How would SB 50 impact Menlo Park? | News | Almanac Online |


How would SB 50 impact Menlo Park?

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Across California, Senate Bill 50, a proposed law that would require cities to relax height, density and parking restrictions in areas that have a lot of jobs and reliable public transit, is sparking controversy, especially in affluent suburban areas that prize low-density, single-family residential neighborhoods.

The bill moved forward on April 2 following a 9-1-1 vote by the state's Senate Housing Committee, which is led by the bill's author, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). The legislation is now headed for a hearing in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee "in the coming weeks," according to a press release on Wiener's website.

That committee also voted to advance Senate Bill 4, which would relax parking requirements within a half-mile of rail or ferry service based on a city's population, and increase height limits in cities with 50,000 or more residents. The bill also has an "inclusionary housing" provision to require below-market-rate housing.

But how might such legislation actually shape housing growth in Menlo Park?

Researchers with the University of California at Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation answered that very question in a new report titled, "Upzoning under SB 50: The Influence of Local Conditions on the Potential for New Supply."

The report evaluates the impact of the proposed legislation on four different kinds of neighborhoods: high density and low income, low density and high income, low density and low income and low density and diverse residents.

The area within a half-mile of Menlo Park's Caltrain station was picked by the researchers to represent neighborhoods across the state that are in areas that have low building density and high incomes among residents. It's also considered a "high opportunity" area, where there is a low poverty and unemployment rate and good access to jobs, according to the report.

Through their queries, the researchers point out that the neighborhood surrounding the Menlo Park Caltrain station and neighborhoods like it have a number of factors at play that would make SB 50 particularly impactful in town, if it is enacted.

Researchers raised and responded to several questions, comparing Menlo Park to the other communities selected: Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood and the Boyle Heights and Silver Lake neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Q: How much land could actually be rezoned for more housing growth under SB 50?

A: This depends, but about 60 percent of the area covering a half-mile radius around the Menlo Park Caltrain station permits residential development, while 19 percent of the area does not permit residential use and 21 percent is considered part of the street network.

Q: How big are the land parcels, and are they available?

A: Of the neighborhoods analyzed, the area around the Menlo Park Caltrain station had the greatest number of large parcels, with more than half of the land in the neighborhood taken up by parcels that are bigger than 20,000 square feet, meaning it has more potential than areas with small parcel sizes for taller, denser residential buildings to be constructed. According to the researchers, a five-story apartment building should be built on a lot between 7,500 and 18,000 square feet as a minimum, while parcels up to 5,000 square feet could accommodate up to 12 units.

The neighborhood around the Menlo Park Caltrain station has about 8 million square feet of "unbuilt" space on underutilized parcels, far more than any of the other neighborhoods studied, but the report notes that some parcels are unlikely to be developed, such as the areas of the city that are home to a monastery and a religious retreat center.

In addition, the potential to build housing on underutilized land is hampered by additional zoning regulations, the researchers said. For instance, zoning states that housing units have to be set back 20 feet from the front and rear of a property, and 5 to 12 feet on the sides. Proposed buildings are also regulated based on how much shade they cast on other properties, which further limits their height or the square footage in the upper stories. These restrictions add up.

Without those extra zoning requirements, the researchers explained, a 5,000-square-foot parcel could yield a 12,500 square-foot building with 13 700-square-foot units instead of a 4,700-square-foot building with five units of the same size – more than twice as much housing.

Q: What about the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan?

A: According to the researchers, it's not clear yet how SB 50 would fit in with cities' "specific plans," such as Menlo Park's El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan. The specific plan, which covers much of the same area that's evaluated in the SB 50 report, created zoning allowances and underwent an extensive environmental review process before approval. Now, as long as developers build within the limits of that plan, they can skip the most extensive and uncertain parts of that environmental review.

"Where a specific plan is in place, developers may choose to use the specific plan's guidelines instead of SB 50, even if the upzoning would allow more units on the property," the report states. So far, about 72 percent of the total new 680 housing units the plan permits have already received entitlements, according to Menlo Park city staff.

