Initiative to Slow Downtown Menlo Park Growth Lands on Ballot

Stanford University has proposed to build this residential building and a public plaza at El Camino Real and Middle Avenue. Image: Stanford University

On Tuesday evening, Menlo Park’s City Council reluctantly forwarded to the November 4 ballot an initiative that would reject two proposed developments that would replace largely-vacant auto dealerships with walkable offices, retail space, and apartments, and slow or stop future development along El Camino Real.

The proposed developments would boost transit ridership by bringing thousands more people within a ten-minute walk of the city’s downtown Caltrain station. They would improve the city’s pedestrian and bicycle networks with new, 15-foot wide sidewalks along the east side of El Camino, safer pedestrian crossings for El Camino, and a new ped/bike tunnel under the Caltrain tracks at Middle Avenue.

The anti-growth initiative, titled the “El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan Area Livable, Walking Community Development Standards Act”, was drafted by the volunteer group Save Menlo and qualified for the city-wide ballot by collecting nearly 2,400 voter signatures by mid-May, more than 1,780 signature requirement. 65 percent of the signature-gathering campaign’s $30,000 budget was donated by Atherton resident Gary Lauder, who serves on the neighboring town’s Transportation Committee and fears “congestion, urban canyons, and related unintended consequences” from continued development in Atherton’s vicinity.

If approved, the initiative would make significant changes to the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan that the city adopted in June 2012, which guides downtown Menlo Park’s development over the next 20 to 30 years. The plan envisions a mix of office, retail, hotel, housing, and open space, with a maximum of 680 units of residential and 474,000 square feet of non-residential development. The initiative would introduce additional caps on commercial development, including 100,000 square feet of office space per project and 240,820 square feet of office space in total. It would also require voter approval to override those caps.

Greenheart Land Company has proposed 210,000 square feet of office space, 13,000 square feet of retail, and up to 220 apartments on this vacant lot, just north of the Menlo Park Caltrain Station. Photo: Google Maps

An independent consultant’s report about the initiative concluded that the office space restrictions would likely shift future development to include more retail and housing. Those shifts would “likely carry with them a number of unintended consequences, including limiting transparency in the development process, expending greater City resources, diminishing clarity in enforcement policies, and exposing the City to escalated disputes and litigation.”

All five city council members expressed serious concerns with the voter initiative, citing it as a barrier to transit-oriented development and objecting to the way the initiative would effectively overrule the five years of work (and over 90 public meetings) that went into the Downtown Specific Plan.

“I oppose this initiative,” council member Peter Ohtaki stated at the meeting. “I’m especially concerned about ballot-box zoning,” he said, referring to the “open-ended political process” of voter approval that could halt all commercial and residential development in downtown Menlo Park by adding uncertainty and delays to future projects.

“We deserve better on El Camino Real,” said council member Kirsten Keith. “The areas where we need to have housing and offices is where we’ve already got public transportation.”

One of two conceptual designs for a ped/bike tunnel at Middle Avenue, as recommended by the city’s Transportation Commission in 2009. Image: City of Menlo Park

One development at stake in the initiative is Stanford University’s proposed mixed-use development, which would construct 200,000 square feet of office space (potentially housing over 1,000 jobs), 10,000 square feet of retail space, and up to 170 residential units on vacant properties on the northeast side of El Camino Real, between Middle Avenue and Cambridge Avenue. The project is expected to include a ped/bike tunnel under the Caltrain tracks, connecting Alma Street and El Camino Real across from Middle Avenue, although Stanford hasn’t yet committed funds for it. The tunnel, like the one neighboring Palo Alto constructed at Homer Avenue near its University Avenue Caltrain station in 2004, would fill a critical gap in the city’s walking and bicycling networks by providing a direct, traffic-free route between the neighborhoods located on either side of El Camino Real.

Mayor Ray Mueller asked for a greater commitment from Stanford University towards the tunnel’s construction — which would boost public support for Stanford’s project and potentially quell the initiative — but Stanford officials say they don’t yet have enough information about the tunnel’s cost, and would prefer Menlo Park to pursue public grants for the tunnel.

“The way these projects get funded is that a big piece comes from your ability to get bike and pedestrian grant money,” said Stanford Assistant Vice President and Director of Community Relations Jean McCown. “That, coupled with private money from Stanford… maybe there should be contributions from others who would benefit.”

“I would like to see an undercrossing. I know we can get that paid for… it’s very feasible,” said council member Kirsten Keith, pointing to the Palo Alto bike/ped tunnel.

Just around the corner from downtown Menlo Park and the Caltrain station, Greenheart Land Company has proposed a similar mixed-use project for a vacant former Cadillac dealership at El Camino Real and Oak Grove Avenue. It would extend the currently dead-end Garwood Avenue to the Menlo Park Caltrain station, providing a low-traffic route parallel to El Camino Real.

  • murphstahoe

    San Jose is not substantially more dense than Menlo Park. I read your statement as “San Jose has brown people – I don’t want that”.

