With days to go until Election Day, Menlo Park's District 3 race continues to generate controversy.
This year, the only contested City Council seat up for election is in District 3, which includes the neighborhoods of Vintage Oaks, Felton Gables, Linfield Oaks, part of the Caltrain line and a small square of Menlo Park west of El Camino Real bordered by Santa Cruz Avenue, Valparaiso Avenue and Crane Street. The three candidates running for the seat are Jen Wolosin, a bike and pedestrian safety advocate and parent; Max Fennell, a professional triathlete and coffee entrepreneur; and Chelsea Nguyen, a project manager at Cisco, veteran and single mother.
Whoever is elected will participate in leading the city's update to its housing element, a process that will require the city to comply with a state mandate requiring cities to adjust its zoning rules to allow for its "fair share" of new housing to meet the region's growth.
The latest projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments indicate Menlo Park could be on the hook to zone for 3,075 new housing units, 1,218 of which would be required for low- or very low-income households.
One of the key issues that at least some district residents say is shaping their decision is opposition to statements Wolosin has made about being open to considering changing zoning in single-family residential areas to permit duplexes or triplexes.
Although Wolosin has been the most vocal about her openness to evaluating single-family zoning to permit denser housing, both Nguyen and Fennell told The Almanac they are also supportive of the idea.
In an email, Nguyen said she supported rezoning single-family homes to permit multiple houses – but with a significant caveat. She said she would only favor doing so, "if the fence height limit is changed as well, at least up to 30 feet to protect privacy for the neighboring houses."
Fennell, in an email, said he also supported rezoning. "I think rezoning for duplexes or triplexes is important in helping to address the housing crisis right now," he said.
Two prominent District 3 residents in particular are advocating against Wolosin's campaign based on the single-family rezoning question. Both also tried to extract promises from Wolosin and were turned down, asking for a vote for a Planning Commission seat and to rule out rezoning in single-family housing areas.
Stu Soffer and Marc Bryman each told The Almanac they had considered running for the council seat, but decided against it. Soffer is an expert witness in intellectual property matters who writes the "Deep Menlo" blog on The Almanac website, and Bryman is a realtor and Parks and Recreation commissioner.
Both Soffer and Bryman expressed sharp opposition to the notion of rezoning single-family areas in Menlo Park for more housing. Soffer said it could diminish the value of single-family homes. Bryman said he favored looking at increasing what's allowed in areas already zoned for multifamily housing first.
After seeing how much time council members are now spending on Zoom, Soffer said he decided not to run and instead approached Wolosin, asking for her to vote to appoint him to a seat on the city's Planning Commission should she be elected.
Wolosin confirmed she declined to promise Soffer a vote for a Planning Commission seat.
In an interview, Soffer said that Wolosin's decision to deny his request did not affect his decision to support Nguyen, and he has not made the same request of any other candidate.
Bryman said he spoke with current and former council members about also running for the council seat. He said he too considered running but figured it would take him away from home too much.
Councilman and District 5 candidate Ray Mueller said he spoke with Bryman, as well as the three candidates, about what the position entailed before the race began and offered to answer questions. He said he told them he wasn't planning to get involved in the race but added, "I don't think it'd be apropriate for me to discourage someone from running."
After the first of several candidate forums, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters, Bryman questioned Wolosin about her rezoning position.
In a text, Bryman said Wolosin could win his support if she removed the possibility of reconsidering single-family zoning from her campaign platform. "If you can tell me now that R1 (the city planning code for single-family zoning) is off the table and you will not advocate for it, I can support you and speak up about it," he wrote. She responded that she understood his position, but didn't commit to his request. Later that day, Bryman sent out an email to an unknown number of district residents, urging them to vote against her and consider Nguyen's candidacy, according to an email provided to The Almanac.
Wolosin later told Bryman via text that she felt it would be premature to rule out possible policies before the community has had a chance to weigh in.
In an interview, Wolosin said that rezoning is just one of many housing policies she's open to considering if elected and tasked with working on the city's new housing element. "(Rezoning) R1 is not the centerpiece of my campaign," she said. "Housing is a hot topic. It's very personal. I understand that."
As of The Almanac's press time, it also wasn't immediately clear whether the question of reconsidering single-family zoning was affecting votes. An active member of the Felton Gables neighborhood, Marcy Abramowitz, said that the main issues she's hearing people discuss are grade separations and revitalizing downtown.
Are you a District 3 resident? Let us know what key issues shaped your vote at [email protected]
Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 17, Wolosin reported that her campaign had raised $100 in new funds, via a contribution from Joe Adelson of Menlo Park. So far this year her campaign has raised $11,917 and spent $12,516, with $5,522 spent between Sept. 20 and Oct. 17.
Both Fennell and Nguyen did not plan to raise or spend more than $2,000.
While Nguyen's campaign spending remains under $2,000, she told The Almanac her campaign received a $1,700 donation through ActBlue, which she used to pay for campaign and door signs. She designed them herself to keep costs low, she said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that ActBlue donated to Nguyen's campaign. It has been edited to note that the donation was made through ActBlue, a fundraising platform for Democratic donors to make contributions to candidates or causes.