What profits are possible?

A: The report concluded that, under SB 50, developers would be far more likely to profit from building apartments near the Caltrain station in Menlo Park than in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.

Researchers presented a side-by-side comparison evaluating what could be built on a 5,000-square-foot lot in the area around Menlo Park's Caltrain station and Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood under SB 50.

Assuming developers planned to build a four-story building with 12, roughly 800-square-foot apartments at both locations, researchers calculated that the Menlo Park apartment building would be nearly four times more profitable, even factoring in the much higher land costs.

Construction costs are fairly similar between the two areas, while the rent that can be generated in Menlo Park is substantially more -- $3,546 a month compared with $2,775 in Oakland, the report claims.

The researchers also factored in how the projects would "pencil out" – to borrow a term developers use to determine if a project is profitable enough to satisfy investors and be feasible – if a requirement for inclusionary housing were included. In this instance, that "inclusionary housing" policy would require a developer to rent 20 percent of the units at below market rate for low-income tenants.

They found that the profit margin would narrow somewhat for the Menlo Park developer, falling from 41 percent if full-market-rate rent was charged at all units to 28 percent. In the case of the Fruitvale project, though, researchers found that the inclusionary housing requirement would render the project infeasible, pushing the project from about a 12 percent profit to a 6 percent loss.

The report concludes that SB 50 shows "significant promise" to help convert vacant or underutilized parcels into housing, but added that concerns that such legislation would lead to the "Manhattan-ization" of neighborhoods are "also likely overstated."

Cities that resist new housing "could still limit new developments by imposing other restrictions by what is built on a lot, or ensuring that land in transit-eligible areas is zoned for non-residential uses only," the report continued. The researchers also suggest that lawmakers avoid a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to establishing inclusionary housing requirements.


After reviewing the report, Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller told The Almanac he saw some limitations in the study.

"My biggest criticism is that it glosses over the needs of special districts," he said. "Local control is important to address the intricacies of local needs when it comes to funding services specific to each municipality and preserving the unique character of one city versus another."

He argues that differences in how school districts are funded from one jurisdiction to another were not taken into account in the study, as well as the ability cities have to negotiate with developers for provisions that preserve "quality of life" factors, like funding for schools, fire and emergency response services and park facilities.

He said he's not coming from an "anti-housing" perspective: Menlo Park added the second-highest number of housing units per capita in the state just a couple of years ago. (This was after the city had decades of severely stunted housing growth and had to settle a lawsuit because it hadn't updated its "housing element" or citywide plan to decide where to build more housing for many years.)

"I think the study is a great example of some of the problems with SB 50 in that it tries to treat very different cities all with the same type of zoning," he said. "A one-size-fits-all proposition puts us in a precarious situation where we will be unable to negotiate for specific needs."

Access the report online here.

What do you think about SB 50? Email Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw at


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18 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 12, 2019 at 12:27 pm

If you are interested in the utter and complete destruction of Menlo Park as a pleasant community in which to live, then SB 50 is certainly for you.

16 people like this
Posted by Vincent Bressler
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 12, 2019 at 12:57 pm

Interesting that the article zeros in on developer profits for building in Menlo Park, giving specific numbers, while completely ignoring the cost of impacts, infrastructure improvements, the ability of CalTrain to support new riders, need to build new schools.

Focus is on privatized profits, losses and costs are not discussed as they will be born by society at large, later.

4 people like this
Posted by Debbie Hall
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 1:09 pm

Debbie Hall is a registered user.

I am confused as to how this study chose Menlo Park to study GIVEN that we are under the population of 50,000, the size of cities which the articles says would be subject to the bill. Yes, I read the reasons they cited, but why wouldn't they pick a city that would be affected by the bill with the other criteria they listed? Or would Menlo Park in fact be subject to the bill?

8 people like this
Posted by Michael G
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2019 at 1:15 pm

Note that Terner Center is definitely in the "Pack-'em-Stack-'em" camp.

