Guest opinion: Government/business collaboration has led city into a mess


By Bill Wood

While reading Kate Bradshaw's article about the Menlo Park City Council's decision to back away from a citywide moratorium, my reaction was one of disillusionment. I'm a single-family homeowner who came to the Peninsula years ago because it was a pleasant, relatively tranquil place to raise my family. It certainly is not that way now.

I share the complaints of many Menlo Park residents outlined by Ms. Bradshaw. There is too much traffic everywhere. It takes forever to get anywhere. There are too many new buildings. Too many people coming and going. And we're going to get more. There is no end in sight. It is a problem that will not be solved by doing things the way we do them now.

The congestion issues we face are a good example of government and business collaborating to pursue their own interests, which, sadly, don't match those of the community. That's the real issue. It's fundamentally about city governance.

Government employees want more people to govern. They want more problems. They want more programs to solve those problems. They want more rules so they can hire more people to administer them. They want complexity in the daily life of the community, even though they say they don't. Only with more of these things can their departments grow and they themselves legitimately aspire to raises and promotions. Growth and its associated problems are very much in the local government's interest.

Business, particularly the real estate industry, always seeks more growth and people too. More development, more building, more economic activity, more revenue, more profit. No surprise there.

So, with business and government wanting the same thing, and with most residents unwilling and/or unable to get involved enough in city governance, it's pretty obvious why we have the problems we have. Some growth is inevitable and fine, but our system is geared to excessive growth that harms the community, regardless of what politicians, staff, advocates, or anyone else may say publicly. It's that way because it suits powerful interests. Things work only when government, business, and the community are on the same page.

Sometimes, an individual with a residentialist community viewpoint becomes a member of the City Council or Planning Commission. Sooner or later, though, he/she inevitably succumbs to the unceasing pressure from city staff, development interests, and housing activists for more growth. They are enticed to rationalize their surrender with terms like "balanced," "sustainable," and "equitable" growth. There's always a reason for more, more, more. The problems we are living with today were caused by growth projects that were marketed in similarly appealing terms when they were launched.

When a new project is proposed, the Menlo Park Planning Commission and the City Council consider that project's impact on traffic. But they look only at the incremental traffic impact from a particular project. That is always rather small and hardly ever "significant" (which would require some sort of "mitigation"). Over time, of course, as the base of traffic increases with each completed project, this incremental traffic review system always concludes that new and larger projects generate either the same or lower traffic impacts, even though, cumulatively, they are producing a lot more.

No one ever looks at what the traffic impact on Menlo Park would be if we and other cities on the Peninsula were built out to the maximum under current codes. If responsible political leaders had done that 20 years ago, and the actual quantitative impact on traffic of all possible new construction under prevailing code had been made public, residents would have been shocked and probably would not have allowed much of recent development to take place. We wouldn't have the mess we have now. For that reason, of course, neither government nor business has any interest in being transparent about the real story.

To summarize, I don't know anything about the legal aspects of a moratorium. All I know is that, if the residential neighborhood community in Menlo Park is unwilling to take forceful action to try to preserve some sense of neighborhood life, we can only look forward to more urbanization, more traffic, more congestion, more crowds, longer commute times, and a less attractive place to live. Pressure for higher-density zoning in all residential neighborhoods isn't that far away. Business and government will be pleased with that, but the community will give up what many of us came here for in the first place.

When people espouse views like these, they are sometimes derided for "nimbyism." That's OK. I am a NIMBY. All of us are, in one way or another. Most just don't want to recognize or admit it. Atherton residents don't want high-density housing in their town, regardless of the enthusiasm some may profess for the ideal. Housing activists don't want a chemical plant across the street from their multi-unit dwellings. Affordable housing advocates don't want their projects next door to a jail or a junkyard.

Being a NIMBY seems a perfectly natural human trait. Unfortunately, the word has gained considerable credibility and acceptance, in spite of being nothing more than an illogical ad hominem attack label in the arsenal of growth advocates.

Bill Wood is a longtime Menlo Park resident and a former planning commissioner. He is retired from an international finance career.

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18 people like this
Posted by Flugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 1, 2019 at 12:46 pm

Very well written! I can't wait for the usual developer and real estate interests to respond. When they do I, and with the benefit of hightsight, I hope they will tell what they would have done differently. Also I'm still waiting for an in-depth response from those council members who ethusiastically approved the general plan some years ago. This includes the Almanac by the way.

10 people like this
Posted by Whaaaa
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 1, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Traffic is a known cost of living in the middle of a vibrant metro area such as this one. If you are a long term home owner, you also are enjoying low property taxes and a nice amount of appreciation. Maybe it's a fair exchange for some traffic. (By the way traffic caused in part to the opposition to any type of infrastructure or housing projects for decades by the citizens of MP- Sand Hill Rd, grade separations , etc...)

Easy to blame the city council and developers for traffic, but the rewards are pretty sweet! And the long term home owners elected those evil city council members, so there's that.

FYI -- Growth is not unprecedented here in Menlo Park. There was nothing on Santa Cruz Ave before 1920 (Camp Fremont was there from 1917 - 1918). The population doubled from 1950 - 1960! Imagine what those long time residents thought!

