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Menlo Park: Facebook expansion clears Planning Commission

 

Up next: Facebook's got a date with the Menlo Park City Council.

On Sept. 26, the first phase of the company's expansion project cleared the penultimate hurdle when it earned the unanimous support of the Planning Commission. The commission voted 5-0 to recommend that the City Council approve various agreements needed for the project to move forward. The council will get the final say in the project's approval.

Facebook proposes to build two new office buildings and a hotel on the site of old industrial buildings at 300-309 Constitution Drive in eastern Menlo Park, several of which have already been demolished. The new office buildings would be connected to each other and to Building 20, Facebook's large office building that runs along Bayfront Expressway between Willow Road and Constitution Drive.

The new buildings would provide up to 962,400 square feet of office space, and the hotel, up to 200 rooms. Only approval of the designs for the first office building are currently being sought; the second phase of the project, which includes the second office building and the hotel, will require another visit to the Planning Commission.

"With this (development agreement) we've made a good faith effort to take the feedback and concerns in the community, translate that into tangible investments to help solve some of our regional challenges," said Fergus O'Shea, Facebook's director of campus facilities. "We believe this package is robust in addressing serious issues related to transportation and housing while producing jobs and revenue important to our local economy and city services, all under the umbrella of complying with the existing general plan."

Rose Bickerstaff, a Belle Haven resident, pointed out that Facebook is not the only tech company in the Bay Area that generates a lot of commuters. Facebook said it plans to abide by a restrictive cap on the number of car and vehicle trips allowed there each day, especially during top commuting hours.

Representatives from Bay Area environmental groups Menlo Spark and Sustainable Silicon Valley praised Facebook's plans to build its own recycled water system at the new office buildings, which would repurpose sewage wastewater to irrigate the site's extensive proposed landscaping.

They also said they liked that Facebook plans to install solar panels to generate its own energy.

Those who have benefited from Facebook's philanthropic work voice support for Facebook when the company is seeking project approvals, and the Sept. 26 meeting was no exception. A number of JobTrain students and first-generation college students who have received scholarships funded by Facebook voiced their gratitude for the company's funding of local nonprofits.

One concern raised was the potential displacement of local residents, especially low-income people, due to the addition of an estimated 6,500 new Facebook employees.

As part of the development agreement the City Council has approved, Facebook will have to plan and design 1,500 housing units on its nearby property, but the company cannot be mandated to actually build those units.

The housing can't be built until the city rezones property in the area, a step expected to happen when the city approves its general plan update, currently underway. Facebook also will have to pay the costs for or build 20 housing units, and has agreed to subsidize rental costs for 22 apartments for local teachers, public safety officers or nonprofit workers.

Planning Commissioner John Onken said he didn't think the steps would make a "hoot of difference on the housing situation in Menlo Park," adding he thought they were "welcome but stop-gap measures."

Ultimately, commissioners agreed that while there were some concerns – such as whether the project would foster the displacement of local residents, and how the company's busing system might be affected by shifting bus-stop policies in San Francisco – the project met their requirements to recommend that the council approve it.

Citing Facebook's commitments to mitigating environmental and transportation impacts, Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs said he doesn't have a problem approving the project.

"It takes a special entity to execute on a project like this," said Commissioner Andrew Barnes. "On balance, I support it."

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