A proposal by nonprofit developer MidPen Housing to rebuild and expand an affordable apartment complex, yielding a maximum of 150 affordable housing units in the 1300 block of Willow Road in Belle Haven, met with resolute opposition from residents of the Menlo Park neighborhood.
Residents spoke out against the project at the city's Housing Commission meeting May 10, the project's first appearance in a public meeting.
Belle Haven residents said the proposed four-story building was too tall, and that their neighborhood shouldn't have to handle more high-density housing than already exists and is being built there.
The challenges that come with accommodating high-density and affordable housing, they argued, should be borne throughout Menlo Park, not just in Belle Haven, where existing residents have problems leaving the neighborhood because of the area's intense traffic, yet must leave, because they don't have basic amenities such as a pharmacy or grocery store nearby.
"The Belle Haven residents of Menlo Park are left behind time and time again," said Sheryl Bims, a Belle Haven resident. "We, too, want a sustainable, livable area."
She said the city should address the needs of existing residents for services, such as a grocery store and pharmacy, traffic mitigation and high-quality education.
Housing, she said, "is not affordable in this whole Peninsula. To expect one little piece of Menlo Park to be responsible to correct that ... that's not fair. That's not how you build a community."
Belle Haven resident Cecilia Taylor said she'd prefer that MidPen pursue affordable housing that enables families to purchase homes rather than rent.
Rose Bickerstaff, Belle Haven resident, said: "This whole thing is ridiculous. We are tapped out in our little postage stamp neighborhood. We aren't getting any benefits. ... I've been in the community for 45 years and it comes to a point where you just have to say no."
The 1200 and 1300 blocks of Willow Road currently have affordable housing apartments owned by MidPen Housing. Previously, occupants of the development were both seniors and younger families. MidPen recently rebuilt and expanded the 1200 block of the development to be for seniors only.
Now the nonprofit housing developer wants to rebuild the 1300 block apartments for families and expand it to between 118 and 140 apartments, up from the existing 82 units, with a mixed-use space that could be used for "community-serving retail" or a new Belle Haven library. If that space were instead dedicated to housing, it would fit about 10 additional units, up to 150 units, said project architect Kristen Belt from architecture firm Mithun.
The current buildings were constructed in 1960 and are reaching the end of their useful life, said Jan Lindenthal, vice president of real estate development at MidPen Housing. Plus, the area is one of only a few places in Menlo Park where higher density affordable housing has been zoned.
In 2013, when the city of Menlo Park updated its housing element – a part of the city's general plan that designates where new affordable housing can be built – it upgraded the zoning to allow the MidPen properties on Willow Road to build more units. According to the city's zoning allowances, MidPen would be permitted to build up to 182 units on five stories at the site, Ms. Lindenthal said.
MidPen wanted feedback from the Housing Commission on a few key questions before the project goes before the City Council for a study session on May 23.
How many units should the development have? What tenant income ranges should be accepted? How much should the city commit to the project from its affordable housing fund? Should there be space for non-residential uses, such as a pharmacy, retail store or a public library?
The commission recommended to the City Council that the city contribute from its affordable housing fund no more than $6.7 million, with a lower contribution preferred; and that all units would be affordable to tenants making up to 60 percent, and some potentially up to 80 percent, of the area's median income.
Members of the Housing Commission were split on how many units the development should have. Two options – one with 118 and another with 140 units – were proposed.
The 140-unit option would require moving the development closer to Willow Road, onto what is the current internal frontage road at the development, and could allow more space between the development and neighbors to the rear on Carlton Avenue.
Both options factored in about 8,000 square feet of non-residential space that could be used for a pharmacy, library, or retail store.
However, according to Ms. Lindenthal, to build in that nonresidential space, the project would cost about $2.4 million extra. That funding, she said, could come from the city's affordable housing fund.
The rest of the project's funding would come from a mix of its own funds, county funds and tax credits. However, Housing Manager Jim Cogan was wary of the concept of using the city's affordable housing funds for commercial or public-serving space. "I'm not comfortable saying it's something the city would entertain," he said.
The project is scheduled to appear next before the Menlo Park City Council during a study session on Tuesday, May 23, and a council hearing on Tuesday, June 6. The council meets about twice a month on Tuesdays at the council chambers at 701 Laurel St. in the Menlo Park Civic Center.