Viewpoint - May 16, 2007

Editorial: Clinging to suburbia

The current housing mantra, to build dense projects near public transit, has not gained a foothold in Menlo Park, at least among most City Council members.

Although high-density projects that call for at least 25 homes per acre near transit corridors are favored by environmentalists, neither of the two projects recently proposed for downtown has gone anywhere — despite the current council's recent focus on climate change, including the heavy promotion of its global warming task force.

Green is the word of the day in Menlo Park, as it is in many Peninsula cities, but Menlo Park is apparently not ready to join the high-density movement, even though such buildings give residents much better access to mass transit and downtown shopping.

The last high-density housing built downtown was Menlo Square, at 18.5 units per acre. The 135-unit Derry project on Oak Grove Avenue near El Camino Real, at 39 units per acre, was approved by the prior council last year, and then stopped by a successful referendum/petition drive. It is in limbo, caught up in council-authorized secret negotiations between the developer and Morris Brown, the petition organizer. The talks have been going on for six months with no announced progress.

The owners of the former Cadillac dealership cancelled their housing plans for El Camino Real after they were told by three council members that the project would not be approved. Instead, they have announced they will build a mainly commercial project, which meets current zoning regulations.

Clearly, the council is torn between its support of making city residents aware of global warming and backing high-density housing downtown. Council members have to be thinking of the many residents who have for years exhibited an intense dislike of high-density housing, and believe that it will reduce their property values and change the look and feel of the city.

The council is caught in the middle, but it shouldn't be. Menlo Park should not be the last city on the Peninsula to embrace some high-density housing projects in the downtown core. The Derry project is a perfect example of a good design, near transit and shopping, that would add immeasurably to the downtown neighborhood. The council should simply make sure that any housing project offered for downtown is well-designed, would offer good value for its residents, and be compatible with the surrounding area.

It is time for Mayor Kelly Fergusson and her fellow council members to get moving on housing. For starters, we urge them to jump-start negotiations on the Derry project. A deadline should be set, after which the project should be put to a referendum vote. It is ridiculous for this important project to drag on. Those who signed the referendum petition deserve to see the project voted up or down. As far as we know, the council has done nothing to facilitate these negotiations.

Next, the council needs to begin work that will lead to an updated zoning plan for the El Camino corridor. Some high-density housing should be included in this design, which would add luster to the city's current effort to slow global warming.

Opponents of dense housing downtown often cite added traffic as a reason to oppose such projects, while ignoring the benefits when residents are a two-minute walk from Caltrain and SamTrans bus lines. Enabling walking and biking in the downtown core can only enhance the city's green efforts.


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