Clearly the key to community engagement in Menlo Park is to suggest building "affordable housing" in Sharon Heights, in a park. Whether residents will remain engaged now that city staff has recommended dropping the park from consideration remains to be seen.
The city recently held two workshops to solicit feedback on where to place an estimated 1,000 high-density and affordable housing units it must add as part of a lawsuit settlement over Menlo Park's lack of compliance with state housing law. Of the 32,516 residents of Menlo Park counted by the state's most recent census, about 100 attended the workshops.
The number of Sharon Heights residents rising up in outrage over the inclusion of a neighborhood park as a potential housing site, however, appears well on the way to creating a veritable mountain of feedback -- a couple hundred emails were sent to the council in protest -- and spawned a petition.
The list of 25 potential sites was narrowed by the Housing Element Update Steering Commission after the workshops. Dropped from consideration: seven sites, including parcels in the M2 industrial zone, SRI's property on Ravenswood Avenue, the Hewlett Foundation's Sand Hill Road site, and a city-owned lot on Willow Road. The commission added one -- the soon-to-be vacant main post office at 3875 Bohannon Drive.
Still on the list: Sharon Park, albeit with a suggestion that the 2.67-acre site be limited to high-density senior housing.
Comments sent to the City Council ranged from impassioned pleas for the park where at least one resident had a first kiss to pointing out the site lies far from any amenities or public transit, to the downright ugly. One anonymous "MP citizen" wrote, "Keep low income trash out of Sharon Heights. Put them in East Menlo Park where they belong. People who don't have the ability or work ethic to live in a nice neighborhood shouldn't be given handouts."
Who lives in BMR housing?
The Almanac obtained a list of the occupations of those living in the city's current 61 below-market-rate (BMR) units. They include several teachers, a research chemist, an engineer and a physicist. Here is the list:
Computer resource associate
Human resources assistant
Social education director
Housing Commissioner Carolyn Clarke, who sits on the steering commission and is running for City Council, said there's nothing to fear. "There is a misconception that what is called affordable housing is low income housing, and this is not the case."
For example, she said, the test used for applicants to the city's BMR program determines whether they are fully employed with healthy financial records. "We are talking about people who teach our children, protect our homes against crime and fire and assist us at our public library when we search for a book. ... They too want to share our delight in living in Menlo Park."
Addressing concerns of Sharon Heights residents who spoke at the Sept. 5 Housing Commission meeting, Ms. Clarke said she's confident that the city will plan for added units with "the appropriate consideration for each needed zoning change ensuring a healthy balance between housing and maintaining livability standards in Menlo Park" as well as follow its own regulations for infill development.
Off the list?
By Tuesday city staff decided to recommend the steering commission remove Sharon Park from the list. According to a memo, since the 10-acre site had been operated as a park, rezoning two acres would require a public hearing followed by a special election and other expensive maneuvers.
That doesn't get Sharon Heights off the hook, however. "No neighborhood is exempt from the shared burden of providing affordable housing and we will need to continue to consider sites in Sharon Heights," said Councilman Andy Cohen in an announcement from the city about the change. "The Housing Element Steering Committee is committed to looking at all possible sites so we can come up with the best locations overall, and that means looking at number of factors including geographic distribution."
In the meantime, several officials are questioning the way the state calculates housing requirements. Vice Mayor Peter Ohtaki as well as Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, are scrutinizing the process.
"Affordable housing is a worthy goal, but the degree and how it gets implemented is the problem," Mr. Ohtaki said. "In terms of degree, these (housing) allocations are driven by the State of California saying the Bay Area will grow by 2,147,000 by 2040 from 7,152,000 in 2010. That's a very big number, and I don't think the region or state grew anywhere near that rate over the last 10 years."
Menlo Park is exploring whether secondary units, otherwise known as "granny units," may be counted toward the allocation. That would also save on costs.
According to another Peninsula city, Sunnyvale, it costs between $116,000 to $250,000 per unit for cities to subsidize affordable housing. "The State has taken away our (redevelopment) funds, of which 20 percent went to affordable housing, so just who is going to pay for these units to be built?" Mr. Ohtaki asked.
"In effect, cities go through this time-consuming and expensive process to allocate these highly speculative population growth numbers down to re-zoning specific parcels, thereby raising fears in neighborhoods, and yet many of these affordable units may not get built because there's no funding available."