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Developer forms 'sustainable' group, then steps aside

David Bohannon raised some eyebrows (and may have induced some eye-rolls) around Menlo Park when he founded a group called Sustainable Menlo Park over the summer.

After all, Mr. Bohannon is a developer, and the word "sustainable" isn't usually associated with massive development projects such as the million-square-foot hotel and office complex he wants to build near Marsh Road and U.S. 101 in eastern Menlo Park. And Mr. Bohannon has (until fairly recently) kept a rather conspicuous hand in Menlo Park politics.

But while some residents remain skeptical of the group's purpose — you can count Councilman Andy Cohen and former councilman Paul Collacchi among those who maintain that Mr. Bohannon founded it in an attempt to build support for his development interests — Mr. Bohannon seems to have largely removed himself from the group's operations, though he still attends its meetings.

In August, he responded to criticism of his intentions by hiring former councilman Chuck Kinney to chair the group, and both men maintain that Mr. Bohannon has not been involved in choosing speakers at the group's monthly forums (one of whom, incidentally, was Mr. Cohen).

Mr. Bohannon stresses that the group's primary purpose is to keep residents involved in and aware of issues pertaining to the community. He originally envisioned the group focusing on land-use issues, though its scope has since broadened to incorporate a host of other concerns. He has maintained that political advocacy is not within the group's purview.

In an interview, Mr. Bohannon underscored his desire to elevate debate in the city and bridge the "polarizing" gap between the "pro-development" and "residentialist" camps.

"If we can elevate the level of discussion, maybe that polarization falls away, and we can get to a more informed, insightful, meaningful discussion of the issues that are of importance to the community when trying to make decisions," he said.

But he acknowledged that an informed debate about land use that puts development projects "in their proper context" would benefit his company in the long run. He cited the example of the Derry condo-commercial project, sidelined in its late stages by the objections of residents who hadn't been aware of the proposal. He said ground might have been broken on the project, had residents been better informed.

Sustainable Menlo Park has met once a month since August, featuring a series of speakers that have included council members, a local real estate developer, the city's business development and community engagement managers, and the executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, according to Mr. Kinney.

Kinney's role

When he handed the reins of the group to Mr. Kinney in August, Mr. Bohannon also ceded control of Sustainable Menlo Park's mission. Mr. Kinney has broadened its scope to allow for discussion of economic development, "good government" and transportation.

The men differ on the purpose of the group. While Mr. Bohannon says that he would be content if the group limited itself to holding monthly forums, Mr. Kinney sees a possible, as-yet-undefined role in advocacy or action.

"I hope we would be in a position to understand the issues, have buy-in (from group members), and advocate in a positive way," he said.

But Mr. Bohannon disavowed the suggestion, floated by Mr. Kinney, that the group would take a stance on particular issues — though he also stressed that Mr. Kinney has complete autonomy over Sustainable Menlo Park.

Mr. Kinney said that he would not have agreed to run the group if he felt Mr. Bohannon was trying to use the organization as a mouthpiece for his development agenda.

"He can kick me out any time he wants, but he can't tell me what to do," Mr. Kinney said.

As for the inclusion of the word "sustainable" in the group's title?

Mr. Kinney wasn't sure why Mr. Bohannon put it there, but he interprets it in the broadest sense of the term. "You hope you can sustain the things you like during inevitable change," he said.

MEETING: Sustainable Menlo Park is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in the Burgess Recreation Center in the Menlo Park Civic Center. Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, will speak about the state's precarious financial situation.

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