Jul 29, 2014

City Council Screens Downtown Plan

Internal commissions wonder what their role is in the continuing process.

City Council Screens Downtown Plan

Snags are surfacing in city politics as final approval approaches for Menlo Park's plan to manage downtown growth, density and business.

The effort calls for two, five-story parking garages; a possible increase in density and height; and a aesthetic makeover of downtown. Planners gave the Menlo Park City Council an update Tuesday night on the process, which included the upcoming timeline for review by the planning commission. 

"This in recognition of the fact that it's been a little while since the council as a body has had an opportunity to comment on any aspect of the El Camino Real draft specific plan," said Associate Planner Thomas Rogers.

In the planning stages now for four years, $1 million has been spent on the project and wide-ranging public input has been taken. It aims to maintain a "small-town feel," build more affordable housing and make the area more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. It's largely a response to several proposed development efforts along El Camino Real that would have launched a patchy and piecemeal growth trend. In late April the city released the plan's draft environmental impact report, a requirement under state law and a major step in the process. 

The council responded with informal comments for the planning commission, which has five public hearings on the Downtown Specific Plan scheduled, starting next Monday. The council also decided Tuesday to hold a special meeting in coming weeks. The meetings have been called to garner information and comment on the plan and environmental report before it comes back to council in late summer or fall for a first screening.

How that should be done, however, and with what input, concerns council members and city staff. After public comment and requests for more information, and some skepticism on the dais Tuesday, Mayor Rich Cline said the process must continue on a path of transparency. 

"There are a lot of threats to the community and lots of opportunity," he said. "Facts speak louder than anything. The more data we can get the better off we'll be." 

A major sticking point Tuesday was the role of commissions, mainly the volunteer body that advises the council on transportation. Frustrated and feeling left out, some members feel that city staff has ignored their requests to screen and comment on the report.

"The transportation staff clearly has their own views on what their role should be in regards to the commission," Transportation Commission Vice Chair Charlie Bourne told the council during public comment.

He found an ally in Council Member Andy Cohen.

"I think we could do better," Cohen said. "Staff really needs to do a better job in including them in the process."

Other concerns included inflated and residual costs for building the two garages, a lack of communication with downtown merchants and possible displacement of the farmer's market—a threat that has galvanized residents.

"Take a focused look on the two five-story garages," said resident Patti Fry, who frequently scrutinizes the project at Preserve MP Downtown.

With six meetings scheduled this summer and a handful of city council hearings after that, the public will have ample time to comment. But when the council comes to its next formal meeting, only three members will be seated on the dais.

Because of the project's scale—it covers Santa Cruz Avenue and a large stretch of El Camino Real—Council Members Kelly Fergusson and Peter Ohtaki recused themselves from voting. Ohtaki lives within 500 feet of the affect area and Fergusson's husband works at Stanford, a large property owner on El Camino Real.

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