartment costs, according to Mr. Burke, a principal developer at Greenheart.
Charging for parking is a good way to promote alternative, more fuel-efficient modes of transportation, according to Diane Bailey, executive director of Menlo Spark, an environmental group that encourages people to reduce their carbon emissions. "It places transit and driving on a level playing field," she said.
In addition to efforts to curb solo driving, the development is expected to abide by stringent environmental standards for resource efficiency. Though it won't be certain until the buildings are inspected and certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, it's expected that the office buildings will meet the standards for LEED Platinum, the highest level, and the residential building will be eligible for LEED Gold certification, the second-highest level.
Buildings with LEED certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, are rated based on how energy-efficient they are, among other factors.
Ms. Bailey said that in her review of the project, she was impressed with the amount of solar power the development was expected to generate: nearly one megawatt. By comparison, in 2014, the entire city of Menlo Park had five megawatts of solar power, she said.
"I think they've gone a long way toward generating as much energy as they'll need," she said.
Work at the site is expected to begin "very soon," said Mr. Burke, with building demolition and vegetation removal planned to occur before excavation begins in the spring. Occupancy is expected sometime in 2019, he said.