In an eight-acre strip of land shoehorned between Menlo Park’s Caltrain tracks and El Camino Real, the battle for a John Arrillaga ’60-sponsored development project has boiled over amid resident protests.
According to Steve Elliott, Stanford’s managing director of development, the University has owned this narrow piece of land for almost all of Stanford’s existence. Over the past 50 years, the property has been leased out to various auto dealerships, but on March 31, their ground lease on the property will expire and Stanford will have control of the land once again.
Meanwhile, the complex, Arrillaga’s most recent project, started to take shape last summer as Menlo Park passed its zoning plan for the downtown project.
The development — referred to as 500 El Camino Real — will incorporate — in the form of four- and five-story office and residential buildings — about 96,000 square feet of medical offices, 10,000 square feet for retail space and over 200,000 square feet for up to 152 housing units.
“Our approach comes from about five years ago when Menlo Park decided they wanted [to develop].” Elliott said. “When we got control of these properties, we wanted to develop them on a comprehensive as opposed to a piecewise basis.”
Meanwhile, a group named Save Menlo Park has protested against the proposal, forming after Stanford submitted plans for the development in October. According to Perla Ni, a group spokesperson, the group is made up of about 500 community members, many of whom are Stanford alumni or former employees. Ni used to work at Stanford.
Ni claimed that Stanford had been given an 87 percent increase in the development’s permitted size, and that Stanford decided — within weeks of the expansion in permission — to build medical offices. Ni argued that no one in the community had considered the impact of medical offices and that the planned development’s site should have been designated for low traffic housing.
“[The proposal] is terrible because of safety,” Ni asserted. “Menlo Park is split into an east side and a west side by El Camino. The middle school is on the west side, and the high school is on the east side. Every day, hundreds of kids are crossing El Camino.”
Menlo Park Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs estimated that the development could add 6,000 cars traveling up and down El Camino Real on a regular basis.
“There could potentially be 20 percent increase in traffic because of these buildings,” he said. “That’s … a big increase.”
However, he also defended Stanford’s right to build whatever they wanted on University property.
“No one has ever said that it has to be all residential,” he said. “Stanford is just repeating what is in the zoning guidelines for the plans but people didn’t count on what might be the traffic impact if it does end up being leased. But now they’re looking at those numbers.”
Vincent Bressler, another Menlo Park planning commissioner, mentioned another critique of the proposal — its low architectural appeal. Menlo Park doesn’t have a community center, and, according to Bressler, the land was “supposed to be a public benefit community space for the city.”
He said that many residents had anticipated the land being turned into a scenic gathering space rather than a monolithic complex.
“It was a surprise to me that Stanford showed so little concern for what had been expected in terms of public amenities,” Bressler said. “That was disappointing.”
According to Ni, if Stanford uses the land for its own purposes, the University will pay no property taxes. She added that — citing an exchange with a University representative – Stanford currently has no plans to compensate the local government to the taxes that it might otherwise have collected, despite the fact that many other schools, like Harvard and MIT, adhere to similar practices.
“We’ve had three meetings with Stanford management folks,” Ni said. “But we would love to meet with [University President John] Hennessy and other administrators so that they can hear from alumni and employees that are very loyal to Stanford but stunned by the poor planning, design and management of the entire project.”
Asked about the reaction from citizens about the proposal, Elliot reiterated support for Stanford’s current plan for the project.
“The property is a prominent location. It’s a large property — eight acres. We knew there would be community comments about the project, and the purpose of the planning commission was to hear the comments from them,” he said. “Construction will begin dependent on how long it will take to get Menlo Park approval, but we hope to start by next year.”
Riggs acknowledged the tension between some residents of Menlo Park and the University.
“Everyone has their opinions and preferences,” Riggs said, acknowledging the challenges of redesigning the proposal. “I know Stanford heard [the reaction] and that the proposal is going to come back with a different look. That doesn’t mean that we will approve or that the neighbors will like it, and it’s going to go back and forth three or four times.”
Elliot said that resident concerns, especially regarding the number of medical offices in the current proposal, have been heard and evaluations have been put in place to ensure the University puts forward an appropriate proposal.
Riggs expressed faith in the system despite simmering tensions, asserting that the back-and-forth debate within the community will ultimately cause a good final result.
“My take on it is that it’s just part of a process that needs to happen,” he said. “It’ll eventually come out the right way, but I don’t know what that is.”