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Menlo Park: Tensions simmer over city ownership of fire station site

 

When Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman looks around at the amount of development that could happen in eastern Menlo Park, his reaction is similar to the man in the film "Jaws" who just met the great white shark. The prevailing thought: We're gonna need a bigger fire station.

Development in the city's M-2 area east of U.S. 101 is escalating, and may only accelerate if the city decides to allow further development there. Facebook is planning to build almost a million square feet of office space and a 200-room hotel. The Bohannon Development Company is already building an 11-story hotel, eight-story office building, a parking structure, and a fitness facility.

Greenheart Land Co. is building 195 apartments on Hamilton Avenue. MidPen Housing Corp. is building 90 affordable apartments, now under construction, on Willow Road.

Even though Belle Haven's Station 77, located at 1467 Chilco St., was completed in 1988, development in the area has occurred rapidly and at a scale significant enough that the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has become worried that the station won't be big enough to accommodate local needs in a few years. Right now, it is large enough to fit about one main firefighting vehicle, three to four firefighters, and some water rescue vehicles onsite, Mr. Schapelhouman said.

The fire district currently leases the Belle Haven station site from the city. According to City Manager Alex McIntyre, the district has been leasing the land that way for at least 30 years. Though the council is not currently interested in selling the land, he said, they are interested extending the lease, and continuing to lease the property for $1 per year. "It's not uncommon for government agencies to do that for each other," he said.

That situation has caused tension in recent months. Email records indicate that the fire district first approached the city about the possibility of purchasing the land in 2013.

That year, the city sold some of its land to Beechwood School, a private K-8 school in Belle Haven, but the council appears to be no longer interested in selling its land, according to email transcripts.

Chief Schapelhouman said he doesn't understand the city's newfound hesitancy to sell its property. "We're not a private entity. We're public safety," he said.

The City Council did agree unanimously on Sept. 13 to continue to lease the property to the fire district, at a rate of $1 per year for 55 years. However, the district board tabled the lease agreement at its last meeting and has not discussed it yet in a public meeting.

According to Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure, the lease conditions won't preclude the district from asking again to purchase the land in the future.

One of the main reasons the fire district wants to buy the land, according to Chief Schapelhouman, is that it wants to ensure that if the district expands its Belle Haven station, it won't have to move.

"We're talking about spending millions of dollars on a new building," he said. "We're tenants. When you're a tenant you never know what's going to happen. You could end up leaving the site."

Schematic designs have been drawn up and a consultant hired to evaluate the project's environmental impacts, he said. He wants to get a jump start on it now, he said, because, given the years it's taken to get plans approved to rebuild Fire Station 6 on Middlefield Road, he knows too well how much time the process can take.

"It's not going to pop up overnight," he said. "It's going to take years to build this."

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