Menlo Park is deep into a housing plan update for the second time in as many years, this time to develop a framework for housing for 2014 through 2022 in compliance with state law.
As part of this update cycle, Menlo Park must identify areas that could be zoned to allow homeless shelters with a total of 16 beds within the city.
The housing element steering committee has selected five sites for consideration -- at the intersection of Marsh Road and Haven Avenue; the Veterans Affairs campus on Willow Road; St. Patrick's Seminary campus on Middlefield Road; an area bounded by El Camino Real, Glenwood Avenue, Mills Street and Oak Grove Avenue; and an area bounded by El Camino Real, Menlo Avenue, University Drive and Roble Avenue.
The committee ranked the first three sites as higher priority for consideration than the last two, according to the staff report for the Nov. 18 Planning Commission meeting.
Menlo Park resident David Fogel spoke during public comment about the need for a homeless shelter as well as a clear plan to ensure safety.
"In fact it can happen to any one of us," Mr. Fogel said, referring to life events that can leave one in need of a temporary place to live. But on the other hand, he continued, "They're not all angels. We're not either." He asked who will be responsible for monitoring those staying at a shelter, given the possibility that criminals may be part of the population.
The committee members indicated they favored the Veterans Affairs campus as the top choice for a number of reasons, including existing services on site, sufficient space and proximity to public transportation.
"I cannot get enthusiastic about (the Marsh Road and Haven Avenue site) because of its remoteness," Planning Commission Chair John Kadvany said, noting that the city is already concerned about a planned housing development on Haven Avenue not having a good transit connection to the rest of Menlo Park.
However, the city will need to identify more than one feasible site for the housing element update to pass muster with the state, in case the Veterans Affairs campus proves unworkable. Commissioner Katherine Strehl commented that a homeless shelter formerly on the campus had to close after the building was deemed seismically unsafe and slated for demolition. As a result the commission opted to not remove any of the five sites from contention.
Discussion of an amnesty program for existing secondary, or "granny" units, also arose during the meeting. While initially city officials wanted to create a way for those with illegal units to get permits, the devil was in the details.
Commissioner Katie Ferrick explained that incentives were few, while the risks were high, for property owners. If the city created a no-fee program encouraging owners to come forward to get permits, the landlords could discover during the process that getting the unit up to code would cost thousands of dollars.
"And now (the city) knows it's there," she said, which the city attorney compared to a type of entrapment. "You can't not fix the things that need to be fixed if you apply."
At this point the city is focusing on modifying the new granny unit ordinance to specify how owners can legally convert accessory buildings into secondary units, including prohibiting living areas without an increased setback and to limit plumbing fixtures within accessory buildings. The goal, according to the staff report, is to make the conversion of an accessory structure into a living unit more difficult, which could in turn encourage the construction of legal granny units from the outset.
The city may also reduce the minimum lot size that would be eligible for secondary unit construction to 5,750 square feet, from the current 6,000 square feet, to allow a number of single-family lots in Belle Haven to qualify.
Finally, Menlo Park must identify sites where 655 new dwelling units, with 233 allotted for very low-income residents, could be built. The requirements are dictated by state housing law. According to the staff report, the city already has enough housing developments either in the pipeline or allowed for by existing zoning to meet the requirement without having to find additional locations.
Go to the city's website to review all associated documentation. The City Council is expected to review the proposed housing element updates on Dec. 10.