Editorial: A more regional vision needed for Facebook expansion


A diverse parade of nonprofit, union and civic leaders turned out at the July 19 Menlo Park City Council meeting to give enthusiastic support for a development proposal that would eventually almost double the number of employees working at Facebook's growing campus in eastern Menlo Park.

With the council's unanimous approval of the development agreement term sheet -- available to the public for only five days prior to the meeting -- it appears the company's much-praised involvement with the Belle Haven neighborhood and a package of community benefits valued at over $15 million won it the support of a solid majority of city leaders.

Facebook is offering to give a lot, in part because its project is going to impose substantial impacts.

At a time when the entire region is worried about the growing traffic and housing impacts of commercial development, Facebook is proposing to develop almost a million square feet of new office space and a 200-room hotel at a site it owns near Constitution Drive and Chilco Street.

In two phases, Facebook wants to build two 75-foot-tall office buildings totaling about 965,000 square feet and a 175,000-square-foot hotel, also 75 feet tall. (Current zoning limits the height of buildings in that area to 35 feet.) Facebook says the expansion will add 6,500 employees to the current 7,500 at its Menlo Park campus.

The company has done a commendable job at proactively and creatively identifying ways it can address the impacts of the expansion. In negotiating the development agreement behind closed doors with a two-member subcommittee of the City Council, Facebook agreed to fund transportation studies and improvements; subsidize 22 rental housing units for teachers and people working in public safety and nonprofit fields; improve bike and pedestrian access; support Belle Haven community projects; and guarantee a minimum payment of fees and taxes to the city.

It is not likely, however, that these measures will protect the heavily impacted Belle Haven neighborhood and the region from further degradation of traffic and housing affordability conditions we face today.

A housing study funded by Facebook revealed that only 18 current Facebook employees live in Belle Haven and 28 live in East Palo Alto. It concluded that the addition of 6,500 employees would therefore have little "direct" impact on the local housing market, creating demand for only 175 new units -- a finding of questionable logic at best.

But from a broader regional perspective, the Facebook expansion promises what residents and planners are voicing alarm about all over the Bay Area: job growth without corresponding housing creation and the resulting upward pressure on home prices and rents, and even more widespread transportation gridlock.

The housing analysis said that Belle Haven and East Palo Alto home prices have already more than doubled in the last four years, rents have increased almost 90 percent, and traffic congestion can leave people feeling trapped in their homes or cars.

With virtually all of its employees living long distances from its campus, Facebook and other high-tech companies in the region have robust programs to encourage alternative commute methods. While currently about half of Facebbook's employees drive cars to work, Facebook is proposing to limit increases in trip generation relating to its expansion to 438 new morning in-bound commuter vehicles or face financial penalties.

The development agreement will financially benefit Menlo Park, but it nevertheless will result in the worsening of both the transportation and housing problems facing the region and points to the need for better regional coordination and cooperation on large projects. It is standard practice for the permitting jurisdiction to extract mitigation measures, including cash payments, while leaving neighboring communities like East Palo Alto with significant and uncompensated impacts.

Neither Facebook nor Menlo Park can be expected to solve that systemic planning unfairness, but the time for elected and planning officials in sub-regions like the Midpeninsula to pursue better and more cooperative practices is long overdue.

City officials everywhere are overwhelmed by the need to navigate the political landmines in their own communities over development issues, but no one is ultimately well-served by major proposals such as this one being evaluated through the lens of a single city looking out for its own interests. The environmental review process, intended to perform this function, is too rigid and comes too late to proactively address regional concerns.

We hope that one of the outcomes of the Facebook project is the recognition that by working cooperatively in evaluating major development proposals, cities can move away from isolated decision-making that perpetuates rather than solves regional problems.

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18 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"We hope that one of the outcomes of the Facebook project is the recognition that by working cooperatively in evaluating major development proposals, cities can move away from isolated decision-making that perpetuates rather than solves regional problems."

It should be noted that the City of Menlo Park totally ignored its responsibilities as the Lead Agency and negotiated a development agreement that ONLY benefited Menlo Park and which totally ignored the impact of this project on the school districts, East Palo Alto, Atherton and the Fire District.