14 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 1, 2019 at 3:30 pm


You miss the point. Traffic, like what we are dealing with today, is the result of poor planning. When many of us "Long Time residents" moved here it was still a great place to live with reasonable growth and reasonable traffic. What does it matter that some people bought long ago and have "low property tax and a nice amount of appreciation", does that make up for the fact that it can take 30 minutes to go from Middlefield to 101 on Willow? no it does not. Appreciation is only useful when you want to sell your house, and some of us have no intention of doing that so it means nothing.

I do agree that the residents bear some responsibility by electing the people that approved all that growth, it is now time to do something to fix the problem, stopping the growth of office space is the first thing we need to do.

6 people like this
Posted by Menlo Boomer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 2, 2019 at 10:02 am

"Brian" nails it, as usual!! Development is ~Good~ if it:

- Happened in the past
- Benefitted me and him

On the other hand, development is ~Bad~ if it:

- Is in the present
- Benefits other people

Why is this so hard for people to understand?

4 people like this
Posted by Whaaaa
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2019 at 11:36 am

over the past 50 yeas in MP
Long term residents elected city councils that would limit growth
Long term residents routinely oppose infrastructure projects that could improve traffic flow - result, terrible compromises or nothing is built - once again look at Sand Hill and our lack of grade separations to star
Long term residents then complain about traffic and 'poor' planning which is a direct result their actions.
LTRs demand no change - which is naive - change is the one thing we can count on.

Appreciation and low taxes give you options.. so that's not nothing.

MPers stuck their head in the sand on traffic many many years ago. Doing nothing isn't the answer.

So Brain, let's hear your plan for making traffic better.

12 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Aug 2, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Bill Wood, it couldn't have been said more eloquently. Thank you, and thanks to the ALMANAC for publishing this.

Development is not about "vibrancy" or any of those other marketing buzz-terms. It's about the money! We Menlo Park residents are all the victims of this relentless, self-serving development, whether, as in these comments, we agree with your words or not.

Over a lifetime, (and as a former participant in government bureaucracy), I have learned that these organizations do not exist to accomplish anything other than provide avenues of financial success for the developer/contractor/consultant community.

Menlo Park's Council and Administration are in the business of increasing their budgets and headcount.
Individual members -- council members and staff -- understand that their resumes are enhanced by facilitating development, and more, for them, is better. . . at the expense of Menlo Park residents. A large number of Council members, for whom I have voted, once in office make 180 degree turns against their promises of sustaining the well-being of the city's residents.

"Quality of life" is a phrase that I have heard used in Menlo Park for 20 years, and with great regret have watched it disappear.

2 people like this
Posted by frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2019 at 3:03 pm

Can't we have "vibrancy" with a mix of redeveloped 2 and 3 story buildings?

2 people like this
Posted by Whaaaa
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2019 at 4:46 pm

The last thing you are is a victim. Entitled baby boomer yes, victim. no. Enjoy your low taxes and appreciation and deal with the traffic. At least you have the option to cash out an move to a 'nicer' community,

5 people like this
Posted by resentment is showing
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 10, 2019 at 9:38 am

@Whaaaa - you have an interesting perspective on MP history. The rapid growth of jobs without commensurate housing or infrastructure occurred in recent years under recent councils and administration. Not in the past.
Many long-term and newer residents have fought valiantly for balanced growth. Unfortunately, many other long-term and newer residents supported "anything" to take the place of vacant lots. So now we have lots of development throughout Menlo Park that is bringing lots of jobs and lots of commuters because there was little thought about providing housing, too, or pre-conditioning that growth on infrastructure improvements.
It is alarmingly prejudicial to lump residents into categories when no one really knows who supports or opposes what. Labeling groups as targets for rants of resentment is frightening.
In my experience, almost no one wants "no change". Nearly everyone wants a healthy quality of life but few take the time to understand the complexities of how decisions affect that.

Please stop playing the blame game and try to fix the mess that exists. Some day you will will be a long-term resident and might understand how tied people can get to their community and how each generation is faced with challenges. There are opportunities to work together but angry resentment makes that difficult.

Like this comment
Posted by progress
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 11, 2019 at 9:18 am

The council discussion on a moratorium brought by Nash and Taylor (Web Link) was two months ago so I watched it again. Carlton and Mueller gave compelling reasons to abandon this moratorium idea to avoid wrath from Sacramento and Combs talked about being on the losing side when citywide voters showed support for the specific plan by defeating Measure M in 2014. Fortunately, Mueller was able to capture the main goal of the proposal, forming two subcommittees and adjusting council priorities, without calling it a moratorium.

2 people like this
Posted by Whaaaa
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 12, 2019 at 8:15 pm

resentment is showing

lived here since 1971. The building of office space and research parks with out commiserate infrastructure and housing has been going on for decades. Sorry this is nothing recent. Sure Facebook has grown a ton and they are *trying* to build housing and infrastructure.

Some ideas
1. Fully implement the DSP creating more density Downtown
2. Build a parking ramp downtown
3. eliminate parking in ECR
4. Ped, Bike tunnel under train at Middle - I'd like to see a road for cars, but I know that won't ever happen
5. GRADE SEPERATIONS at ravenswood, oak grove and valpo
6. SIDEWALKS everywhere
7. Widen willow road from Middlefield to 101

Ok so let's hear yours. Unfortunately, doing nothing, as the Poster suggest is the exact reason for this mess.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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