Growth initiative for downtown Menlo Park goes to voters
Palo Alto Daily News (CA), 2014-07-17
July 17 -- The Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to place an initiative on the November ballot that would alter the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan by reducing allowable office space and requiring voter approval of any changes to development guidelines.
Council members could have approved the initiative outright but decided to give residents the chance to vote on it. The initiative was pushed by a group of longtime residents called "Save Menlo" that believes the specific plan is too soft on downtown development.
In a meeting where emotions ran high and about 20 speakers weighed in on the subject, the council reviewed a $150,000 analysis by Lisa Wise Consulting Inc. that concluded the initiative, if approved by voters, wouldn't halt development in the specific plan area but could significantly hamper it.
Vice Mayor Catherine Carlton said although she isn't against initiatives per se, she believes the one proposed by Save Menlo would tie the council's hands.
"[The specific plan] was created to be a living document," Carlton said. "And I have my own fear that there's a presumption that the initiative is so pristine that to do any little fix would cost $100,000 of taxpayer dollars ... and there's even no assurance that it would be changed then. That inability to make the little tweaks, to make the little fixes, is just not acceptable."
She added that by stripping away the city's power to make necessary changes, the initiative will trigger "fear, uncertainty and doubt" among land and business owners and diminish land values, thus "delaying the revitalization of El Camino and downtown."
If approved, the initiative would cap office space in individual developments within the specific plan area at 100,000 square feet for a maximum total of 240,820 square feet. It also would obligate voters to approve amendments to square footage allotments.
In addition, the initiative would redefine open space by excluding rooftops, decks and balconies that are more than four feet off the ground. That provision was triggered by Save Menlo's fear that the city stands to lose in excess of 22,000 square feet of open space downtown if a project conceived by Stanford and developer John Arrillaga is approved.
The initiative wouldn't reduce all of the specific plan's caps on construction, however. It would still allow up to 680 new residences and 474,000 square feet of non-residential buildings including retail, offices and hotels.
Greenheart Land Co. and Stanford representatives said during the meeting that the initiative's passage would force them to start from scratch.
Carlton said initiative supporters inaccurately portrayed the downtown proposals submitted by both developers.
"I sincerely ask both sides to reign in the political hyperbole," she said, advising proponents and opponents of the ballot measure to "keep it real."
Councilman Richard Cline took a hard stance against "initiative politics."
"This is nothing if not absolutely the most significant project we've all dealt with probably here when it comes to Menlo Park , Facebook aside," he said. "The soul of our downtown is on the line. ... This is bold and risky, the specific plan, but less risky than not being able to amend it. .. It's not that rigid. An initiative is that rigid. You have to get a vote. You have to go fight again. You always have to go fight again. That's no way to run a city."
Representatives of Save Menlo, which collected nearly 2,400 certified signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, organized a tailgate event outside the council chambers before the meeting to kick off their campaign for the upcoming election.
"We have been through enough meetings with the city council, both in the chambers and individually, and they have made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in what we consider to be the interest of Menlo Park residents," organizer Mike Lanza told The Daily News on Wednesday.
"We knew the way it was going to end up," added Lanza, who didn't attend the meeting.
He said Save Menlo is putting together a slate of candidates to run for three council seats in the November election.
"My personal view is that the city council is a charade, they're not doing anything useful for us," Lanza said. "You try to take your emotions out of it to some extent but it's upsetting when you come to the conclusion that our government is biased against a voter initiative and is spending public money to defeat it. We will be very lucky if we can spend $150,000 on our entire campaign."
During Tuesday night's meeting, some speakers quibbled over perceived inaccuracies in the analysis report while others delivered detailed presentations to justify the need for the initiative.
Others defended the specific plan and criticized the motives for trying to change it.
"The unintended consequences from these people is that they ... didn't think about the CEQA requirements, didn't think about anything, didn't vet it, didn't have public comment and now they want the citizens of Menlo Park to roll over and vote it in," said Roy Thiele-Sardiña, who belongs to a group that calls itself Menlo Park Deserves Better. "Not going to happen. We're going to put up the fight of a lifetime because it's the right thing to do."
Save Menlo spokseswoman Perla Ni wrote in an email before the meeting that the consultant's report underscores the need for the initiative. Without a change to the specific plan, offices will dominate downtown and exacerbate traffic congestion on Sandhill Road , El Camino Real, Ravenswood Avenue and Willow Road , she wrote.
Furthermore, the analysis confirmed suspicions she and others harbored that so much office space would result in fewer hotels, which generate revenue from the city through room taxes, Ni wrote.
" Menlo Park residents have said over and over again that they want a vibrant town with local retail and restaurants and [to] maintain a village character," Ni noted. "They don't want this town to become the next mega-office Sunnyvale with walls of concrete office buildings and little sense of community."
Ni said she believes the measure won't be an impediment to developers with "reasonable proposals." Instead, it will prevent any one builder from monopolizing non-residential development and ensure a high quality of life for those who call Menlo Park home.
"Cities with less stringent rules generally don't have citizens who are very informed about or involved in their communities," Ni said. "Developers may not like active citizens and planning rules, but without this, this area would not be the highly desirable place it is. We have some of the highest real estate valuations in the country and developers will be able to make, even with the initiative, hundreds of millions of dollars."
Mayor Ray Mueller warned at the end of the meeting that the initiative could lock Menlo Park into a "time capsule" and leave future residents vulnerable.
"It's very easy to imagine a scenario 10 to 12 years from now, 15 years from now, where a developer with enough money comes forward and says, 'I'm going to put something on the ballot and I'm going to put forward a heck of a lot of money into this and make all sorts of great arguments and good luck to the rest of you to beat me,'" he said. "And as a council, what discretion do we have? It's voter approval."
Email Rhea Mahbubani at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at twitter.com/RMahbubani .
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