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.