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Density is a matter of perspective

Original post made by Elizabeth Lasensky on Dec 15, 2006

I have lived in apartments since I was 15. They've been in Miami, Manhattan, the Bronx, Mountain View and Menlo Park. I've lived college dorms and in old soldiers' quarters on a kibbutz in Israel. I haven't had the luxury of living in a single family home since my parents lost ours in an economic downturn in the 60's.

My current 1-bedroom apartment has perhaps 700 square feet of living space and it's very efficient and cozy. It's also close to shopping and transit, which is why I chose to live there.

So when I hear that the Derry Project will have 135 condo's per acre,is close to transit and shopping, and that the 1-bedroom units will have 900 square feet of space, I don't respond in the same way as those who have had the good fortune to live in single family homes all of their lives. These are all pluses in my book.

Contrary to an article that Andy Cohen read at City Council on Tuesday, the many apartment dwellers I know who live in Menlo Park are happy and well-adjusted. I suspect we take transit and walk or ride our bikes more often than most. What we tend not to have is an annual income of $200,000 that is now needed to purchase a home in San Mateo County.

And as our community's demographics change, we can expect to see a certain number of Menlo's senior home owners wishing to trade in their expensive-to-maintain homes for more compact, easy to manage condo and rental apartment units.

Density, like quality of life, means different things to different people. I hope our community that is dominated by single home dwellers can make room for those of us who see quality of life in other ways.

Comments (13)

Posted by Not a Socialist, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 18, 2006 at 8:24 am

Elizabeth, I understand that you like living in a small space, and apparently you have found a home that meets your needs. But you do not explain why Menlo Park should be obligated to provide housing for others who may share your preferences. The exodus from California continues, and the main reason people leave is that they cannot afford to buy traditional houses here. I suspect there are already plenty of housing units located by the railroad tracks for anyone who wants that lifestyle; no need for Menlo Park to add more.


Posted by roxanne rorapaugh, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Dec 18, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Dear Not a Socialist,

You do not have to be a socialist to understand that diversity in income levels exists in all cities. Many people who want to move to Menlo Park actually have high incomes and education levels--but they were not lucky enough to have been in a position to buy houses when the supply and price were reasonable, or to have inherited a house from their parents, or to have married someone who had a house. It is not fair or wise to lock out so many people just because a few homeowners think the city should not increase its housing supply--regardless of the desires of other residents and property owners, including those whose property could be developed.

There are not that many housing units near the railroad in Menlo Park, most are single family homes.

As long as developers are reasonable and work with the city planning department to create sustainable projects, we can easily welcome more people into our community and maintain our quality of life. The debate about increasing the housing supply in Menlo Park isn't about socialism so much as it is about selfishness.




Posted by MPworkingMom, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 18, 2006 at 3:52 pm

Roxanne,

Amen, sister!

If Not a Socialist had his/her way, all of us renters would have to wear giant scarlet Rs on our chests so that quality, home-owning people wouldn't mistakenly treat us like we belong in Menlo Park.


Posted by Lifelong renter, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 18, 2006 at 5:08 pm

Right on, right on!

The last thing suburbia needs is more insulation from the wider world than it already has, particularly in an area like Silicon Valley, where ordinary people have such a hard time finding places to live that are not far away from work and entertainment.

If it were up to me, I would carve out contiguous sections of the cities of Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and San Jose for a grand park, along the lines of Central Park, and start the tradition of a commonwealth out here.

I would expand mass transit, I would encourage taller buildings downtown while preserving the green belt, I would make it possible to live well here -- social life, work life, family life -- without needing a car.


Posted by Not a Socialist, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 18, 2006 at 10:53 pm

Not everyone can afford to live in every city. Why on earth should we insist that Menlo Park be affordable for everyone? I don't expect the people in Atherton to subsidize my buying a house there! Nothing wrong with being a renter, but there's also no reason that the rest of us should have to subsidize your housing purchases.

Those of you who like dense housing and highrise buildings have plenty of options. Why not move to San Francisco, a city that offers a much more vibrant lifestyle, and let those of us who enjoy our dull suburbs and backyards continue to live in the kind of community we prefer? Why insist on imposing your values and visions on the rest of us?


Posted by Diana, a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2006 at 3:24 pm

Not a Socialist,

If you truly are not a socialist, what do you have against the capitalist system? After all, it's not the city that proposes to build high-density condos at the Derry family site -- it's a developer, who you can bet is planning on making lots of money on sales of these small units he's convinced there's a market for. That's supply-and-demand capitalism, not socialism.

Seems to me that your real message is that the community of Menlo Park should be peopled only with the wealthy, or the fortunate whose relatives left them a home in this "dull suburb."


Posted by Not a Socialist, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Dec 19, 2006 at 7:01 pm

Fiction: everyone who lives in Menlo Park is rich. Fact: some of us just work hard, get a good education, and jobs that pay us enough to afford to live in Menlo Park. Note that Derry and all other dense housing developments are planned for east of El Camino. If you truly loathe the rich and entitled, why not insist on building high density housing in west Menlo, or in some of those 10-acre lots in west Atherton?

Socialism: the buyers of the non-subsidized Derry units are subsidizing the BMR buyers. That's not capitalism, Diana. Time to (re)take Econ 1001, maybe?


Posted by Diana, a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2006 at 10:09 pm

Not a Socialist, it sounds as if your beef is with the city's below-market-rate housing requirements. Elizabeth's original post was about her support of high-density, small-scale housing near a transit hub and shops. Those are two quite different matters. Perhaps it's time to (re)take Logic 101.