A few notes from their study on "density bonuses"

"...concessions could be used to waive the daylight plane requirement, the maximum lot coverage, and the front setback to build up to the maximum FAR....The application of the Density Bonus Law according to the SB 50 language is unclear...since SB 50 does not state whether the project needs to have 30 percent affordable units to receive all three concessions or whether the project would automatically receive the concessions allowed under the Density Bonus if it meets SB 50 inclusionary requirements."

In other words, it could block the sun, go right up to the curb, and cover the entire lot.

On parking: under Sb-50 cities cannot require more than 1 parking space for every 2 apartments. (Because we should all take bus/bike/train to work.)

I almost hope it passes so we can have some concrete examples of what it will actually look like.

Slides and more links from a forum on SB-50 here:
Web Link

14 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Apr 12, 2019 at 1:23 pm

It’s more than a housing crisis

We are facing a crisis in providing adequate housing at the local, regional and national level. Our economic growth has fueled a need for more workers than can be housed within our existing communities, let alone supported by our existing infrastructures.

AB 50 seeks to address this need in a drastic and draconian fashion by mandating up to three times the present population for some communities. This is not a viable solution and, in fact only addresses a symptom, not a root cause.

We cannot simply pile more concrete structures on top of the existing ones without addressing the needs for more schools, better transportation, more city services and utilities, as well as additional neighborhood serving businesses. The infrastructure in many communities is already underperforming and substantially overextended.

Broad solutions which encompass, but are not restricted to, communities are called for, but should begin at the regional level and extend state and nationwide.

Let us consider creating new cities that are designed from the ground up, with zero net energy and water demands and which require limited transportation. Cities which have room to grow and are sustainable.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: How much of our environment and our quality of life are we willing to sacrifice for economic growth? We already enjoy some unenviable social and environmental issues. California is nearly in last place in quality of our roads, crowding of our roads, and performance of our schools. On the flip side we enjoy some of the highest sales, income, and property taxes that combine for almost the highest overall tax impact, also highest cost of electricity, water, and gasoline, highest poverty rate and highest cost of housing. All this in the pursuit of the siren song of growth.

Isn’t it time to seriously begin to question the trajectory of our society?

15 people like this
Posted by All about profits
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 12, 2019 at 2:02 pm

I live on a street with about 10 homes and 40 residents. According to SB50, each of those ten lots could accommodate a 5-story apartment building. The city would potentially accommodate 400 people on one small block instead of the current 40. Where will their water come from? Where will the sewage go? Our existing system is already overtaxed and breaks down frequently. Will the developers be using their 41% profit to overhaul our infrastructure? Where will the new students attend school? How much can Caltrain expand to transport the hundreds of people who allegedly will be taking the train (except in reality we know they'll be driving because Caltrain doesn't go anywhere near their office)?

This is a short-term, shortsighted solution to the housing crunch, a solution that doesn't consider any of the unintended consequences, of which there are many. If we're at all lucky, the next financial downturn will hit before any of these plans can get near fruition.

SB50 isn't about ensuring that more people get to enjoy the fine quality of life that residents value. Rather, it's about ruining communities. Who's going to want to stay here, and why would anyone pay a small fortune to rent a tiny unit here?

Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Apr 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

Just wanted to make sure this won’t affect Portola Valley? No train station within half a mile that I know about and I don’t think we have any bus stops. Thanks in advance

3 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 12, 2019 at 3:21 pm

Whether or not Portola Valley is affected probably depends on how 280 is handled. Is it a bus transit corridor?

It is amusing that SB 50 provides an enormous local incentive to resist expansion of public transit.

Like this comment
Posted by RanchGal
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 12, 2019 at 3:29 pm

RanchGal is a registered user.

As I understand it none of us are affected at this point being that we are less than 50,000 population. Am I missing something?

2 people like this
Posted by details
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 12, 2019 at 3:43 pm

SB4 is limited to cities with 50K in population, not SB50

3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Boomer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 12, 2019 at 4:46 pm

Oh nooooooooo! Making obscene windfall profits from real estate is supposed to only be for us longtime single family homeowners. Menlo Park must continue becoming a haven for the absurdly wealthy, and everyone else can commute from 3 hours away, or whatever- that's just how it is!

