David Bohannon is a familiar figure around Menlo Park. Approachable and thoughtful, with an easy manner, he's the senior vice president and public face of his family's development company, which owns hundreds of acres in east Menlo Park. You might have seen him walking his dog, Tule, or in a council meeting, tucking in his shirttails as he makes his way to the podium, responding to a question from a public official.
His name is the so linked to the "Menlo Gateway" project, a proposal for an office/hotel complex near Marsh Road and Bayfront Expressway totaling nearly 1 million square feet, that most people know it better as the Bohannon project.
So you would be forgiven for thinking of Mr. Bohannon as the sole figure behind the proposal, though he is its guiding force. In fact, he works with a team of trusted advisers, and is backed by a number of contractors and consultants, engaged in the work required to simply present the proposal to the City Council. The Bohannon Development Co. has employed 70 consultants or contractors in the design, evaluation and communication phases of the project, an effort to which it has devoted $7.5 million over the past six years.
It's a sizable operation, to be sure, but one that's geared toward producing a project that will suit Menlo Park well, he says. Though scores of professionals have been involved in the effort to develop the proposal and present it to the city, Mr. Bohannon maintains that the company's core commitment to the community remains intact.
Meanwhile, a handful of community activists and two council members have voiced concerns about the way the proposal is being communicated, saying they fear Mr. Bohannon is trying to pressure the council into approving the project at terms favorable to his company.
"Didn't like any of it"
During an interview in the coffee shop above Draeger's market two weeks ago, Mr. Bohannon recalled a project he worked on in the late 1990s to develop a small parcel of land near the train tracks at Marsh Road, on the fringe of the Lorelei Manor neighborhood. He held meetings in living rooms and went door-to-door, trying to sell neighbors on proposals for a gas station/car wash, a multi-tenant retail building, a stationary store, a fast food restaurant something that would serve the occupants of nearby office buildings.
"The neighborhood didn't like any of it," he said. After a failed study session, Arlinda Heineck, then the city's development services manager, suggested an office building. It would be tough to make it pencil out he had to persuade two family members who owned different parcels to form a partnership, in order to share the risk -- but the neighbors liked it, and the council eventually approved it.
"This is the game I have to play," Mr. Bohannon said. "I have to sell my family and the neighborhood on the project, and then somehow I have to get it through the public process."
According to him, the rules of that game haven't changed. The stakes are higher with Menlo Gateway, and a lot more time and money has gone into developing the proposal and communicating it to the public. But the process has remained the same in its essentials, he said.
In 2007, when Mr. Bohannon proposed the project currently under review, his company had already done a fair amount of work to design the buildings, and to provide the city with information about the revenue their operation would generate for public agencies.
Urban planners and lawyers examined the site plan and analyzed the rezoning process. Architectural firms designed the hotel and office buildings, working with several consulting firms to incorporate environmentally sensitive design techniques. Transportation consultants developed plans to make it easier for people to access the site sans car, and are still working to shave vehicle trips. Mr. Bohannon described the process as a collaborative one, with specialists in different but interrelated fields, such as transportation, architecture and greenhouse gases, working together on the design.
The company also put in a tremendous amount of effort around the city's formal review process, funding the development of environmental and fiscal impact reports by city-selected consultants. It hired its own set of consultants to shadow the city's efforts on both reports, and to comment on the city's results.
The size of the project also meant that the Bohannon company would have to step up its communication work.
"It was fine just to talk to the Lorelei neighborhood about the Marsh Road project, or to talk to Belle Haven" when the city was considering prohibiting office use on Bohannon land, Mr. Bohannon said. "But with Menlo Gateway, we were really talking about something more ambitious. We needed to talk to the community at large, to help engage people."
At between 5 and 10 percent of the overall budget thus far, the communication effort is small compared to the investment required to develop the proposal. But the campaign is also the most visible aspect of the operation to local residents, and some activists say its scope is unprecedented in Menlo Park.
Early on in the process, Mr. Bohannon hired Public Affairs, a public relations and communication firm helmed by Peninsula political consultant Ed McGovern, to conduct outreach. The firm helped set up meetings in Belle Haven, with Mr. Bohannon presenting his plans to several community groups.
After receiving a positive reaction from those groups, the company broadened its efforts, setting up a Web site and organizing polling efforts. Public Affairs helped plot a longer-term communication strategy, and advised Mr. Bohannon on negotiating what he calls the "political realities" of developing in Menlo Park -- namely, the potential for the project to be overturned via voter referendum.
Patrick Corman, a veteran public relations professional and a 30-year resident of Menlo Park, works with journalists, writes the newsletter that is periodically e-mailed to some 2,000 Menlo Park residents, and "channels" the efforts of people who want to write letters and guest opinions to newspapers.