Posted by Elizabeth Lasensky, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 20, 2006 at 6:54 pm

Like many Menlo Park renters, I too work hard and have a good education. It isn't a matter of laziness or education but a lack the financial resources to afford to purchase a home. Only 12% of San Mateo Co. residents can afford to purchase in this county. The annual income necessary to qualify is around $200,000.

If market rate Derry buyers decide to purchase, they understand they are subsidizing the BMR units. Both sets of buyers want the same result: convenient, easy-to-maintain, transit-oriented housing.

By the way, not all of the higher density developments are going on the east side of El Camino. One project is slated for the old truck lot on the west side of El Cam.

I like the vision above of the park surrounded by housing, with good transit. It's very carbon neutral.


Posted by KnowsThePlanningCode, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 20, 2006 at 9:19 pm

One respondent wrote: "As long as developers are reasonable and work with the city planning department to create sustainable projects" ...

How 'bout we rephrase that to say, "so long as projects conform to Menlo Park zoning laws.", and in fact, the Derry project did not. It required three law changes, two of which were referended by nearly 3000 residents.

The Derry project density is not 40 units per acre, its density is 50.2 units per acre. It reported unit densities using a reporting standard called "gross" not "net", the standard density metric, and a 300-word policy discussion by Planning Director Arlinda Heineck in the staff report makes this quite clear. That's like saying I'm 6 feet tall, only my feet are 15 inches rather than 12.

Everyone respector of democracy in the world should shudder whenever its government openly decieves them in ways such as this.

Not only does the Derry project exceed the zoning density of the highest density contemplated in the community zoning laws, but it exceeds the volume allowed the highest density by 30% or 60,0000 square feet, throwing in extra space, height, and and added 22,000 square feet of commercial development for good measure.

There is simply no zone in the Menlo Park zoning code that supports anywhere near this level of devepment, even the "high density" R-4 housing designation. The project exceeds the allowable R4 densities by over 60,000 square feet and tens of units.

Elsewhere utility tax opponents are arguing to nullify the vote on Measure K because it won by "only" a slight margin, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of John Boyle who was seated by a similarly slight margin over Vince Bressler, without seeing either the irony or hyprocrisy of their position.

Are we or are we not a nation and city of laws?

Do majorities prevail in a vote of the people or not? It is ok for housing advocates to nullify planning laws they don't like just as anti-tax advocates seek to nullify ballot outcomes they don't like?

Is democracy just a convenience that we are too willing to ignore when it fails to produce the outcomes we desire, or are we a city of laws?

I am happy to support conforming 40-unit acre (net) projects, when they are legal. This one is not. And I am happy to support changing zoning laws when they are enacted through open and due process and they reflect true community consensus. The Derry project does not.

What say you Elizabeth? Are laws only good when they produce the outcome you desire, or will you respect and abide by legal community standards even when they fail to meet your personal standards?

To date, you have been mature and measured in your respect for the referendum. I still believe it will produce a good output. Please have faith and be patient.


Posted by Elizabeth Lasensky, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 22, 2006 at 11:58 am

I don't see where my comments are in any way disprespectful of the referendum process. Nor have I been disrespectful of the people who initated the Derry referendum, although it was not one I supported. I have been stating a perpsective that is different than that generally held by people who have always lived in single family homes.

Menlo Park has never had a renter on the city council, all of our laws and ordinances favor the single family home owner and the landlord. I'm merely pointing out that there are others who live in Menlo Park with a different reality.

The Derry project is not perfect. There are things I would have liked to see as required mitigation. If the negotiations produce a better project, great.

I also put my name on my comment, would you be willing to put yours?


Posted by Ole Prole, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Dec 22, 2006 at 2:32 pm

Has a renter ever run for council? Buying a house reflects a certain commitment to a community. Running for council, a much greater commitment. People who won't make the former commitment are unlikely to make the latter. I also don't see that local laws favor owners over renters. The laws generally impose requirements and restrictions on property owners, and when I was a renter (most homeowners were renters at some point) I was happy to be free from those local codes and ordinances.

I have not heard any complaints from anyone about the prospect of building 900 sq ft homes. The concerns have all focused on developments that do not abide by the general plan or zoning. The O'Brien Group may tell you that they have to violate the current zoning laws to make the project economically viable, but anyone with basic arithmetic skills can see that they're just being greedy. If they agree to go ahead and stay within existing constraints, they should be given the green light to build those little units.

The only question then remaining will be whether the more vocal renters will put their money where their mouths have been. Buying a micro-home on the train tracks may seem less appealing when you have to take out a $500,000 mortgage and pay $500/month in association fees. But if that's what you want, I can't think too many people will stand in the way.


Posted by HomeOwner, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 22, 2006 at 2:39 pm

Clearly, our town should have serious discussions ASAP about what housing is desired and what impacts are tolerable. With the Derry project and those around Linfield Oaks neighborhood, this simply hasn't happened. More is on the way! A pro-dense housing group (Housing Commission) is supporting increased density regardless of impacts on needs for city services and on quality of life (such as more traffic, less park and open space per capita). City staff and certain former and current Councilmembers are enabling developer requests that don't conform to any city rules (see above note from KnowsThePlanningCode).

How about getting a plan together for the city rather than continuing piecemeal planning? Developers with out-of-plan ideas could be turned away with a firm "no", saving time,expense, and uncertainty for everyone.

Bear in mind: many of us who own homes also were renters first, then purchased our initial home(s)in less expensive communities. We traded in our equity to buy upward, ultimately into Menlo Park. This still is possible. After scrimping and saving for many years to be able to afford a home in a community with the kind of quality of life I want (here), I'm disappointed that others are willing to trash that quality of life when nearly all the developments coming forward are primarily at or above market, adding virtually no "affordable" housing but lots of traffic and demands for city services. That's not a trade-off I support.


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