There's no denying that Belle Haven, like all communities, has changed in some of its demographics in the last decade. But there are constants from which many concerns spring: The Belle Haven population remains far less affluent than the rest of the city's; the crime rate is significantly higher; the community is divided by a major freeway from the more affluent part of the city; and it is in a school district that is the poorest in the county, as opposed to districts serving other Menlo Park children that are among the wealthiest.
The city shouldn't be faulted for wanting to address the needs of Belle Haven, where about 20 percent of Menlo Park's population lives. But there's a high probability that the route chosen by the council, while paved with good intentions, will merely lead to one more thick, dusty consultant's report filed away in City Hall.
The plan's emphasis on information-gathering through "personal interviews, focus groups and community roundtable discussions, workshops, community connector hosted meetings and action teams" makes the process seem superfluous, considering the work that city staff has already done, as noted in the staff report. Staff has created a "community snapshot" that identifies various aspects of the community, including recent demographic information, available city services, statistics on use of the services, and information based on an August 2012 survey of nearly 250 residents.
It also conducted 25 informal "community conversations" with residents, many of whom are currently engaged in neighborhood programs and services. From those meetings and the survey, themes were identified that — surprise! — sound amazingly familiar. Residents are concerned with Menlo Park's east-west divide, the poor education opportunities for their children, "gentrification" resulting from higher home prices, and a lack of city investment in the care of the community that "would not be tolerated on the west side."
Does the city have enough information about Belle Haven and its residents to stop studying and start acting? Could the council do its own "outreach" by holding more of its regular meetings, or scheduling special meetings, in Belle Haven? These are among the questions that should be considered before the city goes forward with the plan to spend more money on a consultant and "outreach activities."
As one Belle Haven survey respondent said, as reflected in Attachment B in the staff report: "The City Council members should know all that there is to know. They shouldn't need me or anyone else to tell them. If you are going to run for City Council, you should know the community, know the issues, and know the people."