Monday, February 11, 2013

Dispatch from Menlo Park: Fighting High Density Housing


  by Francesca Segre | January 29, 2013 — 11:04 AM

Menlo Park residents are gathering Tuesday night to figure out where to build almost 2000 units of mixed-income housing - a good chunk of that will be for low-income families and seniors.

Menlo Park and 18 other Bay Area cities have fallen behind on a state mandate to zone for new housing, called the Housing Element.  The delay is due party to funding issues and the city choosing to support other priorities, according to the city planner, but it's also complicated by fights over where to put the homes.

At a gas station in Menlo Park, commuters fill up for the drive home. One of them, Jeremiah Cohen, used to live in Menlo Park, but now he's in Foster City with his parents.

“I would like to move back to Menlo Park,” Cohen says, “But the housing is way too expensive, especially for younger adults like myself.  It’s too much to afford.  Something needs to be done about it.”

Now, something is being done, thanks to three housing advocacy groups, their strategically timed lawsuit, and Facebook.

The advocates filed a lawsuit claiming that for the past 20 years the city of Menlo Park did not plan for the community’s housing needs and failed to comply with the state’s housing mandate.

Jennifer Martinez runs Peninsula Interfaith Action -one of the community groups involved in the suit.

“in over 20 years,” Martinez says, “the city has only built a little over 300 units of housing, most of which has been market rate.  It’s not accommodating for the variety of needs in the city and income levels that people might have.”

Only 8 per cent of people who work in Menlo Park actually live in the city, where a 2-bedroom apartment rents for roughly $3,000 a month.

The advocacy groups filed suit against Menlo Park in May of last year knowing Facebook had just moved its headquarters to the city and was planning to expand its campus. 

The groups knew if the city went into housing litigation, the courts would likely prevent Menlo Park from issuing commercial development permits - permits that Facebook was counting on.

The outcome? Menlo Park quickly settled.

Housing advocate Jennifer Martinez says the timing of the suit was important: “There are very few mechanisms outside of suit that force a city to comply with the state regulations on housing elements.  Unfortunately if a city isn’t inclined to do so, only the threat of losing a company like Facebook would compel them to.”

As part of the settlement, the city promised to update its Housing Element of the General Plan by March of this year - making up for much of the 20 year backlog in zoning.

People in Menlo Park are now fighting over where to put almost 2,000 new homes with at least 600 of them meant for low income residents.

Justin Murphy is the city planner heading up the effort to wedge some of these units throughout the city, including neighborhoods with expensive single-family homes.

“The main issue,” Murphy says, “is finding appropriate sites for higher density residential and existing residents. Property owners have expressed concerns over the years about what impacts may come to the school district, water services, and transportation associated with that change in zoning.”

Menlo Park resident, and member of the planning commission, Vincent Bressler says it’s pitting neighborhoods against each other: “It’s just easier for people in individual areas of town to fight one another and say ‘you take it, no I don’t want it. I don’t want it.’ It’s kind of nasty.”

In the community workshop Tuesday night, residents will consider 14 separate proposed housing sites.  The city will then make a “short list” based on feedback.

Bressler says more vocal communities have a better chance of keeping high-density housing out.

“It’s a squeaky wheel syndrome, that’s for sure,” Bressler says.  “Definitely the more politically disenfranchised areas of the city are more likely to be hit by this.”

Planner Justin Murphy says the city has no choice: “The important thing that we try to emphasize is that we’re all in this together - we’re trying to figure out the best thing for Menlo Park. Trying to figure out how to make decisions that are strategic, that accomplish state law, and preserve the quality of life in town.”

Meanwhile, Murphy says he’s fielding calls from developers -- already eager to dig in.

No comments:

Post a Comment