Although a number of issues and recommendations were brought forward by members of the public at the April 30 meeting, none (for Downtown) were embraced. Only one recommendation to the Council came out of the discussion over Downtown – to give high priority to parking management issues. But, this was a general statement without specifics. And the Plan itself doesn’t spell out the specifics.
43 written comments were submitted to the Planning Commission before the 5:30 pm Monday deadline – 30 of these were critical of the Plan with criticism mainly directed at the Market Place/Paseo in the Downtown portion of the Plan. At the meeting itself, those favoring the Plan were from the real estate industry and the development community, with a few exceptions. Those opposing it were concerned residents, representatives of the Sunday Farmers Market and members of the Downtown Alliance.
What did developers say? The developers applauded the Plan stating that the Plan provides “certainty” to those who wish to develop. (It also gives away a lot of development rights not currently permitted.)
What did the Farmers Market representatives say? Representatives expressed worry over the loss of some 60+ parking spaces in plazas 6 and 7 (where the Farmers Market operates, and behind Trader Joe's) for a permanent Market Place and walkways, partial closure of Chestnut Street for the Paseo, removal of a driver’s lane in each plaza and the statement that the Sunday Farmers Market could operate successfully in a new configuration (an assertion disputed by the Market organizers). These concerns topped those of the Market's sponsor, the Menlo Park Live Oak Lions Club, which was originally approached back in 1992 to run the Market to benefit businesses by attracting people downtown – particularly to help the restaurants and coffee shops, of which there were very few at the time. The Farmers Market does, of course, a lot more for the community -- with stall fees being donated to local charities and produce to non-profits as it has turned out; but it has made a concerted effort over the years to avoid bringing in hot food which would compete with the existing Downtown food businesses. Market organizers cannot understand why the City would take actions in contravention of this that would actually harm our Downtown restaurants.
What did the Downtown Alliance say? Property and business owners expressed concern over the loss of potentially 252 parking spaces (G27 – Specific Plan) to accommodate the seven-day Market Place, pocket parks, sidewalk widening, and Central Plaza. The Alliance requested that the City establish some criteria for evaluating the success or failure of the “trials” for the above – e.g., a survey of the businesses, soliciting comments from shoppers after a month or two. The Alliance recommended preserving as much diagonal parking on Santa Cruz Avenue as possible because it’s easier, safer for bicyclists, and more efficient than parallel parking. Additionally, the Alliance pointed out the lack of specificity in the Plan – how changes were to take place, who would be monitoring implementation and evaluating impacts and how the inevitable unintended consequences could be mitigated. A big issue is where shoppers would park during an 18-month to 24-month construction period to build a parking structure.
What did the Fire Chief say? The Fire Chief pointed out that the District had been ignored regarding underground water main placement. Chief Schapelhouman recommended that the Fire District be included in decisions to meet water-use or fire-code requirements for proposed new development, in addition to Cal Water. The chief pointed out the deficiencies of the current 6-inch main, which is not big enough to serve the downtown. In his own words “the pipes are grossly inadequate.” He recommended replacement with 10-inch pipes and involvement of the Fire District in where new hydrants be placed. While it first appeared that the Planning Commission would follow the Chief’s recommendations, in a surprise turn of events it later rejected the recommendations with one Commissioner making the case that this would give the Fire District too much power!
What did a former Planning Commissioner say? Former Planning Commissioner, Patti Fry, expressed concerns about the lack of clarity regarding the process by which Public Benefit Bonus square footage and housing density are granted. She stressed that during the Workshops most residents didn't prefer larger structures but would tolerate them if adequate public benefit were provided. She recommended that the process be explained more clearly, and that a multi-disciplinary group (e.g. including developers, property owners, commissioners, residents) be established to create guidelines to aid applicants and approvers. Also concerned that the Maximum Development studied in the Environmental Impact Report for the next 30 years could be exceeded much sooner, she recommended establishing a time frame (i.e. 30 years) during which the Specific Plan would be in effect. This would assure residents that development would not overtake the limits within the 30-year period and lead to even more densification than envisioned.
What did Downtown businesses say? Wells Fargo Bank objected to the Downtown Specific Plan in a letter it submitted to the City in February -- to which there was no response. The Vice President of Corporate Properties wrote again on April 30 that Wells Fargo unequivocably opposes the proposed widening of Santa Cruz Avenue sidewalk and associated elimination of parking in front of the Bank, conversion of Chestnut Street to a pedestrian walkway - Paseo, and conversion of all or a substantial portion of its private Parking Lot behind the Bank for a Market Place. (Unfortunately, the Bank has no authority to prevent a Market Place across the street behind Trader Joe’s.)
How did the Planning Commission respond? In every case cited above, the Planning Commission politely listened, but by the time the Planning Commission finished its 5+ hour meeting after midnight, it did not act on any of the recommendations presented.
A day after the Planning Commission meeting, a newspaper article reported that Downtown merchants, upon learning of the results of the Planning Commission meeting, were calling for a referendum.
At this point it is unlikely that the City Council will act on any of the above recommendations. However, it is nevertheless important to speak up, as many of you did, whether you are a Menlo Park resident or a shopper from another community. Email to the City Council firstname.lastname@example.org will appear on the City’s website and becomes part of the public record. If you’ve written previously you are encouraged to try again. Thank you for this ongoing support.
If you are a Wells Fargo customer (or even if you’re not) you might want to stop by the bank and thank the manager for the Bank’s opposition to the Market Place. Because of this opposition, the Project Manager, Thomas Rogers, was forced to acknowledge that Plaza 6 could not be used for the Market Place (unless the Wells Fargo private parking lot was somehow acquired, which appears highly unlikely). If there was anything positive that resulted from the Planning Commission meeting, this was it!