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.