By Stuart Soffer
Menlo Saves: Optimizing OutcomesUploaded: Mar 19, 2014
(Or, Wrestling with Menlo Park's Specific Plan for El Camino in a Nutshell)
The downtown plan is a case study in conflicting optimizations. We don't need to get lost in the details of the specific plan to understand the fundamental dynamics.
There are three constituencies who want (or should want) to optimize zoning for differing goals:
• Property owners and developers
• The city
Property owners want to optimize for profit, typically through up-zoning and altering permitted uses.
City also wants zoning that supports its short-term operations budget and longer term capital needs. Local revenues come from sales, hotel, and property taxes. If Menlo Park acted rationally, the city might optimize zoning to increase housing, as ABAG continues to impose housing quotas on us. Similarly, the city might try to limit new office construction so prevent an increase in future housing requirements. City planners would certainly encourage the construction of hotels given the high occupancy taxes, and also retail stores, as the city retains a portion of all sales taxes.
Residents want to optimize zoning for their own interests, including property values, traffic mitigation, neighborhood safety, and availability of nearby retail, recreational, and entertainment options.
One major complication: a conflict of interest. Because the city charges developers for the staff time required assessing their projects, the staff tends to focus on these projects, overlooking the greater but unremunerated needs of the city as a whole.
In the 7 years of the El Camino planning process, many gave their input to optimize their preferred operating result. But the results didn't necessary capture it all.
You would think that if the city acted rationally, under the ABAG demand, they would push for housing. But they don't. They are paid on an hourly basis to service development applications. At the same time, city staff ignores the revenue derived from residential property taxes and promote zoning that may lower residential property values.
With little to gain and a lot to lose, residents complain that the city is oblivious to their needs. Projects that do enhance the quality of life, like parks and recreation enhancements require additional taxation in the form of bonds.
The downtown specific plan is so broad in geography, so complex in scope and consequences, that perhaps the whole thing should have been placed for ratification by ballot in the first place like the Menlo Gateway project.