The purpose of the communication work is twofold, according to Mr. Bohannon and adviser Tim Tosta, a land-use attorney cum life coach. First, the company wanted to develop a proposal that would garner wide community support. Broadcasting the company's intentions would allow it to respond to concerns voiced by residents and council members, and to modify elements of the project in response to those concerns, they say.
"We wanted to be confident we would have peoples' support in the public hearings," Mr. Bohannon said. "We wanted to be able to say to the council, 'We've been out in the community, and there's a lot of support for this project.'"
The outreach effort is also geared toward addressing the possibility of a voter referendum, Mr. Bohannon said. If the company can inform a wide swath of residents about the proposal, they won't feel blindsided when the council considers it. The public polls are designed to gauge whether the project would survive a referendum vote, to aid in "messaging," and to get input on design, he said.
Whose air war?
The facts concerning the Bohannon company's communication efforts are not a point of contention. Nor, by and large, are the company's intentions, though Mr. Bohannon and project opponents use different terminology to describe what he's trying to accomplish.
The divide between the Bohannon company and its critics is more a matter of attitude. While Mr. Bohannon and his advisers say the work the company has invested so far is geared toward building community consensus on the project, some prominent critics describe those efforts as an attempt to overwhelm the city with a big-money campaign.
Referring to that campaign, former council member Paul Collacchi said: "This really defines what America is, doesn't it? It's what we're all struggling with. Is it a dollar a vote, or is it a man a vote?"
Describing the Bohannon company's attempts to foster a "broad-based conversation," Mr. Tosta said: "The political insiders have a disproportionate share of the air time, but at the end of the day, the voters vote."
While Mr. Bohannon maintains that he has a responsibility to inform the community about the project, and to help the council understand the level of support for it, Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson argued that he should leave that to the city. The fact that it's Mr. Bohannon behind the communication effort, rather than a developer with fewer ties to the city, has served to make matters even more complicated.
"It's baffling to me why he would spend so much money on consultants, instead of sitting down, shoulder-to-shoulder, and working out a project that is a win-win," Ms. Fergusson said. "It's clear what their motivation is: They want to maximize their profit. From the city's perspective, we want good land use, we want a good deal, and we want to minimize the impacts. We have more of a multi-faceted bottom line."
Councilman Andy Cohen called the Bohannon company's communication efforts "indecent," especially a recent poll the company conducted in the midst off negotiations with the city, though he said he couldn't fault Mr. Bohannon for playing the game.
"To the extent that they are building an effort to attack this council for not doing exactly what he says we should do, that's not fair," Mr. Cohen said. "That's not good-faith negotiations. And, lord knows, his experts are beating the bushes to bring out every bit of support they can drum up for this project."
People on both sides argue that it is they who are trying to engage people in a substantive manner, countering efforts to con less-involved residents into blindly supporting or opposing the project. Mr. Collacchi accused the Bohannon company of preparing for an "air war" to bombard the community and the council.
"He will make no substantive modifications to the project, he will just reposition it" in response to community concerns, he said. "He wants an army of people to show up at council meetings and say, 'We favor this,' to write editorials, to give the appearance of public opinion where there is none. It snowballs. You convince the council, and you convince other people." The activist's response, he said, would be to go door-to-door informing people about the project -- something that's tough to do in your free time.
That's just what Mr. Bohannon has done, Mr. Tosta said: calling people who raise objections about the project and meeting with critics, such as members of Mr. Cohen's circle of advisers, to discuss their concerns directly.
Mr. Bohannon and Mr. Tosta say they're trying to prevent a small group of activists from dominating the discussion, a trend Mr. Bohannon said he has seen play out in several recent Menlo Park land-use debates. Mr. Tosta spoke of a continual effort to ward off "hackers," using the term to describe people who oppose a project not on its merits, but to gratify their own ego.
"You have a software developer who spends 10 years developing a program, working with discipline and creativity, and then you have a hacker who says, 'I bet I can take that down,'" he said. "These are people who use the process to advance an agenda that is principally a self-esteem issue: 'I want to be seen, I want to be heard, I want to have power.'"
And he described the struggle to get people interested in development issues in much the same terms that Mr. Collacchi did.
"You're better off with more people engaged," he said. "The problem is, with all the inputs in our culture, it's real hard to keep up that high level of engagement in local public process. ... There's a trend toward having projects dominated by non-representative voices."
The debate shaping up around the project is nothing new to Mr. Bohannon, long familiar with Menlo Park's rollicking political scene. But there remains the uncomfortable fact that many of the people criticizing the project, and the campaign behind it, have sent their kids to school with Mr. Bohannon's, worked with him on political campaigns, or exchanged greetings with him in the grocery store.
"Remember, this is a guy I like, this is a guy who is one of us," Mr. Cohen said. "He's Menlo Park. ... He's generous, his family has a history of generosity. This is not a pleasant situation for anyone."