Almanac

Cover Story - May 16, 2007

Not In Menlo's Backyard

Environmentalists say high-density housing in transit corridors would curb global warming, but eco-friendly Menlo Park isn't on board

by Rory Brown

The global warming threat, which has raised environmental consciousness around the world, has not escaped Menlo Park.

Residents are switching to solar power; a 50-person task force is studying how the city can cut greenhouse gas emissions; and with unanimous approval from the City Council, Menlo Park is now one of almost 500 U.S. cities that has pledged to address global warming at the local level.

But amidst efforts to make Menlo Park as green as can be, the city isn't doing one thing environmental groups say it should: building multiple-story residential projects, with at least 25 condominiums and apartments per acre, near the city's train station and downtown area.

Environmental and housing groups say these types of projects put residents within walking distance of shops, restaurants and public transportation, encouraging them to stay out of their cars, and limiting the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere.

"We have statistics that show that people who live within a half mile of transit are more likely to use it," said Irvin Dawid, former chair of the Sierra Club's sustainable land-use committee, who remains active with the group. "There's nothing un-American about living in projects that have more than 25 units an acre. ... We don't see a problem with [density] assuming it's designed well."

"New development really has to be more compact and transit-oriented," said Lennie Roberts, a legislative advocate with Committee for Green Foothills. "One of the keys for making cities green is having this type of development."

Environmental groups such as Green Belt Alliance say this type of development, also called "infill," can help accommodate the growing number of people who want to live on the Peninsula, without building into the foothills and other open space.

Groups such as the Association of Bay Area Governments and Housing Leadership Council also have endorsed the concept as a good approach to address the Peninsula's jobs-to-homes imbalance, and as an opportunity to allow people to live near where they work.

Not buying it

But despite the scare over global warming, not everyone is convinced high-density housing is a good thing for Menlo Park.

Over the past 10 months, two housing projects planned near the Caltrain tracks have been derailed due to concerns from residents and council members that an influx of homes in the downtown area could cause severe impacts on traffic, schools, and the overall "look and feel" of Menlo Park.

The 135-condo Derry project, planned for a 3.4-acre site off Oak Grove Avenue near El Camino Real, was halted after a successful citizen-led referendum effort (contending parties are negotiating and may propose an alternative project); and Councilmen Rich Cline, Andy Cohen, and Heyward Robinson have since stated they would not support a 134-apartment complex proposed for the old Cadillac dealership, adjacent to the Derry property.

"I'm not sure that denser housing belongs along the Caltrain corridor," said Mr. Cohen, who has emphasized that the council should always put the potential impacts on Menlo Park residents before regional needs.

"The kind of density that some of these environmental groups are supporting is too much," said Morris Brown, leader of Menlo Park Tomorrow, the residents' group that led the referendum effort against the Derry project. "I'm not at all convinced that we should pack everybody in a small circle, to save more green space."

The proposals for the Derry project and Cadillac site called for densities of 39 units and 40 units an acre, respectively.

Councilman Cohen, Mr. Brown, and other critics of high-density projects have been labeled "NIMBY" (not in my backyard) residents, but they continue to argue that the campaign for apartment and condo projects is largely driven by developers.

"Environmental groups haven't made their case, as far as I'm concerned," said Vincent Bressler, a planning commissioner and recent council candidate. "Developers are the people that would benefit from converting Menlo Park into a heavily urban community. ... I just don't think our police officers are going to move here to live in these tiny boxes."

Dealing with growth

But if Menlo Park is serious about addressing global warming through regional initiatives, the city has to work high-density housing into the equation, environmentalists say.

"By promoting low-density housing, you are indirectly increasing your carbon footprint," Mr. Dawid, of the Sierra Club, said. "It's great that Menlo Park is tackling global warming, but if everyone drives a Prius in a sprawled-out neighborhood ... they're driving it all the time."

Mr. Dawid noted that affluent communities, such as Menlo Park, are often resistant to change, but the city is part of a bigger picture.

"If you're not building enough homes, you're just handing the burden over to another city," he said — an argument reinforced by other groups.

"Growth is happening no matter what, so we have to plan where people are going to live now, and for the next 25 to 30 years," said Michelle Beasley of Green Belt Alliance. "Land-use decisions and dealing with global warming run hand-in-hand. ... El Camino Real is a prime opportunity for development, and it would be wonderful to see Menlo Park embrace that."

"It's really just common sense," said Chris Mohr, executive director of the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council. "Cities have an opportunity to create more chances for people so they don't have to live very far away from where they work."

Council reaction

Council members differ in their opinions regarding high-density housing, but for the time being, it looks as if the council will not consider any projects that call for more than the 18.5-homes-per-acre that the existing zoning allows.

In the interim, the council has opted instead to create a comprehensive plan for development along El Camino Real, leaving the high-density housing question out of the city's push to address global warming. There is no timeline for when the El Camino plan will be finished, but the process will involve a combination of public outreach and environmental review.

Although the council recently voted unanimously to endorse the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement, the wording was slightly changed to avoid committing the city to supporting high-density and transit-oriented projects.

"I certainly do think we need some density near our transit centers — the issue is how much and what's appropriate," said Councilman Robinson. "We know there's a pent-up demand for people to move to Menlo Park. ... But it would be imprudent for us to rush into this. It may appear we're delaying things, but we're trying to do it the right way."

Added Mayor Kelly Fergusson: "We need to get people out of their cars, but at the same time, people want to protect their neighborhoods, and I can't blame them."

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