So it was no surprise that when the Menlo Park City Council met at the Belle Haven Senior Center to discuss the community's vision for the future, it instead heard some sharp criticism from residents about the city's housing plans. Eleven residents stepped to the microphone to blast the city for zoning sites for 900 units of new housing in Belle Haven or close by. "Do you want 217 new homes on your street? I don't think so," said resident Vicky Robledo. She added that she hopes the housing plans will unite the community in opposition. Longtime resident Nina Wouk said, "Dumping it (housing) on Belle Haven is really not a moral option. We do not want to be stacked like cordwood." Other residents called for help with traffic problems and voiced an interest in getting basic services like banking and good schools.
During recent hearings on where to site major housing projects, the council found much the same negative reaction from residents of Sharon Heights, Linfield Oaks and other areas when the possibility of building denser housing near their neighborhoods was suggested. Instead, zoning changes to accommodate all 900 units — housing forced on the city by a court settlement — are proposed for east of Highway 101, in Belle Haven or nearby. The city's development services manager Justin Murphy said several factors influenced site selection, including whether the properties would be available for development by 2014; if the owners were interested in rezoning; and where job growth is likely to occur.
The selected sites are for up to 540 units on Haven Avenue north of Marsh Road; up to 216 units on Hamilton Avenue off Willow Road; two sites between the Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road; and a fifth site on Willow, just off the freeway.
It is ironic that dense housing is such a hot topic for residents today, who may not know that Belle Haven was built by David D. Bohannon during the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to the Menlo Park Historical Association's "Beyond the Gate," the development was aimed at low- to moderate-income families, and included three-bedroom homes on 50-by-100-foot lots that sold for a starting price of $5,950. An electric dishwasher and two-car garage were included in many of the 1,305 units in the Casa del Flores subdivision. Apartments and duplexes were also part of the mix on the 540 acres.
But today, homes in that price range are long gone. Prices in Belle Haven can start at $300,000 and go much higher; in most of the rest of Menlo Park, prices can be $2 million or more. The wide split in property values is a fact of life that the council must cope with whenever the subject of Belle Haven comes up. It was no surprise to Belle Haven residents that the council decided it was preferable to authorize large blocks of low- to moderate-income housing east, rather than west, of Highway 101.
So rather than having a conversation about housing, which was not on the agenda, the council heard the results of a $90,000 "visioning" survey that reached out to Belle Haven through events, a website and a newsletter, and with a crew of four residents hired as an outreach team. Early results of the survey show the community's top concerns are improving schools (not in the city's purview); safety and security; more programs for youth and families; job training; community beautification; and ways to allow the community to work together.
Council member Ray Mueller said he did not find anything new in the survey and member Rich Cline pointed out that city will have to find money to pay for any upgrades.
Belle Haven recently got a huge shot in the arm when Facebook landed at the end of Willow Road. The company already has provided major grants to Belle Haven nonprofits, and more are planned. New housing could help accommodate some of the workers who will be hired during Facebook's next expansion.
But it will be difficult for the Belle Haven community to absorb even half the 900 units of new housing, even if it receives much more help from the city to upgrade the services new residents will require.
Police Chief Robert Jonsen assured residents that public safety will improve very soon, when a new police substation opens near Hamilton Avenue. The chief, who just took over the department in February, said he will add bike patrols and pay increased attention to Neighborhood Watch programs.
In the 1930s, David D. Bohannon had what turned out to be a successful vision for Belle Haven. He turned that opportunity into new homes for Depression-era residents. Today, with the right approach, Menlo Park could try to repeat the process, and turn the community into a much more inviting place to live and work, which can happen only if the city reconsiders the plan to locate its entire housing requirement of 900 units in Belle Haven or nearby. That is simply not fair.