Boarding house proposal on Willow Road faces scrutiny

Planning Commission criticizes the current site maintenance at 555 and 557 Willow Road

A rendering of the proposed 16-room boarding house at 555 and 557 Willow Road. (Courtesy city of Menlo Park.)

A proposal to build a 16-room boarding house on a property at 555 and 557 Willow Road was heavily criticized by the Menlo Park Planning Commission May 20. There aren't any other boarding houses in Menlo Park as far as city staff know, according to City Planner Kaitie Meador.

The site is currently occupied by Menlo BBQ and a vacant one-story office building that, according to Commission Chair Andrew Barnes, hasn't been well-maintained.

As proposed, the boarding house would have individual rooms for tenants, with shared bathrooms, one communal kitchen and a shared garden area. Renters would have a one-year lease and be expected to furnish their rooms themselves, though legally, occupancy could be set at shorter durations. Staff recommended a one-month minimum.

A 6-foot wall would be built to buffer the property from Willow Road. The proposal calls for 14 parking spaces, though 16 would be needed, according to staff.

According to the applicant, the rooms would be well-suited for academics, students, business people, or older single people who need somewhere affordable to live. A property manager would live on-site.

The developer plans to let Menlo BBQ continue to operate as is. The vacant office building on the site would be demolished.

In an odd zoning loophole, the proposed development would only count as one unit because units are counted based on the number of kitchens. As such, it would not be subject to the city's below-market-rate housing requirements.

The area was rezoned from commercial to residential in the late 1980s and would permit a homeless emergency shelter on the site, or up to five housing units.

Questions that came up during the commission's discussion included: If the site only permits one person per room, would it be liable for discrimination if it didn't grant occupancy to a parent with a child? What happens if the site doesn't get developed? At what point does the vacant office building that hasn't been kept up become a public nuisance?

Commissioner Michael Doran also raised concerns about proposed ground-level carports, saying he had seismic and aesthetic concerns about a soft-story building being constructed there.

Public responses to the proposal were mixed. Attendee Peter Edmonds said the proposal seems consistent with other uses in that area. Taken at face value, he said, "I would say it's a good idea."

On the other hand, Curt Conroy, a new housing commissioner who was speaking personally and not on behalf of the commission, equated the project to a single-room-occupancy homeless shelter and said he'd prefer to see townhomes built there.

When Barnes asked why the site hasn't been better maintained, Reza Valiyee, the property owner, blamed the city for changing its zoning in the 1980s and commented that he owns about 50 other buildings.

One of the property managers who works for Valiyee at two similar facilities in Berkeley said that while some of Valiyee's other properties have had occupancy and maintenance problems in the past, he's turned them around. He invited the commissioners to come visit and talk to students who live in the Berkeley boarding houses.

"I will say that history is not on your side," Barnes remarked to Valiyee. "What we've heard tonight is not on your side as it relates to the maintenance of the property."

After receiving the commission's feedback, the project architect indicated he planned to do public outreach in the neighborhood.


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10 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 30, 2019 at 10:23 am

This is not what the neighborhood needs. It will not be subject to any below market housing and will be used to pack in as any people as possible and to maximize profits from a slumlord.

Google the owner of the property "Reza Valiyee" and you get story after story with titles like "Berkeley and Fresno Landlords Nominated to Landlord Hall of Shame" and "Berkeley Dogging Landlord / City wants Reza Valiyee to keep on cleaning up" There is story after story about how bad this guy is and how he ignores city codes. We really don't want this person building this type of property in Menlo Park. If he can't be stopped at the very least he needs to be required to meet all the zoning requirements including the minimum number of parking spaces.

Like this comment
Posted by Howard Crittenden
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 30, 2019 at 12:37 pm

Howard Crittenden is a registered user.

Not commenting on the specifics of the proposal. This seems like a great idea. We are told needs for affordable housing are dire. Here is an answer that costs less to live in than condos, apartments, and increases density. One more tool kit in supplying housing that fits between single family housing and homeless shelters or sleeping on the streets.
Embrace this idea with an open mind before blaming an unknown landlord or dismissing the idea as unworkable.
Our history books are loaded with examples of successful boarding houses. My grandfather and grandmother were both living in a boarding house in the early turn of the last century when they met.

5 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 30, 2019 at 2:28 pm


This will not be affordable housing, they are getting around having tp provide market rate housing because they will only have one kitchen. And I do not think we should discount the owner and his history. Allowing him to build this boarding house would be a mistake for the neighborhood.

2 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on May 30, 2019 at 5:06 pm

Per the suggestion in Brian's first comment, above, I did a quick web search for "reza valiyee landlord" and this individual appears to have a two-decade+ career in Berkeley of "maintaining" blighted buildings and stalling on city-mandated cleanup work, going so far as to spend a weekend in jail in the late 1990s rather than comply with a court-ordered cleanup effort. Numerous similar complaints are easily surfaced on the web, such that Mr. Valiyee should never see his way past our Planning Commission unless he convinces everyone he's utterly changed the way he does business in the recent past.

Far better, assuming his disdain for clean, to-code properties and city mandates has not waned, let him build some small number of townhomes on the property and be done with Menlo Park altogether.

Like this comment
Posted by Try again
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 30, 2019 at 8:02 pm

I hope the parking variance is rejected for this project. It’s quite simple: increase parking to 16 spaces or better yet reduce units to 14 and preferably fewer. The city should further enforce the no overnight parking code along Coleman as in the rest of the city to prevent tenants from doubling up or more, overcrowding these units, and spilling vehicles onto city streets. This property is right off of Coleman which is the sole route for kids cycling from the Willows to the Lower Laurel campus. It is already crowded and dangerous. The last things that route needs is more traffic and more vehicles parking or pulling out onto that street making it less safe for kids to get to school.

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