    Menlo has that reputation – the one part of Menlo with lower income residents – north of 101, the rest of Menlo tried to eliminate the bike/ped bridge between the two areas.

  • murphstahoe

    As do hotels. A resident of Menlo Park is far more likely to find non car base routines for work/shopping than a tourist

  • Justin

    I meant to say you should never “EXPECT” not assume, that your town will stay the same in the long term

  • petercarp

    “Let me also address the mistaken notion that all of these rules and definitions would need a vote of the people to change” since many versions of this claim have surfaced and none have been shown to be true.”

    But it is TRUE. In section 3 of the initiative there are 12 separate definitions and in section 4.1 it staes:

    “4.1. Except for as provided at Section 3.4.4 above regarding the City’s ability to approve without voter ratification an amendment to the Specific Plan to
    accommodate development proposals that would call for an increase in the allowable number of residential units under the Specific Plan, 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.”

    What is not clear about that???

  • petercarp

    “The city of Menlo Park is free to change the map of the plan area if it wants, to rezone parcels into and out of the area, and its free to allow or disallow whatever uses it wants in whatever zones it wants, but if cannot change which parcels are counted toward the Initiative cap and it cannot change which uses are counted toward the Initiative cap.”

    NOT TRUE. Sec 3.1 defines the Specific Plan area:

    3.1. ECR SPECIFIC PLAN AREA DEFINED. When referring to the “ECR Specific Plan Area,” this initiative measure is referring to the bounded area within the Vision Plan Area Map located at Page 2, Figure I, of the El Camino Real/Downtown Vision Plan, accepted by the Menlo Park city Council on July 15, 2008, which is attached as Exhibit 1 to this measure and hereby adopted by the voters as an integral part of this
    initiative measure.”

    And Section section 4.1 it states:

    “4.1. Except for as provided at Section 3.4.4 above regarding the City’s ability to approve without voter ratification an amendment to the Specific Plan to
    accommodate development proposals that would call for an increase in the allowable number of residential units under the Specific Plan, 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.”

    What is not clear about that?

  • aslevin

    The taller buildings step back on the upper stories, so it doesn’t block out the sun.

  • PJC

    It “adopts” the “map” as an overlay only for the purpose of determining which parcels’ development counts towards the Initiative meters, not for the purposes of zoning.

    The Initiative does not impact the Zoning rules that regulate the Initiative counting area.

    The Wise Report states clearly that the Initiative has “no impact” on the Zoning Ordinance.

    What’s not clear about that?

  • PJC

    See above: It adopts definitions only for the purposes of counting “office” in the Office cap and “open space” used in Zoning RULES. It does not impact the Zoning rules themselves.

    The Wise Report states clearly that the Initiative has “no impact” on the Zoning Ordinance.

    What’s not clear about that?

    In the Plan Area, the city can determine “how much” (ground-level) open space is allowed in each zone, but it may not redefined what “open space” means.

    Which is exactly what I wrote before you spammed the blog.

  • PJC

    Aslevin: “If as you say, the goal is more to encourage retail and hotel than to
    discourage office, than the messaging on the signs and the posters that
    the measure is all about traffic reduction is bogus. Retail generates
    more cars than offices do.”

    On three (3) occasions, I have posted my response to this at the “reply” level and oddly, it never persists on the blog. Here is that response again. Maybe it will stick this time.

    I’m a former public official in Menlo Park who correctly predicted in 1998 that office would crowd-out retail and sales tax producers both downtown in and M-2. We initiated moderate zoning then to help protect retail. I have taken consistent public positions since 1998, resistant to large office, protective of retail and sales tax producers. I have no issues with smaller, diffuse local offices downtown, other than too many of them.

    The author of the Initiative is a former Planning Commission appointed by our council, whose public policy track record spans the same time frame. Together we have worked on this issue for nearly two decades.

    We are not “SaveMenlo” (see below) any more than you are “Menlo Park Deserves Better.” It won’t help your case to impugn the motives or dismiss thousands of people who signed the petition for many different good reasons.

    Since 2000 Menlo Park’s sales tax base has been decimated. Its largest single sales tax producer in M-2 is now leaving.

    The Wise report now finally admits, that the proposed large offices will gobble so much space under the non-residential cap that, when built out, no matter how, the Plan will create a net annual loss to the Menlo Park General Fund, something the public has never been told honestly before, something I believe they shouldn’t and wont’ tolerate.

    Briefly on traffic. “Trip generation does not correlate with impacts. It is not legally valid traffic analysis under CEQA as you should know. True “analysis” involves peak hour trip assignment, route determination, origin-destination determination, and then computing LOS delays at route intersections and volumes on local segments.

    Retail profiles do generate more trips, but the pattern is predominantly local, and off peak. It can time shift, mode shift, and route shift.

    Office traffic is 92% from out of town, 76% from freeways SR84, US101, I280, through three (3) access points, and then CONCENTRATES East-West peak hour traffic to a few neighborhood arterials to get downtown. The largest single segment comes from the Dumbarton Bridge. It has no transit alternative.

