The Menlo Park City Council on Tuesday backed away from a proposal to enact a citywide moratorium on nonresidential development and a Bayside ban on large housing developments.
Last week, Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor and Councilwoman Betsy Nash sent out a memo asking for the council to consider a moratorium on all nonhousing development, including hotels, as well as additional floor-area-ratio allowances citywide; and a moratorium on housing projects larger than 100 units and additional floor-area-ratio allowances for housing on the city's Bay side.
Following a lengthy discussion on June 11, the council will now instead assemble two subcommittees to evaluate the very real problems that Taylor and Nash identified.
A subcommittee with Taylor and Mayor Ray Mueller will look at the problems in District 1, which includes the Belle Haven neighborhood and the massive Facebook campus east of U.S. 101; and another subcommittee with Mueller and Nash will look at the problems in districts 2 through 5.
Each will come up with a work plan, and the City Council will modify its work plan for the year to prioritize making changes to both the city's 2012 El Camino Real/downtown specific plan and its general plan update, which upzoned much of Menlo Park on the Bay side of U.S. 101 in 2016.
Taylor and Nash were also appointed to the subcommittee that will negotiate with Facebook on the development agreement for Willow Village, the largest proposed development in the city's history.
What is a moratorium?
A development moratorium, as explained by Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver, is an exercise of police power to temporarily suspend development approvals. Because it's considered an extreme action, it would have to pass with a four-fifths vote of the council.
For a nonresidential moratorium, the council would have to find that there is a current immediate threat to public health, safety or welfare, and that additional projects would worsen those threats. For a residential development moratorium, the council would have to find that the development would have specific, significant, quantifiable, direct and unavoidable impacts to health, safety and welfare, and that there are no other alternatives to mitigate those impacts.
If passed, a moratorium would last for an initial 45 days, and could be extended for up to two years.
There are specific limitations of what a moratorium can do, which contributed to some council members' reticence to wield a policy tool several community members referred to as "blunt," with potential for "unintended consequences."
For instance, the city would still have to continue to process development applications it has already received during a moratorium; those projects just wouldn't be permitted to receive final approval. Given the fact that a number of the development proposals working their way through the city still have to go through environmental impact analyses, which can take up to two years, Mueller said he didn't favor enacting a moratorium during a time when the process was unlikely to slow development anyway.
There's also the problem that a moratorium at best might delay impacts but not solve the problems that city residents want addressed: too much traffic everywhere; too much growth happening on the Bay side, where transportation infrastructure is especially clogged; and not enough vibrancy and community benefits being delivered to people across the city who were promised stronger community amenities and services but now say they spend their days stuck in ever-worsening traffic, with no end in sight.
Among those who sent emails to the council and provided oral comments during the public hearing, substantially more people favored the moratorium, with at least 53 people in favor and 17 opposed. Supporters argued that a temporary moratorium would create an important citywide moment to pause and acknowledge just how rampant growth has been – especially in District 1, but regionally as well – and try to figure out how to address the serious imbalance between workers and homes and the way that imbalance is worsening traffic and housing unaffordability.
It also might give city leaders some breathing room to talk about fundamental inequities across the city, they argued.
Daniel Ramos, from Streetcode Academy in East Palo Alto, said he wants to move away from a culture that promotes "moving fast and breaking things" (a reference to language used in a Facebook internal motto). "The impacts on housing and employment will last far longer than the length of any moratorium. With that in mind, what's the rush? Let's take the time to pause," he said.
In a letter from Menlo Together, a group of residents focused on making city growth more sustainable and equitable – and more specifically, who support more housing downtown – the group stated: "Although Menlo Park has benefited from the economic boom of recent years, Belle Haven residents have experienced demographic shifts due to displacement, a dangerous degree of traffic gridlock, and—despite constant construction – a continued lack of basic neighborhood services. The geographic isolation of this neighborhood exacerbates the inequitable distribution of resources throughout the city. ...Until we make meaningful changes to our City's zoning and acknowledge the inequitable roots of Menlo Park's layout and investments, the intent of this moratorium will continue to come up."
Although Menlo Park's multiyear general plan update, called "ConnectMenlo," promised to offer ways to live, work and play in the city when it was passed in 2016, it's resulted in more of a "Congest Menlo" outcome, resident Elias Blawie said. The jobs-to-housing ratio is "laughable," and demands rebalancing, he stated.
One contributing factor to that imbalance, as Menlo Park resident Lynne Bramlett pointed out, is that in the very first staff report that launched the general plan update, staff said that the update, which focused on rezoning the M-2 light industrial area, was at least initially explicitly about money. The new zoning was desired, staff wrote, in order to "explore opportunities to streamline processes and increase revenue potential." Residents of District 1, she argued, have not been receiving the benefits of the new zoning and all the new growth.
