By Kevin Kelly
In one fell swoop of the gavel, Menlo Park officials on Tuesday night approved the largest downtown project in at least a decade — and eliminated a lingering eyesore along the city’s main thoroughfare.
“We’ve got a really ugly site on El Camino (Real) that we pass by all the time and we’ve got all these beautiful homes that we’re spending all these tax dollars on to maintain and it’s ridiculous that we have to pass this every day … to go to Redwood City or as we’re going to Palo Alto to go to dinner,” said Jon Mueller, who is raising a young family in Menlo Park.
Mayor Pro Tem Peter Ohtaki said one of the main reasons he ran for council in 2010 was to address the empty lots along El Camino.
“This is a long time in coming,” he said.
Those thoughts were echoed by other community members who attended the council meeting to speak in favor of Greenheart Land Co.’s 6.4-acre mixed-use development on the 1300 block of El Camino Real, dubbed Station 1300. Representatives from various organizations also spoke out in support, including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Greenbelt Alliance, TransForm, Bay Area Council and Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce.
Nina Rizzo, a member of TransForm’s GreenTRIP team, lauded Greenheart’s efforts to discourage car use among future Station 1300 residents by separating parking space expenses from rent.
“Those who don’t want a space don’t have to pay for a space,” Rizzo said. “We want to see more housing for people than cars.”
There also were a few critics at Tuesday’s meeting, including David Royce, who said a project with 1,000 parking spaces is “certainly not a transit-oriented development.”
And, he added, “By acquiring these 15 parcels in our downtown, the Greenheart developers are basically holding us hostage. Either we accept their proposal or they leave the property vacant. Of course, the citizens of Menlo Park are frustrated by the empty lots. They demand that something, anything be built there.”
He suggested the development should be constructed incrementally, rather than all 15 parcels at once, and urged the council to require that Stanford develop its six parcels on the 500 block of El Camino incrementally before approving that project.
Councilman Rich Cline said Station 1300 aligns with development guidelines the city approved in 2012 to boost the vitality of downtown. He noted that Greenheart’s proposal contains more housing units than any previous proposals for the site.
“You always have areas of concern, you could tweak this forever,” Cline said.
Station 1300 includes 183 apartment units, of which 20 will be rented below market rate; roughly 220,000 square feet of office space in two buildings; between 18,600 and 29,000 square feet of “community-serving space” that could include restaurants, retail and/or personal/business services; and 1,000 parking spaces, mostly in an underground garage with three access points. The residences will be erected on the Garwood Way side of the project to put them as close as possible to the Caltrain station, and community-serving spaces would be housed along El Camino and Oak Grove Avenue on the ground floor.
After negotiations with the city, Greenheart last year boosted the amount of below-market units from 10 to 20 and switched a planned bocce court in favor of a dog park on the Garwood side. Greenheart has guaranteed the project will generate at least $83,700 in sales tax revenue in the last eight years of the 10-year development agreement. It is also making a one-time $2.1 million payment to the city for downtown improvements. It is exempt from having to pay any new fees in the first three years, with the option to extend the exemption for two additional years.
Greenheart principal Bob Burke said, as he has at previous meetings, that Station 1300 complies “100 percent” with the Downtown Specific Plan. He noted that 47 percent of the project is made up of open space, 27 percent more than required. That open space includes an amphitheater, dog park and two plazas that will contain seating and water features.
“We were able to do that by putting the parking underground at great expense,” Burke said.
He also touted the project’s sustainability features, which include 2,300 solar panels atop buildings and a push to get the offices certified LEED Platinum, the highest environmental certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. All office tenants and residents will also receive free Caltrain passes for a year and there will be car-sharing and bike-sharing programs in place, showers in bike storage areas and electric bikes for residents to use for grocery runs.
“All of this will do great to lower traffic and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Burke said.
When asked by Cline what guarantees Greenheart could provide that it would secure retailers and office tenants that would boost downtown’s vibrancy, Burke assured the council that it’s in the company’s best interest that Station 1300 doesn’t become a “revolving door.”
“I’ve seen it go bad a lot,” he said. “It is in our best interest … to really have the great retail there and not just slap a Starbucks in. If it’s a revolving door, it hurts the office, it hurts the residents.”
Burke added that as part of meeting the public benefit side of the project, Greenheart has been performing “incubator outreach” in an effort to attract tech companies that value mixed-use developments. The office buildings are designed to accommodate an open space office format, he said, noting that Greenheart is the landlord for BootUp World, a co-working space in Menlo Park.
Greenheart principal Steve Pierce said he expects to break ground on Station 1300 in May. The development agreement still needs a second reading by the council at its Feb. 7 meeting.
“We have a number of preparatory things we need to do before: demolition, hazmat, utilities,” Pierce said.
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This article was originally published by The Mercury News.