During the Sept. 18 meeting, the council reviewed a staff report that described features that make Belle Haven unique compared to the rest of Menlo Park — its 6,000 residents make up a neighborhood "much less affluent than the City of Menlo Park as a whole ... with stark inequalities seen in major social demographic indicators such as population, housing, education levels, and employment."
The report noted that Belle Haven has seen major changes recently. The approval of the Menlo Gateway project and Facebook's arrival may prove beneficial to a neighborhood that's also struggling with how to maintain services in the face of losing $3 million in funding via the now-defunct redevelopment agency.
Informal conversations with Belle Haven residents highlighted numerous areas of concern, including the division between east and west Menlo Park; lack of educational opportunities caused by not belonging to the Menlo Park City School District; and gentrification.
A community engagement process would "find out what is most important to the people who live and work there," according to staff, and envision what the neighborhood could look like 10 years from now.
Councilman Rich Cline voted in favor of hiring a consultant. He later told the Almanac he's never witnessed an engagement process for Belle Haven.
"That community has evolved a lot. Not just demographics but expectations have changed as well," he said. "There are 6,000 people in Belle Haven, according to the city. Have we attempted to reach out to those 6,000 and discuss the topics such as services and education? Maybe, but not at the level we need to reach conclusions for our city's long-term planning."
Noting that Belle Haven contains approximately 20 percent of the city's population, he said Menlo Park must figure out how to get people involved. "The time for a select group of people to decide the future of our city is over. We need mass engagement."
Mayor Kirsten Keith and Vice Mayor Peter Ohtaki cast the dissenting votes.
Vice Mayor Ohtaki questioned whether the process would translate into solutions, saying he was worried "it will be an expensive survey, not an action plan. We've heard for years that Belle Haven residents are concerned about the education disparity, poor maintenance of parks and medians, declining services, and occasionally crime. I'd rather spend $90,000 of taxpayers money to identify solutions to these issues and alternate funding sources."
Funding for the process will be drawn from one-time revenues such as from Facebook or the city's reserves, according to the staff report. The process is expected to start in January 2013 if a consultant is hired before the holiday season.