The year 2019 in Menlo Park wrapped up a decade of significant change within a community that 10 years ago had no Facebook, no downtown specific plan and no ConnectMenlo plan. Things have sure changed since then.
Politically speaking, the most significant event of the year was on June 11, when the City Council entertained a discussion of enacting a moratorium on office and some housing growth on the city's Bay side.
The discussion aired numerous frustrations that had gained steam over the years, voiced by members of the community whose lives have been negatively impacted because of the city's skewed jobs-housing balance and concomitant traffic problems. It launched a still-ongoing reckoning at the City Council level over how to grow responsibly and equitably when what's permitted under city zoning codes varies dramatically in different areas of town.
While there's still more reckoning to be done, it's clear that moving forward, the council will have a much more active role in scrutinizing development proposals.
This debate was also significant because it's the last time the city will be able to have such a discussion, at least for the next five years, in the aftermath of state legislation that will ban development moratoriums or downzoning on housing across California through 2024. In addition to banning moratoriums on new housing construction, Senate Bill 330, passed earlier this year, requires cities and counties to speed up the process at which they issue permits for housing development that meets a jurisdiction's existing rules, allows no more than five public hearings on a housing project, and bans cities from hiking fees on housing permit applicants once they've submitted preliminary required information.
This legislation and a series of other newly passed state laws mark Sacramento's increasingly less tolerant stance toward the sluggishness of many cities – particularly on the Peninsula – to add housing to keep up with job growth in their communities.
Thinking more regionally
The year also marked Menlo Park's growing engagement in discussions and debates outside city boundaries, as its leaders have come to think more regionally as they continue to grapple with the twin demons bedeviling the city and much of the region: too much traffic and too few affordable homes.
In fact, this year, Menlo Park won the dubious superlative of having the most expensive apartment rents in the Bay Area, according to one analysis by the website RentCafe.com, which evaluated apartment buildings of 50 units or more and found Menlo Park's average apartment price to be $4,368 a month.
Council members attended a joint meeting with the city councils of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto to talk about the potential impacts of proposed state housing laws and how they would affect local housing policies.
In keeping with this new sense of regional thinking, the council also held joint meetings with Atherton and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. In addition, council members met with Congresswoman Jackie Speier about shared issues of federal and local importance, like gun violence, housing, the census, the USGS property, and how to support youth. (Just last week, a proposal to open a safe parking program at the USGS property for people living in their vehicles while the land is mostly vacant and before the federal government sells it was nixed because it was determined to be "not feasible.")
New City Hall leadership
Work at City Hall moved forward under the leadership of new City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson, a longtime city resident who came out of retirement to take the position after former City Manager Alex McIntyre left late in 2018.
The city also made a number of leadership hires and promotions. Justin Murphy, public works director, became deputy city manager; Sean Reinhart, who had been serving in the role in an interim capacity became library services director; and Theresa DellaSanta, the assistant city manager in Atherton, became human resources manager.
Nikki Nagaya was promoted to the position of interim public works director, Deanna Chow was promoted to interim community development director, Chuck Andrews was promoted to assistant community development director, and Clay Curtin was promoted to public engagement manager.
Work moved forward on the city's transportation master plan, a monster project to develop a citywide plan for how to improve transportation for cars, pedestrians and cyclists within the city. The project has been going on since early 2017 and is now expected to be reviewed and adopted by the council in early 2020.
A key part of this project – setting new impact fees that developers must pay to help cover transportation infrastructure costs their projects generate – was completed this month, substantially increasing the amount the city will be permitted to charge to pay for needed transportation infrastructure. The new fees are expected to go into effect on Feb. 8.
When complete, the transportation master plan is intended to include a list of more than 150 transportation projects citywide, ranked based on whether they will improve safety, manage traffic congestion, reduce greenhouse gases, improve sustainability, or serve children near schools or otherwise sensitive populations.
City work on two major projects – planning for a [new Belle Haven library and improving the city's park facilities in the coming decades in its park facilities master plan – coalesced when Facebook made an offer in October to build a new multi-generational community center and library.
Other events of significance to Menlo Park this year will be remembered by what doesn't get built – for now. After more than two years of public discussions and debates that Menlo Park residents played a vociferous part in, Stanford University on Nov. 1 abruptly withdrew its proposal to expand its campus by 3.5 million square feet. The university's general use permit application, if approved, would have allowed it to build more than 2.275 million square feet of academic space and space for 2,600 student beds. In addition, in the final days before the university withdrew its application, it had increased its commitment to build 2,172 units of staff housing, up from the 550 it had originally proposed.
At least in Menlo Park, the process highlighted how little say the communities adjacent to the university that are not in Santa Clara County have in negotiating with the university over what it should be required to provide to those communities as it creates new demand on nearby infrastructure and schools.
In the weeks leading up to Stanford's decision, Menlo Park signed onto a statement by a coalition of other San Mateo County stakeholders, heightening tensions with the university by asserting it would not be paying its fair share toward the county. The letter said, "Here's what every resident in San Mateo County needs to know: Stanford – with its $26.5 billion endowment – expects to reap all the rewards while leaving local taxpayers grappling with the resulting traffic gridlock, spiraling housing prices, impacted schools and environmental consequences."
Interactions between Facebook and its neighbors also continued to play a part in city life. One example: The police department announced in February it would change its policy of stopping youth on Facebook bikes after the tech company said it hadn't asked law enforcement officials to do so.
