News

Menlo Park: Council criticizes Facebook for dominating oversight board

Here are updates from the Menlo Park City Council's Oct. 6 meeting, with decisions on outdoor dining, Facebook's outsize role on deciding how to use a $1.5 million housing fund and endorsing state propositions.

Community oversight?

As the city of Menlo Park works through an agreement reached years ago with Facebook, council members are raising concerns that the company has too much say over how it will spend $1.5 million set aside for a Housing Innovation Fund.

Menlo Park council members are questioning a development agreement allowing Facebook to choose six of the eight members of an oversight board that will decide how to allocate $1.5 million the company has set aside for a Housing Innovation Fund. File photo by Michelle Le

As part of the development agreement, Facebook agreed to conduct a study on the local housing inventory and create an eight-member oversight board to decide how to allocate a $1.5 million contribution from the company. However, under the terms of the agreement, only two members of the oversight board will not be selected by Facebook – the city managers of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park each get one representative.

The fund is different from Facebook's "Catalyst Housing Fund," which the company has contributed $18.5 million toward. The fund, which has raised about $75 million, has produced or preserved about 600 affordable homes near Menlo Park in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Carlos, Facebook reported in August.

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"Facebook picks three-quarters of the people that determine how we use this," Councilwoman Catherine Carlton pointed out. "I don't know how we got there. Facebook is basically determining how those funds get used."

Vice Mayor Drew Combs, who works for Facebook and noted it wasn't clear whether he could vote on the matter, said he was also concerned. "This seems like theater," he said. "I don't see the value of us participating in something like that."

However, because the terms of the agreement were laid out in a development agreement, interim City Attorney Cara Silver said the council can't change it.

The council also directed staff to contact the team that did an initial study, University of California at Berkeley's Center for Community Innovation and its Y-PLAN group from the Center for Cities and Schools, to learn more about its methodology and look into the costs and time it might take to collect more data for the time period between 2017 and 2020.

The council also directed the Housing Commission to explore the recommendations from the study and consider adding them to that advisory group's work plan.

Outdoor dining update

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The council voted 4-0 on Oct. 6, with Councilman Ray Mueller absent, to follow through on a few changes it had previously discussed to the downtown closures on Santa Cruz Avenue.

By mid-October, the city will put up "walk your bike" signs to deter cyclists from riding through street dining areas, according to a staff report. The council also gave support to a proposed partial closure of Ryans Lane, which runs parallel to Santa Cruz Avenue between Crane Street and Chestnut Street.

The idea came from owners at Carpaccio's and Ann's Cafe who wanted to use the space between their restaurants to expand outdoor dining. So long as the city signs off on a permit and the businesses meet the city's requirements, the council supported that idea.

Other updates

The council also decided not to make any endorsements on state propositions. Combs called the practice a "slippery slope."

Several months after Councilwoman Betsy Nash and Mayor Cecilia Taylor proposed a long list of initiatives for the City Council to take up to promote equity in the city, they have pared back the list. The two council members were appointed to a subcommittee to work on adopting the list of community amenities that developers must provide in exchange for certain development permissions from the city, and to create a comprehensive and updated inventory of existing, proposed and potential development citywide. In the future, they're interested in reviewing how land use is counted and reviewing the impacts of development near the city's Bayfront.

Email Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]

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Menlo Park: Council criticizes Facebook for dominating oversight board

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Fri, Oct 9, 2020, 10:12 am

Here are updates from the Menlo Park City Council's Oct. 6 meeting, with decisions on outdoor dining, Facebook's outsize role on deciding how to use a $1.5 million housing fund and endorsing state propositions.

Community oversight?

As the city of Menlo Park works through an agreement reached years ago with Facebook, council members are raising concerns that the company has too much say over how it will spend $1.5 million set aside for a Housing Innovation Fund.

As part of the development agreement, Facebook agreed to conduct a study on the local housing inventory and create an eight-member oversight board to decide how to allocate a $1.5 million contribution from the company. However, under the terms of the agreement, only two members of the oversight board will not be selected by Facebook – the city managers of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park each get one representative.

The fund is different from Facebook's "Catalyst Housing Fund," which the company has contributed $18.5 million toward. The fund, which has raised about $75 million, has produced or preserved about 600 affordable homes near Menlo Park in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Carlos, Facebook reported in August.

"Facebook picks three-quarters of the people that determine how we use this," Councilwoman Catherine Carlton pointed out. "I don't know how we got there. Facebook is basically determining how those funds get used."

Vice Mayor Drew Combs, who works for Facebook and noted it wasn't clear whether he could vote on the matter, said he was also concerned. "This seems like theater," he said. "I don't see the value of us participating in something like that."

However, because the terms of the agreement were laid out in a development agreement, interim City Attorney Cara Silver said the council can't change it.

The council also directed staff to contact the team that did an initial study, University of California at Berkeley's Center for Community Innovation and its Y-PLAN group from the Center for Cities and Schools, to learn more about its methodology and look into the costs and time it might take to collect more data for the time period between 2017 and 2020.

The council also directed the Housing Commission to explore the recommendations from the study and consider adding them to that advisory group's work plan.

The council voted 4-0 on Oct. 6, with Councilman Ray Mueller absent, to follow through on a few changes it had previously discussed to the downtown closures on Santa Cruz Avenue.