Shifting the scales
A number of people argued that that rebalancing should take place in the form of curtailing what should permitted along the Bay and boosting growth downtown, especially because the transportation infrastructure is so strained along the Bay, and public transportation options there are extremely limited.
Many supporters of the moratorium proposition were District 1 residents, who commented that they're feeling overwhelmed by the amount of growth going on around them.
"Currently and historically, Belle Haven has been the dumping ground for everything the rest of Menlo Park did not want," said District 1 resident Sheryl Bims. "We don't live in that time anymore. Somebody really has to wake up and do something. It is unsafe in our neighborhood."
She and resident Pam Jones expressed concern that air quality, in particular, in the neighborhood is not healthful due to the traffic that surrounds it, and called for better air quality monitoring in the neighborhood.
Longtime District 1 resident Gail Wilkerson talked about how it used to be far easier to get around town and urged a joint moratorium with Redwood City and East Palo Alto.
Matt Henry, another longtime resident, said the core problem he sees in the neighborhood is overdevelopment. "We must stop this merry-go-round and reassess what we're doing," he said. "I guess it comes down to a question of values: residents or revenue? What and who does Menlo Park value?" he asked.
Others pointed out to the unfairness of a de facto double standard for what constitutes "acceptable" density in different parts of the city. Resident Brielle Johnck pointed out that on the city's west side, the city permits 40 units per acre downtown, while in the new residential zone on the other side of U.S. 101, the city now permits 100 housing units per acre. After this article was published, Menlo Park Principal Planner Thomas Rogers pointed out that in some areas of the downtown plan near the Caltrain Station and along El Camino Real, up to 50 or 60 units per acre are permitted. In some of those areas, that density is only permitted at the "bonus" level, which requires developers to provide public benefits to the community in exchange for permission to build housing units more densely.
"Office and housing allowed on the east side would be quickly rejected on the west side of town," she said. "Could the city approve 1.75 million square feet on El Camino Real and escape with their lives? Look at the fuss over (the) Stanford and Greenheart (developments)." (Those two developments will add about 400 new apartments, roughly 350,000 square feet of office space, and some 39,000 square feet of retail space along El Camino Real, and were subjected to years of intense scrutiny before approval.)
Repercussions from the state?
Another key concern of the council was with the optics of enacting a moratorium, especially on housing. Currently, Senate Bill 330, by state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Oakland, is working its way through the state Legislature. If passed, the law would, among other things, prohibit cities from imposing moratoriums on housing development or rezoning properties for less intensive uses. Both Mueller and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton indicated they feared that enacting a moratorium would make Menlo Park a "poster child" for why the state should be permitted to take over some elements of local control.
It's part of the ongoing battle over local control versus state power, and if the city were to pass a moratorium, Mueller and Carlton argued, it would be playing straight into the hands of those in Sacramento who – right or wrong – think wealthy jurisdictions like Menlo Park aren't doing their fair share to boost housing and housing affordability for community members in need.
There is a sentiment among some pro-housing groups that local jurisdictions have too much power to quash housing development, and a number of bills going through the state Legislature are taking a more aggressive position against jurisdictions that reject housing growth on the basis of "NIMBY," or "not in my back yard," sentiments.
But Taylor and Nash argued that a temporary moratorium wouldn't represent an anti-housing stance as much as an urgent call to shift policies to boost affordable housing.
Taylor commented that housing growth doesn't necessarily equate to improved housing affordability for low-income people. Of the more than 700 new housing units in her district, District 1, only 37 are deed-restricted for rent by low-income tenants. There are also 22 other apartments being leased to teachers at subsidized rates as a five-year pilot program Facebook is supporting as part of an agreement with the city, but Taylor indicated that it wasn't enough to curtail displacement of longtime and vulnerable community members.
Many also referred to potential unintended consequences of a moratorium. Vasile Oros, a small business owner who is planning to redevelop the Menlo Hardware store property into a mixed-use building, said he's been working for years on the project with the community, and a moratorium would have "drastic financial impacts" for him.
Councilman Drew Combs said he wasn't comfortable with banning projects like Oros', given the public processes that went into developing the downtown and Bayside plans – noting he's been on the losing side of similar efforts as a supporter of Measure M, a failed 2014 referendum to scale back the development the downtown specific plan permitted.
Ultimately, calls to tackle the problems now by revising the general plan update and the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan prevailed. Fran Dehn, president and CEO of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, argued that a moratorium would signal to "other legislative bodies we are unable to work effectively."
"We do not need the state telling us what to do," she continued. "A defined mid-course correction is a wiser choice."