Between 2007 and 2012, the City conducted an extensive long-range
planning project for the El Camino Real corridor and the Downtown area.
The commencement of this project represented a reaction to a number of
high-visibility vacant parcels and several requests for
development-specific General Plan and Zoning Ordinance Amendments,
resulting in the desire for an approach that would instead be
comprehensive, long-term, and community-focused. The planning process
acknowledged from the beginning that Menlo Park is a community with
diverse and deeply-held opinions regarding development, but proposed
that a deliberate and transparent process would provide the best option
for a positive outcome.
The project started with a visioning project (Phase I: 2007-2008) to
identify the core values and goals of the community and to define the
structure of the second phase of planning. The culmination of the first
phase of work was the City Council’s unanimous acceptance of the Vision
Plan in July 2008. The Vision Plan established 12 overarching goals for
the project area, which served as the foundation for the subsequent
Specific Plan. The Specific Plan process (Phase II: 2009-2012) was an
approximately $1.69 million planning project informed by review of an
Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Fiscal Impact Analysis (FIA). The
Specific Plan had as a key objective the establishment of a
comprehensive, action-oriented set of rules, which would establish much
greater clarity and specificity with regard to development, with both
respect to rights as well as requirements.
Both the Vision Plan and Specific Plan benefited from extensive
community involvement, with excellent attendance at workshops and
related events, as well as regular public review by a diverse Oversight
and Outreach Committee. In total, the Vision Plan and/or Specific Plan
were an agendized topic of discussion at over 90 public meetings over
five years, including at least 28 City Council sessions and 18 Planning
Commission sessions. The development of the Vision Plan and Specific
Plan was promoted by numerous citywide newsletters/postcards, in
addition to promotions at the downtown block parties, updates to the
Chamber of Commerce, newspaper coverage, and regular email alerts. Each
phase of the project was guided by a consulting firm with technical
expertise in the required tasks. Both consultants were chosen through
public selection processes, which included opportunities for the public
to review the proposals, attend the consultant interviews, and consider
the firms’ relevant clients and projects.
Both the Planning Commission and City Council elected to significantly expand their respective reviews of the Draft Specific Plan in Summer-Fall 2011, in order to provide clear direction on improvements and refinements to the Plan. Among other topics, Floor Area Ratio (FAR) thresholds (and associated development feasibility), land use regulations, and building height and massing requirements were publicly discussed in detail during this and other phases. The impact of such standards and guidelines on key opportunity parcels were a particular area of focus throughout the Specific Plan process, and were subject to advanced visualization techniques (photomontages, massing models, and artistic renderings) in order to clearly relay what buildings could look like. At the Draft Specific Plan stage, the City Council (acting on the Planning Commission’s recommendation) specifically lowered overall building height by one full story (from 60 to 48 feet in the Station Area West (SA W) district and along Alma Street and for parking garages in the Downtown from 48 to 38 feet). In addition, the Council lowered the façade heights by one full story (from 48 feet to 38 feet) in the Station Areas (SA E and SA W) and the ECR SE district and directed changes to the upper floor controls for several zoning districts, in order to proactively address potential concerns with bulk and visual character.
After those and other changes were made, the Specific Plan process culminated with the City Council’s unanimous approval of the Plan and related actions in June 2012, following a unanimous recommendation for approval from the Planning Commission.