Menlo Park Seeks to Refine Growth Vision as Development Activity Surges

Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, Cupertino, Sobrato Organization, San Mateo, Bohannon Development Co, Palo Alto, Greenheart Land, Burlingame, DTZ, Mountain View

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By Neil Gonzales

Menlo Park is looking to refine its long-term vision for growth as the Silicon Valley city has been experiencing increased development activity and interest over recent years, particularly in and around its M-2 industrial zone.

“It’s a good opportunity to take a fresh look,” city Senior Planner Deanna Chow said. “The dynamics in the M-2 area are changing. What used to be [demand for] industrial [uses] in the past may not be in the future. We want to address that.”

To that end, the city last month set maximum building levels for its historically research-and-development, warehousing zone east of Highway 101. The city has also drafted goals, policies and programs for the land-use and traffic elements of its General Plan, which serves as a comprehensive blueprint for Menlo Park’s future physical development.

On June 16, the City Council approved 2.1 million square feet of new nonresidential building in its M-2 district on top of what is already allowed in the current General Plan. The council also allowed for 4,500 new housing units, 5,500 new jobs and 600 new hotel rooms in the district.

The new development levels come as major endeavors have targeted M-2, including social-media giant Facebook, Inc.’s campus expansion efforts; the 260,000-square-foot Commonwealth Corporate Center office construction by Cupertino-based The Sobrato Organization; and the Menlo Gateway hotel-office project by San Mateo-based Bohannon Development Co.

Other projects in areas immediately adjacent to M-2 are also in the pipeline, such as Palo Alto-based Greenheart Land Co.’s 195-unit luxury apartment project at 777 Hamilton Ave.

Ben Paul, Burlingame-based executive managing director for commercial real estate services firm DTZ, said the revised General Plan should allow for flexibility in M-2 to reflect the demand of a dynamic market.

“You can do office, R&D, lab and some manufacturing. I’d even throw in recreational uses,” Paul said. “The uses in the M-2 zone should be super broad … whether it be coding video games, splicing genes or spiking a volleyball.”

However, he is not too keen on residential development in the district, although hundreds of apartment units are already in the works in the zone, and Facebook has expressed interest in pursuing housing there.

Residential density “should be closer to downtown,” Paul said. “There are not a lot of services [in M-2 to support increased housing]. But I’m not saying housing is not going to evolve there. It just needs to be looked at closely or on a case-by-case basis.”

While M-2 has been a prime focus, the General Plan update process has also sought to revise outdated land-use and traffic issues citywide. Those elements of the General Plan were last updated in 1994.

As a result of a June 30 public meeting of the city’s General Plan Advisory Committee, proposed updates to those elements include encouraging residential development in and near the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan area and promoting the clustering of compatible uses such as employment hubs and retail centers within easy walking and biking distance of transit stops.

Such concepts are not new and are covered in the existing General Plan, Chow said, but part of the effort under way now seeks to strengthen language that supports or advances the city’s housing and other development goals.

Menlo Park’s new General Plan would also call for future development to support and contribute to educational, transportation and other programs that help the community. “That has been a strong comment raised through this process,” Chow said. “With the increase in development opportunities, there should be community benefits as a result.”

The idea of enhanced public benefits is something other Silicon Valley cities have been pursuing lately. Cupertino, for instance, is considering a competitive process in which proposed projects are weighed against each other for development rights based on various factors such public benefits and sustainability features.

In Mountain View, LinkedIn, Google and other applicants that competed for limited development rights in the North Bayshore neighborhood offered proposals each laden with multimillion-dollar public-benefit packages. Ultimately, LinkedIn won the majority of the more than 2 million square feet of commercial space that had been available.

Menlo Park’s work on the General Plan is expected to last another year before the council considers final approval, Chow said. The work will also include crafting zone regulations to accompany revised land-use designations and a review of potential environmental consequences involving proposed changes.

“We’re just in the infancy,” she said.

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