The Menlo Park City Council last week rejected the idea of a citywide commercial development moratorium as a means to reassess recent zoning policies, a disappointment to some but, in the end, a wise decision. That said, council members Cecilia Taylor and Betsy Nash, who asked that a moratorium be considered, should take a bow for sparking an urgently needed discussion of the rampant growth in commercial building that's exacerbating the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance and diminishing the quality of life for the city's residents.
As a result of that discussion, which took place at a June 11 special council meeting, the council has agreed that the reassessment and revision of two key zoning policies adopted over the last seven years should be among the city's top priorities. They are policies affecting development on the Bay side of the city and in the downtown area – new rules that many residents believe are too permissive of the type of large-scale development that inevitably worsen the housing shortage and the resulting commuter-related gridlock on local roadways.
The council has formed two subcommittees: Mayor Ray Mueller and Vice Mayor Taylor will review development-related problems in the district represented by Taylor, District 1, which includes Belle Haven and the continually expanding Facebook headquarters; and Mueller and Nash will assess the problems facing the remaining districts 2 through 5. According to the plan worked out at last week's meeting, the subcommittees will craft work plans for the year that will fast-track the review and revision of the city's 2012 El Camino Real/downtown specific plan; and the 2016 "Connect Menlo" general plan update, which upzoned much of the city's area east of U.S. 101.
Although a moratorium of up to two years was supported by a large contingent of residents – more than 50 of whom wrote letters and spoke in favor of a halt to development until the city can reassess its harsh impacts and revise policies – there are too many ways in which such a moratorium could backfire, as noted by Mueller and council members Cat Carlton and Drew Combs.
Among them: There are several bills making their way in the sate Legislature that would remove or significantly diminish local control of residential building projects. Because the proposed moratorium also included proposals for housing projects larger than 100 units in Belle Haven and the rest of the Bayside area of the city, some council members rightly feared that a housing freeze would give supporters of taking local control away more ammunition as they advocate for those bills.
There are also potential pitfalls involving the derailment of small-business owner projects that would benefit the community and the city's economy, and concerns that a moratorium wouldn't remove the city's responsibility to continue processing development applications it has already received – a time-consuming and costly proposition for both the city and the applicants.
In coming up with the plan to put identifying and tackling the problems created by the two recent zoning policies on the front burner, the council has opened a process that is likely to be more effective and have fewer unintended consequences than if it had approved a moratorium.
As the two subcommittees work to identify and recommend remedies to problems resulting from the recent policies changes, we hope that they take a close look at the so-called public benefit bonus policy written into the zoning rules; the rule permits developers to exceed space restrictions if they include public benefits in their projects. That policy has already been shown to be subject to abuse with the favorable response by the city to a hotel developer's proposal to consider legally required future hotel taxes to be the "public benefit" that will permit exceeding allowable size limits.
Residents who supported the moratorium will be watching closely and holding the council's feet to the fire to move quickly and effectively to address the problems plaguing their community because of new, often major, commercial developments that bring jobs to Menlo Park but don't address the housing crisis.
Belle Haven resident Matt Henry, speaking at last week's meeting, framed the issue well: "It comes down to a question of values – residents or revenue? What and who does Menlo Park value?"