Otherwise, Facebook's interactions with Menlo Park mainly revolved around the company's proposal to build "Willow Village," a planned new neighborhood in northeast Menlo Park. The company is working with developer Signature Development Group and will be moving forward with its environmental impact review of the project, a process expected to last most of next year. A draft environmental impact report is tentatively expected to be released in the fall of 2020, according to city staff.
In the policymaking realm, the council took a number of significant actions. In September, it passed a minimum wage ordinance that will require city businesses to pay all employees at least $15 an hour starting Jan. 1.
The council also ended the city's red-light camera program, a controversial initiative in effect since 2013, and passed requirements for most new buildings to be all-electric in the new year.
After word got out that some landlords in Menlo Park were trying to skirt the intentions of state legislation that will create as of Jan. 1 legal protections for some renters, evicting their tenants before the new year or enacting major rent hikes, the council enacted the legislation early to help keep those renters in their homes. It also passed a ban on vaping devices and started a youth advisory council that will work with the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Grappling with how to support the city's unhoused residents, the City Council hosted a study session with community experts and nonprofits that work with the homeless. However, the city's policies for supporting the homeless are far from comprehensive or consistent: The Almanac reported that last year, the police department sent a homeless woman long associated with Menlo Park on a one-way taxi ride to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, which the police chief and a police commander defended as part of the city's "boutique approach" to homelessness.
Menlo Park in 2019 also began to feel more acutely the challenges associated with climate change. Over the summer, the city set up cooling centers to offer relief to those without air conditioning.
While Menlo Park residents were fortunate enough to not have their power shut off by PG&E as a preventative measure against wildfires, there have been ongoing conversations with nearby agencies like the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District about how to better protect the area's surrounding open spaces from wildfire risks.
The county is also working to expand its flood district as part of broader goals to create a "resilient shoreline" to protect the area against the threats posed by sea level rise. In December, the council approved a resolution declaring a climate emergency, and expressed support for developing a new climate action plan built around a goal of making the city carbon-neutral by 2030.
The Oasis, a longtime beer garden in a historic building, was replaced by a venture capital firm office. The Guild, Menlo Park's last movie theater, shut down in September, and construction is underway to transform it into a live music venue, a process expected to last two years and narrow southbound El Camino Real during the day to one lane for about six months.
Within the community residents banded together on several different fronts. A new nonprofit supporting the arts, Menlo Park Public Art, emerged and announced plans to place an 18-foot-tall sculpture at Fremont Park.
Menlo Together, a new nonprofit focused on advocacy supporting housing and transit-oriented development, organized an event exploring the historical implications of Menlo Park's history of race-based unequal housing and school zoning policies.
And outside of any formal organization, residents rallied together in an attempt to save seven redwoods planted on top of a parking garage at the prominent corner of El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue. While the trees were eventually cut down, some of the redwood logs were carved into benches now used for library story time sessions at the Civic Center, and the property owner agreed to plant about 50 new trees throughout Belle Haven.
During the year, The Almanac highlighted the impressive actions of a number of people who live, work or study in the community and who are doing interesting things. Menlo Park resident Nicole Taylor took on the challenge of righting a troubled Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Mark Tuschman showcased compelling photographs depicting the many faces and experiences of immigrants in the area.
Catherine Martineau, executive director of Canopy, helped update the city's heritage tree ordinance and pursue tree plantings throughout Menlo Park and neighboring communities. Wrestlers Gracie Figueroa and Alleida Martinez, freshmen on Menlo College's Women's Wrestling team, enabled their team to bring home the title of the inaugural National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Women's Invitational.
Menlo School student Santy Mendoza, who is undocumented, made it into Harvard. We learned more about Menlo-Atherton High School grad Brian Tetrud, who built Ladera Foods using a family granola recipe, and Lin Howery of Sharon Heights, who preserves fruit by hand-crafting jams out of her home. Elsewhere in Sharon Heights, Mike Goedde launched a business selling cardboard costumes for kids, which he makes with help from his brother in his garage. Intellectual property lawyer and Finance and Audit Committee member Soody Tronson developed a new device to help nursing mothers.
The new year
Looking ahead to the new year, a major challenge in 2020 will be to ensure that all city residents are counted during the 2020 census. The Belle Haven neighborhood is expected to be a hard-to-count census tract, based on some of its demographic characteristics and the portion of its population living in non-traditional housing situations.
Leading the city as mayor will be Cecilia Taylor, Belle Haven's first elected representative in three decades and the city's first African American woman to serve in the position, with District 2 representative Drew Combs, who is also African American, serving as vice mayor. As occurs every year, the City Council is expected to meet in January to start ironing out its new work plan for the 2020 calendar year.
And of course, 2020 will be a presidential election year with a series of significant local elections. On March 3, primaries for the District 13 state Senate seat and the District 24 state Assembly seat will take place.
In November, the city will complete its transition to district representation on the City Council. There will be two council seats up for election to choose representatives for Menlo Park districts 5 and 3. The District 5 seat, which covers the Sharon Heights and Stanford Hills neighborhood, is now occupied by two incumbents, Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller. The District 3 seat, which covers the neighborhoods of Linfield Oaks, Vintage Oaks, Park Forest and Felton Gables neighborhoods, has no representative at present.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that the District 1 seat was open for election in 2020; it is District 5.