"Dear Mr. Zuckerberg," starts a March 2 letter Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent Mary Streshly wrote to the Facebook CEO, in which she raises some concerns she has with the company's proposed "Willow Village."
That's not to say she opposes the project – "we can all agree that the region is in critical need of housing," she writes – but she says she wants to talk to the company about how to mitigate the problems its proposed "Willow Village" development could create for the district.
Facebook plans to build 3.45 million square feet of office, retail and residential space on a 59-acre site in Menlo Park bounded roughly by Mid Peninsula High School to the west, Willow Road to the north, the Dumbarton rail corridor to the east, and the UPS Center and Pacific Biosciences office (on O'Brien Drive and Adams Court) to the south.
"One of the things we're trying to do is get to the table so that we can understand more and have an accurate analysis of the impacts to the schools," she said in an interview with The Almanac.
Her primary concern is the expected rise in enrollment that could come with the addition of 1,500 new housing units, she said. According to a state formula, she said, the new housing could mean an estimated 300 new high school students in the district, all of whom would be zoned to attend Menlo-Atherton High School.
Ancillary impacts of new development, such as an anticipated increase in traffic and subsequent possible decrease in student safety as a result of more cars on the road, would be borne throughout the district, she added.
"This is an unprecedented time on the Peninsula," Ms. Streshly said. "There are thousands of new units of living space coming into the Peninsula."
Since sending the letter to Facebook, Ms. Streshly said, she has met with representatives from the company.
"They basically characterized our conversations as philanthropic," she said, noting that the representatives seemed dismissive that mitigating the new costs to schools should be part of the proposal.
She's heard, but said she doesn't buy, arguments that the number of households with teenagers would be low at the corporate campus, where employee demographics are known for skewing young.
"Unless they're planning on only hiring single adults with no children, the notion of not having high school kids is not a realistic concept to entertain," she said.
Concerns at M-A
Over the last several days, a group of parents in the school district, mainly at Menlo-Atherton High School, have taken matters in their own hands, launching a petition requesting Facebook work with the high school district to mitigate the impacts of the anticipated new residents.
According to Ms. Streshly, Menlo-Atherton already has the largest student population in the county. It currently has about 2,400 students and enrollment is already projected to rise to as much as 2,600 by the 2018-19 school year.
In a newsletter to high school parents, Menlo-Atherton Principal Simone Kennel included information about how to sign the petition, noting that it was a parent-run effort, and offered to collect signatures. As of March 20, she said, she did not yet know how many copies of the petition had been signed.
"My sense is this: patience is running low," she said. "We want to be partners with Facebook and the city of Menlo Park."
Power to negotiate
One key question to any negotiations that might play out between the district and Facebook is just what a developer owes a school district when it comes to alleviating the stresses it might create by adding people to a community.
The high school district already charges developers impact fees, which are intended to cover the added capital costs that are generated by a development. As of 2016, the rates were $3.48 per square foot for residential construction and $0.56 per square foot for commercial and industrial construction. And it receives a certain percentage of property taxes for annual operating costs.
The preliminary master plan Facebook submitted to the city of Menlo Park indicates there would be roughly 1.59 million square feet of housing space, which, when calculated at the proposed $3.48 per square foot, would generate for the district about $5.52 million in impact fees.
Yet there's a gap between what those impact fees would cover and what the school district says it needs. Ms. Streshly told The Almanac that, according to early calculations, she is expecting that it may cost $60 million in capital costs alone to build the school facilities needed for 300 more students. It's not yet known how much property tax the new development will generate, nor what the annual operating costs will be for the new students, she said.
"The only leverage I see is to advocate for what the needs of education for all of the community's students are going to be, at some point," Ms. Kennel said. "If we don't have a long-term plan to account for that, we are going to be struggling in many ways."
In any case, both Ms. Streshly and Ms. Kennel said they plan to participate in the public process and seek to work with Facebook and the city of Menlo Park in future negotiations.
"I believe the city has to play a leadership role in bringing both sides together," Ms. Streshly said.
The company is holding a series of public outreach meetings as it prepares for the first major step of the environmental review process: issuing a notice of preparation, in which the public can comment on what potential environmental impacts the project might have that should be studied.
The third of three Facebook-organized "open house" events will be held Thursday, March 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, 700 Alma St., at the Menlo Park Civic Center.
The company plans to invite interested parties to participate in a series of community discussion groups later this spring to talk about "the features and amenities of Willow Village," according to an event flyer.
Editor's Note: In response to this story, a Facebook spokesperson emailed the following statement on March 28: "Facebook cares about its neighbors and we view our relationship as a partnership based on listening and learning. We understand that as we grow, our interaction with the people around us is very important and we want to be thoughtful and transparent about the next phase of our expansion."