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Overview of the Measure’s Intended Changes to the Specific Plan, and How the Specific Plan Currently Addresses Key Issues
1. The proposed measure would require“…revised definitions and standards for open space requiring that only open space areas that do not exceed four (4) feet in height shall be calculated for meeting the minimum open space requirements” – that is, the definition of open space would not include upper level balconies or decks.
What the Specific Plan currently says about open space requirements:
The Specific Plan’s open space definition includes above ground-level elements such as balconies, decks, or other private open spaces. Questions about this definition were discussed during the one-year review of the Specific Plan in 2013. During those discussions, it was noted that the approved definition reflects best practices from other jurisdictions for moderate-intensity mixed-use development. Private open space above ground level (for example, balconies) can enhance the character of public streets and sidewalks by providing visual interest and relaying activity. Open space connected to a dwelling unit also generally provides greater utility to the residents of multifamily housing than an equivalent share of ground-level common space.
Open space that is calculated only at ground-level would likely affect the feasibility of some, if not all, developments, and could result in unintended ripple effects (e.g., if more ground-level area is required to be dedicated to landscaping, it may effectively encourage/require taller buildings).
2. The proposed measure would state that“…office space in any individual development not exceed 100,000 square feet, caps the total net, new office space approved after July 12, 2012 at 240,820 square feet and retains the overall cap of 474,000 square feet for all net, new non-residential development in the ECR/Downtown Specific Plan area.”
What the Specific Plan currently says about maximum allowable development and office space area designations:
The Specific Plan divides the maximum allowable development between residential and non-residential uses as follows:
Residential uses: maximum of 680 units
Non-residential uses, including retail, office, and hotel: maximum of 474,000 square feet
The proposed measure’s cap on total square feet of non-residential uses (474,000 square feet) already exists in the Specific Plan. For reference, that square footage is equivalent to about one-third of the overall Facebook campus project, or about one-half of the Menlo Gateway project.
The proposed measure’s desired cap on total square feet of all new office space (240,820) appears to be based on the Specific Plan’s “Illustrative Plan” description (page C20), which describes only one potential development concept as an example, illustrated by that amount of square footage. Providing such an example – as an illustration only - is typical of a long-range planning document. To be clear, the Illustrative Plan description is not intended to put forth a fixed limit on square footage; rather it describes “how the plan area could potentially build out.” This section of the Specific Plan states clearly and repeatedly that the actual build-out will likely vary from the initial projection over 20 to 30 years.
There have been suggestions that the City is not enforcing the “EIR impact limits” for the Specific Plan, based on the misinterpretation of the “Illustrative Plan” square footage example. Since that number is in fact an example and not a limit, this suggestion is inaccurate. When mentioning the Illustrative Plan for reference, the EIR clearly notes (page 3-11) that “the precise location of development and the precise types of non-residential development that will result from the Specific Plan are necessarily uncertain.”
Further, the EIR accurately analyzes potential impacts, which do not typically differ by the specific type of non-residential development. In other words, such impacts and associated mitigations would not generally vary based on whether an office building was proposed, versus a retail, restaurant, or hotel structure.
The two largest currently proposed developments (at 500 and 1300 El Camino Real) include approximately 429,611 square feet of non-residential uses (mostly office; some retail/restaurant/personal service areas), and 389 apartment units.
It’s important to recognize that the 429,611 square foot number is not the “net impact” for purposes of calculating maximum allowable non-residential use. In keeping with standard practices of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to determine a project’s net impact, the square footage of uses that were active on the site as of the start of the application, as well as the square footage of previous project approvals that were environmentally cleared, are deducted from the new project’s proposed square footage.
After making such calculations, the net impact of non-residential uses for the two proposed projects is 291,614 square feet. Click here to see the calculation in more detail.
The two projects’ total of 291,614 square feet of non-residential use represents 61.5% of the overall 474,000 square foot non-residential cap.
The 389 apartment units represent 57% of the overall 680-unit residential cap.
While the two proposed projects account for a substantial percentage of the Specific Plan’s development caps (61.5% of non-residential; 57% of residential), it is understandable and reasonable, given that these two locations are the largest and most vacant opportunity sites within the Specific Plan area. A significant percentage of development capacity would remain for smaller sites within the area.
It should also be noted that the two projects achieve an appropriate balance of residential/non-residential components. This is a result of the Specific Plan requirement that limits non-medical office uses to no more than one-half of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for any individual development project (note: medical offices are limited further, to no more than one-third of the FAR).