This is hardly a model for "working cooperatively".

12 people like this
Posted by Residents
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm

It should be noted that while mp resident input was "included", it was also roundly ignored. Besides impacting Belle Haven, east Palo Alto and Atherton, thousands of residents on the other side of 101, living along or near Bay rd and Willow Rd -- anyone living between the Willow and Marsh Rd 101 interchanges will be profoundly impacted. Between overloaded schools, lack of affordable housing and increased traffic gridlock, our City did not look out even for its own residents. And you can see this by the absence of mitigation plans.

The discussion about affordable housing vs 'in lieu of' payment wasn't publicly shared. It's excellent that teachers and firefighters will have access to 22 housing units! That is perhaps the best thing to come out of this project. The fact is they will build -5500+ housing units. -4500 will be for FB employees. -1000 will be for others, and only 22 of those will go to City Employees. And there is no clear mention of affordable housing, tax relief or any other services for our fixed income elderly or handicapped residents.

13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm

How many sq. ft. are the existing buildings.

What is the net add over existing buildings sq. ft.

Let's compare apples to apples.

As to the Hotel, my guess is if you polled the Belle Haven and East Palo Alto communities they would like and deserve a chance to get a large amount of well paying jobs from service jobs up to and including management jobs.

Don't be so bold as to dismiss the benefits to them.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 27, 2016 at 1:27 pm

And just think they could be employed and walk to work,

allowing more time with their families.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 27, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Agree, jobs would be a great outcome for residents, particularly if wages enable people to afford living in a newly gentrified area.

3 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 27, 2016 at 2:07 pm

It's good to see a hard statistic on Facebook employees live in Belle Haven (18) - this agrees with my sense. The apartments about to open on Hamilton Avenue and Haven Avenues are definitely designed to appeal to them - but they aren't displacing anyone. I'm guessing that the lack of Facebook employees settling so far is due to the dangerous reputation of the neighborhood; if recent improvements in crime reduction continue, that may not be the case in the future. In any case - I don't fault Facebook for this. Generally, the only fair way to get a handle on affordability is to allow more development; rent controls have been shown to be largely ineffective.

Traffic, on the other hand ... I just hope they come up with a clear plan for this. That is the government's responsibility, and it's been clear that Facebook would make this situation worse since they moved there in 2011. They can encourage employees to take their shuttle buses; but I think the original estimates were always too rosy.

5 people like this
Posted by RWCNeighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 27, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Everyone seems to forget that community is not constrained by city limits. Menlo Park is getting significant sums of money while the Redwood City neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity are significantly negatively impacted by the increased traffic, noise and pollution caused by the Facebook and Menlo Gateway projects. We're now lucky if we can even get out of our neighborhood if we need to travel at commute times. And we don't even get the hotel taxes. (smile)
We're actually closer than most of Menlo Park and certainly closer than Atherton. Menlo Park should consult with RWC planning and council to find out what mitigation they can implement to be good neighbors. Oh… I forgot. They've already demonstrated when we discussed flooding issues that they simply aren't concerned about being good neighbors.

1 person likes this
Posted by Bob McGrew
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jul 27, 2016 at 9:41 pm

This editorial talks about how a Facebook expansion will increase job growth without corresponding increases in housing - yet this paper just covered Facebook's request to build thousands of units of housing.

Facebook is asking for an expansion of 6500 workers, but the General Plan entitles 4500 units - space for at least 9000 people. Rather than saying "no" to yet another potential development, let's find out how we can say "yes" and make sure that housing gets built.

9 people like this
Posted by HelloHanalei
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 27, 2016 at 11:11 pm

HelloHanalei is a registered user.

I was at the City Council meeting on July 19, and I didn't see the "enthusiastic support" that's referenced in this article. I saw cautious, partial support, tempered with a good deal of concern about the impacts of the massive amount of developement that Facebook wants to undertake. My personal feeling is that our City leaders rolled over and showed their soft underbelly to Facebook, totally selling out East side residents in the process. I can't begin to imagine the impacts this development is going to have on neighborhoods like Flood Triangle, Suburban Park, and the Willows, just to name a few. I heard Menlo Park referred to recently as "Menlo Facebook Parking Lot," and that about sums it up as far as I'm concerned.