13 people like this
Posted by Vincent Bressler
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 12, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Menlo Boomer,

For those of use who live here, we will only realize "obscene windfall profits" if we sell.

Since we have not sold, obviously that is not our objective.

What could motivate someone to troll this comment section, trying to shame people for 1) living here and 2) being of a particular generation? I wonder if you are actually the one seeking these profits?

Like this comment
Posted by RanchGal
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 12, 2019 at 7:17 pm

RanchGal is a registered user.

Thanks for clarifying. So SB 50 affects small towns as well ?

10 people like this
Posted by sjtaffee
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 13, 2019 at 11:05 am

sjtaffee is a registered user.

SB50 may be a blunt instrument that does not take into consideration local needs, yet many localities have thrown up obstacles opposing changes necessary to address the address the full extent of the housing crisis. This is a regional problem and as such we must forego thinking within city boundaries per se and be wlling to accept sacrifice for the larger good.

I think we sometimes conflate "familiarity" with "uniqueness." What I mean is that most of us are familiary with our local housing situation and consider it to be unique and therefore eligible for special consideration. When every community thinks this way it sets up a myriad of exemptions and workarounds and finger-pointing.

Equal treatement under the law often happens in an attempt to share both benefits and costs without regard to special circumstances. Who can complain about a program if we are all treated the same? (Lot's of people, it turns out, but when equity fails, equality is democratic alternative.)

In my view, our energy is ill spent resisting change and better placed with "yes and" thinking. This means taking a 50,000 foot view of the region and those areas where denser housing makes sense (existing and new transportation cooridors, for example), little or no development occurs (flood plains and wildfire risk areas), and creative incentives for building and maintaining affordable housing are in place when normal market-based solutions are insufficient.


Steve Taffee

5 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 14, 2019 at 8:20 am

Are community leaders in Menlo Park and other cities prepared to challenge SB 50 by statewide referendum petition? And how about an initiative constitutional amendment to guarantee city and county governments SOME control over local land use? Currently, cities and counties have land use authority only as allowed by the state government. And, of course, to have any chance of forestalling SB 50, local leaders will need an alternative that offers far more housing than is being added currently. The corporations have been allowed to set up shop wherever they like - not just where there is room for the additional neaby housing. Menlo Park city government has gone along. Now, the other shoe is dropping. RESIDENTS SHOULD REALIZE: The corporations want to use your backyard, your frontyard and your driveway for their current and planned workforce. Maybe you can help by driving for UBER.

12 people like this
Posted by details
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 14, 2019 at 11:38 am

@sftaffee you live in the Willows. Would you feel different if you were told every building a half mile every direction from willow road was now being upzoned by the state to 4 and 5 stories with no parking requirement?
That’s what SB50 does from the rail line. Go drive our beautiful residential neighborhoods in Linfield Oaks, Felton Gables and along Encilnal and imagine the change in character of the city. Not to mention, what does that do to the character of encinal school as well as safe routes to school cross town traffic?

3 people like this
Posted by details
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 14, 2019 at 11:44 am

the next article might want include the illustration of area affected in Menlo Park and the grid that shows how much area is upzoned a half mile in every direction from the train station.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 14, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It appears that SB 50 would include ALL of El Camino Real as well as the area adjacent to the train station:

"(d) “High-quality bus corridor” means a corridor with fixed route bus service that meets all of the following criteria:
(1) It has average service intervals of no more than 15 minutes during the three peak hours between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., inclusive, and the three peak hours between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., inclusive, on Monday through Friday.
(2) It has average service intervals of no more than 20 minutes during the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., p.m., inclusive, on Monday through Friday.
(3) It has average intervals of no more than 30 minutes during the hours of 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., inclusive, on Saturday and Sunday."

7 people like this
Posted by Worse still
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 14, 2019 at 2:59 pm

The study does not even seem to address the other excuse for highrise housing (with little or no parking): the area is "jobs-rich." This affects all of the cities on the Peninsula.

