Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 17, 2012

'Menlo Monopoly': Sites swap hands

New owners claim Beltramo's project and 1300 El Camino Real

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Park needs more housing, at least according to the state, and with the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan in place, building that housing should be easier than it used to be.

Two developers are willing to test that theory on controversial sites with development agreements in place for years, although the developers fulfilling the vision will not be the same as the ones who started the process. Both 1460 El Camino Real — otherwise known as the Beltramo's project — and 1300 El Camino Real, the site that sparked a lawsuit filed by private citizens purportedly concerned about competition with local grocers from the envisioned grocery store on the site plan, were sold earlier this year.

In the case of 1460 El Camino Real, the Beltramos haggled with Menlo Park for years over the number of below-market-rate housing the 1.5-acre site needed to include. Starting with three, and ending at one, the city's decisions were guided in part by the perception of the Beltramos as local businessmen and small developers trying to save money in a tough economy. The final approval came in January 2011.

By March 2012, the site belonged to professional developer Hunter/Storm, based in Foster City. According to John Beltramo, discussions about the sale started about six months after the council's approval.

The timing raised a few eyebrows. "First, the applicant wanted relief on the BMR allocation. That was no small feat, but understanding that the applicant was not a professional developer and did not have the kind of resources a classic land developer would have, kind of played into the discussion," said Councilman Rich Cline.

"Speaking for myself, the way this property flipped hands so quickly has never sat well with me. We gave relief and in doing so basically passed on more entitlements for the applicant to sell."

But, he said, all landowners have a right to sell. "And this is the difficulty when approving projects requesting more entitlements — that the applicant is just trying to get more out of the city to turn around and sell for more money."

Mayor Kirsten Keith, who also had input on the project while on the Planning Commission, declined to speculate about how her votes might have gone had the city been aware of a possible sale. "I am pleased that at least the project may get under way and be built and we will have another (below market rate) unit," she said.

The metamorphosis of 1300 El Camino Real, also in March, was not from small developer to large. The 3.5-acre property initially belonged to Sand Hill Properties, then transferred to Bayfront Investments, also in March. The city is keeping an eye on the property. As it looks for possible housing sites as part of a lawsuit settlement over non-compliance with state law, the city put on the list both 1300 El Camino Real and the site of the former Derry project.

The existing development approvals for the property at 1300 El Camino Real are valid through October 2013, according to Community Development Director Arlinda Heineck. Scott Hassan, of Willow Garage fame, also owns Bayfront Investments and is interested in building a mixed commercial/residential project, according to city staff. Heineck said that any new plans at that location would follow specific plan guidelines, which allow 32 to 50 housing units per acre.

A second community workshop to discuss potential new housing sites is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the senior center at 100 Terminal Ave. in Menlo Park.

A list of 25 preliminary locations can be found on the city's project website, tinyurl.com, on the housing element update.

Almanac Staff Writer Sandy Brundage can be emailed at sbrundage@almanacnews.com.

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