4 people like this
Posted by time for reality check
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 28, 2016 at 11:32 am

Thank you editors for highlighting the need for subregional planning. City councils can't keep adding jobs without enough housing and also ignore the impacts on their own and other communities.
@McGrew - "Facebook is asking for an expansion of 6500 workers, but the General Plan entitles 4500 units - space for at least 9000 people." You are ignoring that the same General plan allows an addition of 2.3 million square ft in the area near Facebook, with 5,500 more employees. Just in the area at and near Facebook, that means 12,000 new workers would be added. Facebook's expansion project adds zero housing. They say they want to build 1,500 of the 4,500 units you mention. That leaves 7,500 workers needing to find housing.

6 people like this
Posted by mp resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 28, 2016 at 1:59 pm

A more regional vision is needed everyone in this area now and not just because of Facebook. I am soooo tired of the empty lots in MP on El Camino. Redwood city is building thousands of apartments, Palo Alto is rapidly building up on El Camino with hotels, offices, everything. Is MP supposed to not build anything because it will add to gridlock? Not understanding this argument anymore. Where do you think all those people are driving from/to. Why must we be left behind on all of it.

Maybe that IS the strategy of MP, be the last town standing where any future development can be done and extract highest fees then, as there is no where else to go.

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Posted by Bob McGrew
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jul 28, 2016 at 9:08 pm

@reality check - we need to think about the whole General Plan, not just a project-by-project basis. If you look at one project and say it has too much housing (e.g. Derry) and then look at another project and say it has too much office (e.g. Greenheart), you'll end up with weeds. We have a lot of weeds in Menlo Park. They have not made housing affordable here.

If we want to make housing affordable for regular people, we need more of it. The new General Plan does that by transforming those old office parks by the Bay into a downtown-style neighborhood with restaurants, shopping, offices, and apartments, tied together around a reactivated Dumbarton rail corridor. It's a strong, positive vision for Menlo Park.

Facebook has said they would like to build more than just 1500 units - that's just one part of their offer in exchange for this one expansion project. It's quite a lot of housing to promise, actually, given that this expansion project complies with the current zoning, but the city hasn't legalized housing on the parcel they would build it on.

So, if you care about housing, join me in focusing on how we get that great downtown-style neighborhood and its 4500 housing units actually built!

5 people like this
Posted by Hitchhiker
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:49 pm

mp resident just articulated the best reason for no-questions-asked development: the arms race among us, Redwood City, and Palo Alto. Let's not consider what's best for our city because we need to jump in and do our part to contribute to El Camino gridlock.

As for those weeds and chainlink fences on El Camino: the city could enact ordinances requiring property owners to maintain their street-facing lots. But's so much easier to acquiesce to whatever demands the developers make, especially if they are accompanied by vacations and other perks for council members.

3 people like this
Posted by SimpliCity
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 29, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Approve Facebook, deny Facebook- either way, the real problem is California in general and the Bay Area in particular having way too many cities with way too much power over land use and transportation, which are really regional issues. If anything, it's a wonder it's not worse with myopic councils like Atherton's trying to mess up beloved plans like Caltrain electrification.

As a first step, how about Atherton, Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto dissolve and reconstitute themselves with those county pockets into a more diverse and effective jurisdiction? It could unite with the fire district, which I think basically has that layout already? Peter C. should love that idea. Fiscal conservatives would love the reduction of unnecessary department heads and costs. School districts are different bodies, but maybe that'd be an instigation to unite the MP-area elementary school districts, and get some equitable education, too! The main opponents would be the minority "no birds", who might secretly be happy about having a larger audience for their weekly outing to the council.

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Posted by time for reality check
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 31, 2016 at 1:34 pm

The 4,500 housing units proposed for Bayfront help, but will not make up for all the other projects that do not add any. The city keeps creating a bigger deficit by approving projects that do not add enough housing.
Unless Facebook's 1,500 units are in addition to the 4,500, their project adds to the deficit.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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