By mid-October, the city will put up "walk your bike" signs to deter cyclists from riding through street dining areas, according to a staff report. The council also gave support to a proposed partial closure of Ryans Lane, which runs parallel to Santa Cruz Avenue between Crane Street and Chestnut Street.

The idea came from owners at Carpaccio's and Ann's Cafe who wanted to use the space between their restaurants to expand outdoor dining. So long as the city signs off on a permit and the businesses meet the city's requirements, the council supported that idea.

The council also decided not to make any endorsements on state propositions. Combs called the practice a "slippery slope."

Several months after Councilwoman Betsy Nash and Mayor Cecilia Taylor proposed a long list of initiatives for the City Council to take up to promote equity in the city, they have pared back the list. The two council members were appointed to a subcommittee to work on adopting the list of community amenities that developers must provide in exchange for certain development permissions from the city, and to create a comprehensive and updated inventory of existing, proposed and potential development citywide. In the future, they're interested in reviewing how land use is counted and reviewing the impacts of development near the city's Bayfront.

Email Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]

Comments

Steve TAffee
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm
Steve TAffee, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Oct 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm
2 people like this

Facebook to dominate the oversight board? I am hardly surprised by this. Always follow the money and you will find who pulls the strings.

I have never been comfortable with Facebook's monetary relationship and philanthropy with the City. If FB wants to give us money, let them put it into the City's unrestricted general fund. Better yet, let's not cut them or any other companies any sweet zoning deals or tax breaks.

The monetary coziness with FB via the police department and the MPFD smells fishy to me. Cooperation is one thing and should be pursue. But when money gets involved, special treatment or the appearance of special treatment follows.

And let's not forget that many Americans are very disturbed by the corporate culture of FB and its failure to address the widespread abuses of its systems, which provide many great benefits to millions users but at a staggering price to truth, goodwill, and harmony. At the end of the day, FB is about the money while they try to lipstisk the pig through PR, donations, and chump change.


Michael Perez
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 9, 2020 at 10:29 pm
Michael Perez, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Oct 9, 2020 at 10:29 pm
3 people like this

A couple of simple questions to answer might be:

1. "When was this development agreement signed?"
2. "Were the terms of the creation of the Housing Innovation Fund oversight board not clearly delineated in the agreement?"

If not, "What was said (and by whom) during the creation of the agreement draft?"


Lynne Bramlett
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2020 at 11:03 am
Lynne Bramlett, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 10, 2020 at 11:03 am
3 people like this

The developer agreements all need more scrutiny and review, such as by the City's Advisory Commissions and Committees, before Council reviews them. That's because they are dense documents with a lot of fine print. More eyes reviewing them would help. The prior process needs transparency and a full Council discussion as to what improvements are needed.

The legal reviews should focus on making sure that these agreements serve the City and public's interests first -- not the developer! On a related note, it's time for an article updating the public about the City's process related to choosing a new City Attorney. Our current and prior City Attorney work at a law firm that serves developers and municipalities. In the past, and perhaps still currently, the same same lawyers work in both practice areas. I've yet to hear about any "firewalls" between the practice areas. To me, a better solution would be a law firm that only served non profits and municipalities.

The developer agreements are difficult to find. The Ordinance Table often (always?) titles them in vague terms and there is no link to the agreement. Council does not receive an annual "holistic" report with summary level details of each agreement. They go annually (individually) before the Planning Commission (at minimum) but the PC does not review them holistically. It's also possible that more review would surface items (such as mitigation measures) that the developer might not be in compliance with.

The Developer Agreements should be put together in one place at the City's website and the Ordinance Table should label them in more meaningful terms (and provide links to them).

This article points out problems with one agreement that appears to favor Facebook over the City's and the public's interest. A careful review might surface other problems.

For example, when the City updates its Housing Element -- David Bohonnon, a major developer, gets a seat on the Advisory Committee as part of the Menlo Gateway Development Agreement. The document positions this as a "public benefit" but this seems more like spin to me. If a developer is needed for such a committee than I think a better choice would be a developer who builds affordable housing (Mid-Pen) or dense housing units such as Greystar.

According to provision 5.13 in the Menlo Gateway Developer Agreement Ordinance No. 971 (Menlo Gateway), “Developer [David Bohonnon] agrees to participate in a resident advisory committee to assist City in identifying future housing sites within the City when the city updates the Housing Element of the General Plan or if the City decides to create such a Committee. Such participation shall include utilizing its contacts within the commercial brokerage community to assist the City's efforts as well as such other expertise as many be reasonable in assisting the City to locate and identify land that may be available for housing sites.”

Ordinance No 971 was approved by four Council members on June 22, 2010 and signed by the then City Clerk. Ordinance No. 971 is listed in the City's Ordinance table (found by googling Municipal Code and going to the end) but there is no link to specifics. The title is also extremely vague. Ordinance 971 should also be available at the Menlo Gateway page. I see a link to the Developer Agreement, but this document is different than the details in Ordinance 971. Web Link.

Bohonnon had a seat on the last Housing Element Update Advisory Committee.

He also had a seat seat on the Connect Menlo Advisory Committee where he helped to oversee zoning decisions in the Belle Haven (M2) area where he was a major property owner. I view this as a major conflict of interest that should have been flagged. That's because Bohonnon gained materially due to the Connect Menlo zoning decisions.

It's time for more transparency into development agreements.


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