How about forced housing - but where cities choose - and with no exemption for Atherton or Woodside?

I bet the politicians in Sacramento will wheel and deal with cities (like Hitler before WWII)to appease some for now - only to slam them later. Cities better get read for a referendum and more. The war is on.

8 people like this
Posted by sjtaffee
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 15, 2019 at 12:38 pm

sjtaffee is a registered user.

@details. I would not feel differently if this was to happen in the Willows. Sometimes ideas and needs are bigger than my individual wants. When we live in community with one another, we must sometimes make sacrifices for the greater good.

I have lived on Willow Rd for 20 years and watched the traffic increase many fold. I don't like it, but it is part of being in a city with limited East-West corridors and little chance that this will change given the structure of streets and the enormous power that affluent neighborhoods have to prevent such consruction.

I we were to "white board" the city plan all over, we would no doubt design it differently. In the absence of that, we are forced to do the best we can with what we have. This means compromise, flexibility, and compassion


Steve Taffee

5 people like this
Posted by Zuck
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 16, 2019 at 12:02 pm

NIMBYs, NIMBYs, NIMBYs. None of you whined when the rural beauty of Silicon Valley’s orchards were dozed under to make your homes. But now that your precious town is growing the sky is falling!!! None of you can do anything about it. Money talks. It always has. The smart people will cash out and move to a quiet place. The losers will stay and suffer.

2 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 16, 2019 at 8:03 pm

Well Zuck. Good points. California was stolen from Mexico but before that from Native Tribes but before that Dinosaurs. We should have all relevant discussions and dabates. But it should start with something the phony corporate YIMBY group rejected from the outset: the truth about proposed law and the landscape at stake. SB 50 is a corporate con. It is not about housing near transit. The residential highrises - with little or no onsite parking - could be added in every part of Menlo Park zoned residential or commercial. The only significant intial limitation would involve accumulating the land. But the next bill from Sacramento could take care of that too. Oust residents through eminent domain.

2 people like this
Posted by how much more?
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 22, 2019 at 10:08 am

Why is it that our community must grow so much more in population? We didn't get to vote on how many huge office buildings are built in the bay area, how many jobs get crammed into the businesses, where the transit stops are, and now we must accept an enormous increase in population living here when there isn't enough water, classrooms, playing fields, open space, adequate transit, safe streets, etc. to support this. Now some people in other areas want to tell us what to do with our own properties and nearby ones that will affect our quality of life? This is not sustainable.

It seems that our area is being tasked with growing much more rapidly than other parts of the country, state, and area. What is appropriate growth that can be accommodated in a sustainable way?

Before anyone accuses me of being a NIMBY, I have to say that I favor some more housing as long as someone stops the gusher of jobs until the infrastructure catches up. If that is possible. But we all need to think long and hard what growth is sustainable. What has been happening recently, fueled by developers and businesses, is too much and is not sustainable.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Boomer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 22, 2019 at 7:56 pm

This is not that hard! There is GOOD development, and there is BAD development. Let's review:

1950s-1970s Suburban Sprawl (like my beloved Linfield Oaks!)
*Subdivided by big developers
*Paved over blighted orchards and fields
*Didn't pay any impact fees of note
*Included 0% affordable housing
*Pretty much have to drive to get anywhere from them
*Homes now cost $2M-$5M, accessible only to the 1% but NOT "luxury housing", because... uhhh, you know
*Full of longtime homeowners who pay low Prop 13 taxes that don't account for their infrastructure use, and who get to pass those tax rates onto their children

SB50 Nonsense
*Puts homes near transit, like the Communists did
*Would replace treasured strip malls and shacks
*Happens incrementally, allowing time for adjustment which is bad because then it gets harder to get signatures for my histrionic petitions
*Located in walkable areas, denying our gas stations of precious revenue
*Has to pay through the nose for transit and other impact fees, but would still not make up for our old-timer shortfall
*Has to include or pay for affordable housing, which would be occupied by Those People
*Way more financially accessible

I mean, it's obvious?!?

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