    Save Menlo started in the neighborhood directly facing the proposed
    Stanford office complex. Their concerns for significant peak hour
    commute traffic in their neighborhood streets is factually based, and
    not all “bogus”. Diffuse retail traffic, would not have those impacts ON THEM.
    Nor would housing/hotel traffic. Hotel was planned for the site, but got
    changed to large scale office/housing.

  • jonobate

    “One diesn’t have to follow the other, and if you like urban canyons, San Jose and San Francisco have plenty of tech. In fact, you could live in those places and take transit to Menlo if you don’t like living in low-key suburbs with open space, trees, sky, and views of the hills.”

    Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Those of us who prefer to live in the city can’t just take transit to Menlo, because the jobs in Menlo are not in places that are easily accessible by transit. The biggest employer in Menlo Park, Facebook, is over 2 hours from my apartment in the city by transit. (I know they run shuttles, but most tech employers don’t.)

    As Facebook are located far outside of downtown, it will *never* be possible to serve them efficiently by public transit, so the majority of people who work there will have to drive. That creates increased traffic in Menlo and throughout the region, which is why this issue is bigger than just Menlo Park.

    By contrast, your second biggest employer SRI is a more manageable 1hr 15 from my apartment, because they are located downtown within walking distance of Caltrain. Your third biggest employer TE is close to Facebook and also has a 2 hour commute time. (I’m using my apartment just because it’s representative of where many tech workers live.)

    This is the crux of the problem. Menlo needs to either locate it’s jobs in an area that is easily accessible by transit, or not allow employers to locate in Menlo at all. Either way is fine by me – the point here is that office park development on the edge of Menlo causes regional traffic problems, and to fix those problems the jobs need to be closer to transit. That could mean moving jobs to downtown Menlo, or downtown SF, or somewhere else with decent transit.

    Unless you address that problem, your ballot initiative does not provide a solution to traffic congestion and the pollution it causes.

  • NoeValleyJim

    People have to live somewhere. They can live a lower impact life within walking distance to downtown and Caltrain or they can live in the sprawling exurbs. For the good of humanity, we need more people living closer together, where they use less resources.

    Menlo Park will grow up one way or another, it is inevitable. This development seems like a decent one to me.

  • Ken

    Building new housing makes rents go up? That’s absurd and goes against all economic knowledge and data.

    Rents go up because of demand. New housing is built in response to that demand. So people think “rents are going up, and there’s lots of new developments, they must be the culprit!” but that’s confusing correlation for causation. The fact is, new development eases the demand and without it, rents would go up even faster!

    You can’t make demand go away by refusing to increase densities. All you do is constrict supply, and make the problem worse. Demand is what it is. Population is going up, cities change, it’s the nature of things. You can’t make it illegal for people to move to your town and you can’t enclose your town in a bubble. Either plan for the change intelligently or end up in crisis like san francisco.

    (Well, you *could* make demand go away by making your area less desirable to live in. Is that what you want?)

  • Beth Martin

    “The plan envisions a mix of office, retail, hotel, housing, and open space,” yet the Greenheart proposals would be just 6% retail, no hotel, and the open space requirements can be fulfilled with private balconies and rooftops. Measure M makes it harder for the city and developers to exceed the total development amount the residents adopted in the Specific Plan (474,000 sq.ft. of non-residential). Measure M just makes that harder to change. Measure M does not try to fix all the other parts of the development guidelines that don’t match the Vision and Goals, but it should slow the transformation of Menlo Park from a nice small town into a built-out business park.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Voters Back Downtown Growth in San Bruno and Menlo Park

|
Tuesday’s election saw large majorities of San Bruno and Menlo Park voters approve plans for substantial new downtown development. The plans could potentially transform both downtowns by bringing several thousand more workers and residents within walking distance of the two Peninsula cities’ Caltrain stations, both improving transit ridership and making the downtowns livelier, more livable […]

Menlo Park Gets One Step Closer to Protected Bike Lanes on El Camino Real

|
A report released by Menlo Park’s Public Works Department last week [PDF] recommends protected bike lanes and Dutch-style “protected intersections” on El Camino Real. The two-year El Camino Real Corridor Study, led by transportation consulting firm W-Trans, said building bike lanes protected from car traffic by a curb would provide “the most optimum safety conditions for bicycling” and walking while […]

Menlo Park El Camino Real Bike Lanes Delayed Again

|
Menlo Park’s plans to fix El Camino Real’s safety hazards were postponed yet again by a city council that is now split on whether to go ahead with the installation of even a bike lane pilot project. Proponents continue to demand that the city take action to prevent injuries suffered by residents in traffic collisions. “The goals of Menlo […]

Bigger Intersections and More Traffic Planned for Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station

|
As the City of Millbrae inches closer to final approval of plans for new construction at the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station, officials have quietly proposed adding new traffic lanes and traffic signals to intersections near the station. The traffic expansions aim to cram even more auto traffic through the area, worsening already hazardous conditions for people […]