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Residents urge Facebook to preserve Belle Haven history

 
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Menlo Park residents packed the Belle Haven senior center on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 11, to hear more about Facebook's proposal to build a new community center and library at the Senior Center/Belle Haven campus.

Facebook is working with architectural firm Hart Howerton, and one of the firm's partners, Eron Ashley, explained to attendees some of the ideas the team has been discussing over the past few months.

The proposal is to build a new community and fitness center and a library with amenities for youth, adults and seniors at the existing site of the Menlo Park Senior Center and Onetta Harris Community Center.

Ashley said that one idea to incorporate into the new plans is to make it easier for people to access Kelly Park, which is somewhat hidden behind the Onetta Harris Community Center and Senior Center in the current layout. The pool and the youth center are also not easy to find if you're not already familiar with the campus, he noted.

He presented some preliminary drawings of a three-story facility with a breezeway in the middle through which people could more easily access Kelly Park. On one side, near the pool, might be a locker room where people can have easy access to a pool, a gym with a basketball court, a youth center, and an upstairs fitness area; on the other side might be classrooms and meeting spaces.

The third floor, more removed from the noise of lower levels, might be dedicated to library space.

Making the building taller could result in more space around the park and pool for picnic or barbecue areas, he added, but noted that Hart Howerton and Facebook want to accurately reflect the community's input.

In order to keep the project on its current timeline an aggressive plan to start building in a year the project will retain the total square footage of what's already on the site, expanding only about 10 to 15%, while keeping the same amount of parking, Ashley explained.

One of the primary concerns community members raised in a question-and-answer portion of the meeting was whether the name of the facility would be changed; it is called the Onetta Harris Community Center after Onetta Harris, a longtime community activist. The matter has not been discussed at all by the City Council or Facebook representatives, and the decision will ultimately be made by the City Council, explained City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson.

The discussion quickly brought to the fore some of the uncomfortable questions that might be expected when a giant company, Facebook, offers to rebuild a community institution in a neighborhood that's largely lower-income and has a majority of Latino and African American residents. The questions are all the more pointed because some neighborhood residents blame Facebook, to varying degrees, for making the neighborhood less and less affordable.

Put bluntly, one resident said, "The bottom line is, this smacks of privilege."

He continued, urging Facebook to keep Harris' name on the community center. "Don't change the history of the community for the sake of privilege."

Another attendee talked about the significance of Onetta Harris's contributions to the community and added, "We cannot let Facebook's wealth undermine the history of our community and we will take a stand."

Yet others argued for the acute need for upgraded community center facilities.

Citlalli Contreras-Sandoval, a college student who grew up in Belle Haven, said, "It feels like (the new facility proposal) is not for me. ... Why is this only happening because of Facebook? It should have happened 10 or 15 years ago."

As a little girl growing up in the neighborhood, she said, she would study the city's activity catalog, unable to participate in the programs at the Burgess center because they were too expensive; programs at the Belle Haven location were cheaper, but were also, in some cases, canceled. She said she goes back to the Belle Haven library, located at Belle Haven Elementary School, and sees the same faded picture books she read as a child.

Noting that Facebook is calling the project a "gift to the community," she said, "It could also be a curse."

"I didn't see anything about job development or legal help to keep people who want to stay here," she continued. "We're finally getting what we need in our community and we can't live here anymore."

Mayor Cecilia Taylor said she was glad that residents were bringing up the "elephant in the room" at the beginning of the process.

"I'm here to preserve the history of this community and remind people who live and who lived here," she asserted.

Following the discussion, community members were invited to tour the existing facilities and submit feedback on poster boards asking questions about what people like about the existing facilities, what they would change about the existing facilities, and what additions they would like to see.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its meeting on Jan. 28.

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