Rather than requiring more subjective “one size fits all” limits on office square footage, the Specific Plan’s office FAR limit of one-half is calculated to help ensure that an active office development market does not crowd out other uses that may be desired (such as residential, retail, or hotel) over the long term. The Specific Plan FAR limits are clear and non-negotiable, encourage mixed-use development, and help both the community and developers know what to expect. Imposing a more subjective, non-proportional limit may influence developers to shift their focus to housing, and move away from the more balanced development concepts that are envisioned in the Specific Plan.
Like any proposed use, office use has both positive and negative attributes and impacts. The City recognizes these impacts, which were discussed during the public process, which include:
Office users can activate local shops and restaurants with customer demand, in particular during the daytime;
Relative to residential/retail/hotel uses, office employers can often be more effective with Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs, as employers can more directly affect their employees’ behavior;
Office uses are generally fiscally positive with regard to direct City revenues/costs; no impacts to schools at all;
When there is strong market interest in office development, they can be the use that spurs mixed-use development of vacant/underutilized parcels;
Menlo Park is known for innovative venture capital and technology offices; new high-quality developments can add to that reputation; and
Medical/dental and professional service (e.g., accounting/financial) offices can provide necessary services to residents.
Traffic impacts are typically clustered at AM/PM peak hours, which in some cases are already impacted; medical/dental offices in particular can have high trip generation rates;
Offices do not improve a city’s “jobs/housing” balance; there is some perception that there are direct negative regulatory implications (e.g., Housing Element requirements) to approving new office projects, although the factual basis for this is not clear;
Relative to retail/hotel uses, offices provide less direct fiscal revenue; and
Offices do not provide much activity/vibrancy on nights and weekends.
Given these positive and negative attributes, it's important to include regulations to balance and manage this use. The Specific Plan's existing FAR limit on office use is deemed to effectively accomplish this necessary control.
3. The proposed measure would specify that“…the City Council cannot amend the definitions and development standards set forth in the measure as these provisions can be amended only with voter approval. In addition, voter approval is required to exceed the office space and nonresidential square footage limits.”
The Specific Plan regulations are, necessarily, complex and interrelated. That is why the multi-year public process involved - including many iterations, public workshops, widespread input, reviews, in-depth examination, and edits - represents a best practice for creating such a plan (based on standards and practices of the American Planning Association). The proposed measure would implement revisions by a simple public vote, without the deeper public process that is recognized as most constructive for such complicated planning programs.
4. How the Specific Plan address increases in traffic, noise, and air pollution. This topic was the subject of much discussion during the lengthy public process that took place around the development of the Specific Plan. It has been clearly stated that the kind of development envisioned in the Specific Plan will have traffic and associated noise and air quality impacts.
While certain traffic, noise, and air quality impacts noted in Chapter 2 of the Final Environmental Impact Report are “significant and unavoidable,” there are a number of mitigation measures which will help to address these issues, including: new bike routes and bike lanes, a focus on pedestrian flow, a Caltrain bicycle/pedestrian undercrossing, a requirement for new developments to implement Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs (aimed at reducing use of single-occupant vehicles), and payment of significant Transportation Impact Fees (TIF).
These measures will help, but the City Council recognizes that some level of unavoidable negative impact in these areas is necessary if the City is to achieve the moderate growth and economic activity that the community desires, as expressed through the Specific Plan.
5. Fiscal Impacts. Historically, office development generally has a positive fiscal impact on a community, both direct and indirect. For example, one-time impact fees are collected from new development in order to fund mitigation of impacts resulting from the development activity. In the longer-term, the increased flow of property taxes from such projects helps a city to maintain and improve important community services, and in this case also provides significant funds to the Menlo Park School District, even though office developments do not increase enrollment.
In addition, indirect fiscal effects contribute to an overall economic vitality – office and mixed use development fosters economic activity at local stores, services, and restaurants, and supports hotel use and development (which in turn produces additional revenues). Two recently-approved projects will result in an increase of 146 new hotel rooms within the Specific Plan Area. These two projects (one of which is under construction) indicate that there is market interest in hotel development within the Specific Plan area, as projected, which are expected to contribute positively to the City’s General Fund through Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and other revenues.
At this early stage it is not feasible to calculate the specifics of impact fees, tax revenues, and indirect fiscal impacts for pending development projects, however based on industry standards, experience, and analyses of similar development types, it is fully expected to be a positive fiscal impact.