Big development on El Camino Real in Menlo Park could help or hurt the city’s goals of a street for people

Menlo Park’s new El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan, approved by City Council last summer, envisions greatly enhancing El Camino’s role as a place for people in addition to cars.  There is a planned pedestrian/bike undercrossing of the Caltrain tracks at Middle, enabling access to the Community Center, athletic facilities, library, schools and more; an outdoor public plaza at the crossing, improved sidewalks and street crossings, and potential improvements to bike access.

A large new 350,000 square foot development at 300-550 El Camino Real could help or harm the ability to achieve the goals in the plan.  The development is about a half-mile away from the Caltrain, so improvements to the pedestrian and bike connection will be very important to help office workers and residents choose to use the train rather than driving and adding to traffic on El Camino.

On Saturday, January 12, a group of concerned citizens met at the Menlo Park library to discuss whether the new development would help fulfill the goals of the plan. Representatives of the developer, and City Council member Kirsten Keith attended the session.

Pedestrian/bike crossing of Caltrain tracks, and public space at the crossing.

The last available draft of the Stanford proposal put the pedestrian and bike access and open space area smack in the middle of an active driveway.  The project is being re-submitted – a new draft is expected later in the week that Stanford says will do a better job of accommodating the public access goal. Because there are two signalized intersections in the development area, it will not work to remove vehicles from the area. But Stanford reps say that the new plan will do a better job of separating pedestrians (including little kids) from vehicles.

In order to build the crossing under the Caltrain tracks, there will need to be access across a piece of land between the Stanford property and the Caltrain tracks that is owned by Cortana, the businesses that owns the property used by Big 5 Sporting Goods and Staples.  The City would need to acquire the land to build the tunnel.

In earlier drafts of the Specific Plan, there was a second easement for another potential crossing at Cambridge.  That was removed as the plan was revised, with the explanation that it did not fit with Stanford’s intentions for the parcel at the time.  But now there is a building break at the location.   If at some point later in the future there is interest and funding to do a different crossing, it would be possible to add one there.

The plan envisions a space being open to the public, with 10,000 square feet of retail at the crossing – a space similar to the popular Cafe Borrone and Kepler’s.   Stanford representatives sounded sympathetic to encouraging the city to study the crossing and open space sooner rather than later, so they have some design goals to work around. The developer needs to meet specific requirements in the Specific Plan for publicly accessible space space and retail space. The more guidance they have, the more likely they can build a development that won’t conflict with the city’s goals and will create an enjoyable space that is viable for the retail businesses.

Unfortunately, based on current understanding of the city’s policy and the plan, Stanford does not have any obligation to help pay for the undercrossing. But the City Council has a plan to finish its public benefit policy, which was left unresolved in the version of the Plan that was adopted last summer.

Update: On Monday, January 14, the Menlo Park Bicycle Commission recommended that the City do an updated study about the design of the proposed Caltrain undercrossing, to be able to give timely guidance to the Stanford development, so they can develop in a way that won’t hamper or prevent the creation of a successful undercrossing.

Pedestrian safety along El Camino. Stanford will follow the Specific Plan and add 15′ foot wide sidewalks in front of the buildings, with at least 10 feet clear for pedestrians. However, the last draft of the Stanford plan called for five separate driveways, and five separate curb cuts allowing cars to drive in front of pedestrians walking on El Camino.   At the meeting, attendees asked for fewer curb cuts, and using space behind and under the buildings for vehicle circulation, to avoid the pedestrian safety hazard posed by so many curb cuts.

Pedestrian crossings and paths to transit.  The Specific Plan calls for improved pedestrian crossings of El Camino. However, the plan calls for “enhanced” crossings at Santa Cruz, and “basic” crossings at Middle by the Stanford development.   But the plan did not predict this specific, very large development at this important crossing.  It sounded like Stanford might be sympathetic with encouraging Pedestrian crossing improvements to help residents and workers cross the street to/from the Safeway area and to/from the train station.

Bike access.  The plan calls for bicycle lanes on El Camino as properties leave develop and create room for them. But given the developments currently in place the bike lanes would end at Big 5 Sporting Goods.   There was also discussion (and interest by Council Member Keith) at using underutilized parking space in back of the Big 5 shopping areas owned by Cortana for a pedestrian and bike route toward the train.  That would be a good option away from traffic, although it won’t meet the needs of people cycling to businesses on El Camino.

Transportation demand management was briefly discussed at the session as a way to reducing the traffic impact.   Also, the jobs/housing balance was mentioned briefly.  The conversation about these topics will continue next Saturday with Gita Dev’s session on the Sierra Club Sustainable Land Use guidelines.

Next steps

If you are interested in the land use and parking issues regarding the development, come to a session led by Gita Dev of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter who will discuss the project in the context of the Sierra Club’s Sustainable Land Use guidelines.  The session is  at 10am on Saturday, at the Menlo Park Library, 800 Alma Street.

The next step for the project will be review by the Menlo Park Planning Commission, starting on January 28.   Many open questions remain – people who want safer streets will need to watch the development and city’s plans closely to make sure the goals are achieved.

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