Hey, Facebook. We like you. We like your new building designs. But we find it odd that a draft environmental impact report says that adding about 6,550 employees and no housing will have a "less than significant" impact on the city's population and housing situation.
That was the message that some of the people who gave their two cents' in public comment seemed to collectively say to Facebook during a four-hour study session and public hearing Monday on a draft environmental impact report on Facebook's expansion plans.
Those plans include building almost a million square feet of office and a hotel at its TE Connectivity site, bounded roughly by Constitution Drive, Chilco Street and Bayfront Expressway.
The Menlo Park Planning Commission's feedback was, in the words of acting commission chair, Henry Riggs, overall "positive, with virtually no qualifications." The environmental impact report was required to conduct a "housing needs assessment," and by its metrics, the impact did not hit the required threshold to be considered a "significant impact."
A separate "displacement analysis," looking at the project's potential impact on rising housing prices, is expected to be released later this week for discussion by the Housing Commission.
Facebook's expansion would come in two phases. In phase one, which would start as soon as Facebook can get the proper permits from the city, Facebook would build a 512,900 square-foot, 75-foot-tall office building it's calling "Building 21." Several existing buildings would be demolished.
In phase two, Facebook would build two buildings: another large office building Building 22, at 449,500 square feet and a 174,800-square-foot, 200-room hotel. Both would be 75 feet tall. The plans also include the addition of 3,533 parking spots.
Numerous speakers said they didn't see how the project would have a "less than significant" impact on the jobs/housing balance in Menlo Park, or on the displacement of current residents.
Patti Fry, Menlo Park resident and former planning commissioner, said she was surprised by the finding, since adding more than 6,500 jobs with no housing would further skew the city's already poor record of putting housing where jobs are.
"We're a little perplexed by the assertion that the project will have no impact on the displacement of people," said Daniel Saver, an attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. The methodology for the analysis, he said, seemed to claim that because Facebook is "not actually bulldozing a house," it's not displacing people.
"That type of analysis is missing the point," he said. It fails to acknowledge that the project could increase land values, lead to increased rents and add jobs to the region without a concomitant increase in housing supply, he said.
"The Facebook and General Plan EIR don't recognize that diversity in Menlo Park is on the verge of extinction," said Beechwood School Principal David Laurance.
In the last year, Beechwood School, a private K-8 school in Belle Haven that subsidizes tuition for underserved families in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park, has lost four teachers, who have become "victims of an economy that leaves them with very few options," Mr. Laurance said.
Finding good teacher candidates is becoming increasingly difficult. Families "of modest means": gardeners, nurses, cooks, teachers and those in elder care, he said, are being pressed into intolerable commutes or unsafe or substandard living conditions by financial constraints.
Members of the Planning Commission expressed positive reactions to Facebook's proposed designs, which were demonstrated with a large 3-D model. The offices are designed by Gehry Partners, the architecture firm of Frank Gehry. Architect Craig Webb said the designs melded an intentional use of the industrial aesthetic of Menlo Park's M-2 area with the natural landscape.
One of the distinguishing aspects of the designs is a bike/pedestrian bridge that Facebook plans to build that would provide public access across Bayfront Expressway and into Bedwell Bayfront Park at the end of Marsh Road.
Between the two buildings, Facebook would put a public-access plaza and lawn space for outdoor events, and this could be the new location for its weekly farmers' market and a venue for performances.
The roof would be sloped, with the lower side, the entrance, facing toward Belle Haven, while the taller side would be more imposing and bold, along Bayfront Expressway.
Heritage trees have no small body count related to the project: about 274 are slated for demolition. Facebook said it would replace those with at least 423 new trees. Projection drawings show trees would be part of the aesthetic for work and public spaces.
The Environmental Quality Commission will review the tree-related parts of the project proposal on Wednesday, June 22 at its meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. at the City Hall/administration building at 701 Laurel St. in Menlo Park.
Burdens on Belle Haven
Sigurd Schelstraete, a Belle Haven resident, said that the report fails to mention that the impact of the project will likely be disproportionately felt in Belle Haven.
Harry Bims, also a Belle Haven resident, said he was concerned about the potential impacts the new employees could have on local school districts. According to the draft environmental impact report, Facebook's new offices would generate demand for roughly 175 new households in Menlo Park.
That's based on the assumption that only 5 percent of new employees would live in Menlo Park, which is the percent of current Facebook employees who live there.
Based on enrollment statistics of where current Facebook employees send their kids to school, the analysis estimates that 82 percent of those new families would send their children to schools in the Menlo Park City School District rather than the Ravenswood City School District or the Redwood City School District, resulting in an increase of about 68 kids to the Menlo Park district.
Promoting parity in educational quality among the districts might reduce the impact on the Menlo Park City School District and mitigate cross-town traffic, Mr. Bims suggested.
Representatives of many nonprofit groups including JobTrain, Rebuilding Together and the Rotary Club said that Facebook has provided funding and other support to enable them to serve people in need.
Representatives of construction unions said they support the project because it would give high-paying union jobs to workers.
Eileen McLaughlin of the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, which promotes wetland preservation at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, said she appreciated that Facebook talked to her organization during planning for the bike and pedestrian bridge to Bedwell Bayfront Park.
Mr. Riggs, the acting chair of the Planning Commission, asked whether agencies that act regionally, such as Caltrans, ever become part of the environmental mitigations for specific construction projects? Mark Simon, who works with of Samtrans, Caltrain, and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, said not usually.
Facebook is not responsible for fixing the region-wide traffic problem, he said, though the company seems to be making a big effort to promote alternative transit modes, and has contributed $1 million to a study on the Dumbarton rail corridor. Facebook has offered to create a trip cap that would curtail the number of vehicles that can enter and leave the west part of campus.
Mr. Bims suggested the city take a more creative "global" approach to building affordable housing. For instance, Menlo Park's neighbor, East Palo Alto, has land to build affordable housing, but has reached the limits of its citywide water allocation. He asked: Could Menlo Park cooperate with East Palo Alto on some kind of water for affordable housing partnership or trade?
General plan update
The Planning Commission will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, July 11, to begin its review of the draft environmental impact report on the city's general plan update, which was originally scheduled for the June 20 meeting.
Next steps, comments
The Facebook project is expected to return to the Planning Commission with the finalized environmental impact report on Aug. 22 before moving to the City Council for final approval in September.
The deadline to submit written comments on the draft environmental impact report is 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 11. Comments can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to: City of Menlo Park, Community Development Department, Planning Division, 701 Laurel St., Menlo Park, CA 94025.