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.