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Guest opinion: Green spaces, a healthy planet, and affordable housing

Land owned by the city of Menlo Park should be considered for homes

Local Joseph Derrough takes a moment to look up while reading his book at Sharon Park on Sept. 12, 2012. Photo by Michelle Le.

I love green spaces. I began advocating for more affordable homes in Menlo Park in part because I know that affordable homes near schools and jobs are vital to a healthy planet. While I love all green spaces, Sharon Park is my neighborhood park, and I walk my dog there almost every day. It is my love for green spaces, healthy communities, and a healthy planet that motivated me to propose that we consider Sharon Park and other land owned by the city of Menlo Park as sites for affordable housing.

We have a legal, moral and existential mandate to plan for more housing throughout our city, and especially near transit corridors. As part of our housing element update, the state requires us to plan for over 3,000 new homes, of which about 890 must be affordable to Menlo Park families and residents of all abilities who have very low or extremely low incomes.

A key strategy for producing supportive and extremely low/very low-income affordable housing is to plan for it on land we own and control. We can do this by considering land we already own and control — Sharon Park, the Civic Center, the downtown parking lots — and we can consider buying land at $7 million or more per acre (based on the starting price for the USGS site), assuming we find land that is for sale and are able to compete with fast-moving private buyers.

Even assuming an ambitious 100 homes per acre, to meet our mandate, we need to identify 9 acres where we can plan for housing that is affordable to very low- and extremely low-income households (over and above what we must plan for low- and moderate-income households).

We cannot afford to take options off the table. Instead, we must examine every possibility, starting with land the city already owns.

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The city-owned surface parking lots downtown are ideal sites for deeply affordable housing. We must make them a priority for that purpose. Our neighbors in Burlingame and Mountain View have dedicated public parking lots to affordable housing, and the plans and results are inspiring.

In addition to Sharon Park and downtown parking plazas, where else does the city own land?

The Civic Center is arguably the highest opportunity site for deeply affordable housing. It's walking distance from shops and services, in the award-winning Menlo Park City School District, and sits on the transit corridor. A study by Housing Leadership Council and TransForm California found that the more deeply affordable the housing, the more likely residents are to not own a car and to take public transportation instead of driving, thus reducing the traffic impact of adding new homes. It's an ideal location for deeply affordable housing, and we need not lose any of our green spaces. The Civic Center hosts several buildings that are aging and dated, and could be redeveloped in partnership with an affordable housing developer to include extremely low and very low-income affordable housing for large families and people with disabilities.

We can and must create a zoning and policy environment that encourages private developers, whether that be the owners of the SRI campus, Sharon Heights or El Camino shopping centers, or other private parcel owners, to include deeply affordable housing and new parks as part of their projects. But ultimately, we only control the land we own.

In addition to the climate challenge, it's a matter of public health. If the public health consequences of housing insecurity and homelessness were not apparent before the pandemic, they are glaringly clear now.

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This feels like a crisis, but it's also an opportunity. We can produce extremely low-income and supportive housing above a state-of-the-art new library and beautiful civic buildings. New privately developed housing developments can include new parks. The possibilities exist. Let's channel the creativity, innovation and abundance that are our hallmark and use it to make Menlo Park a city that is integrated and diverse, multigenerational, and environmentally sustainable, with walkable, bikeable, vibrant places, and much less climate-change-inducing solo driving.

Karen Grove is a resident of the Sharon Heights neighborhood in Menlo Park. She is also a founding member of Menlo Together and sits on the city's Housing Commission but is writing on her own behalf.

The Almanac publishes guest opinions, editorials and letters to the editor online and in print. Submit signed op-eds of no more than 750 words or letters to the editor of up to 350 words to [email protected] The weekly print deadline is Tuesday at noon.

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Guest opinion: Green spaces, a healthy planet, and affordable housing

Land owned by the city of Menlo Park should be considered for homes

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Mon, Sep 20, 2021, 3:49 pm

I love green spaces. I began advocating for more affordable homes in Menlo Park in part because I know that affordable homes near schools and jobs are vital to a healthy planet. While I love all green spaces, Sharon Park is my neighborhood park, and I walk my dog there almost every day. It is my love for green spaces, healthy communities, and a healthy planet that motivated me to propose that we consider Sharon Park and other land owned by the city of Menlo Park as sites for affordable housing.

We have a legal, moral and existential mandate to plan for more housing throughout our city, and especially near transit corridors. As part of our housing element update, the state requires us to plan for over 3,000 new homes, of which about 890 must be affordable to Menlo Park families and residents of all abilities who have very low or extremely low incomes.

A key strategy for producing supportive and extremely low/very low-income affordable housing is to plan for it on land we own and control. We can do this by considering land we already own and control — Sharon Park, the Civic Center, the downtown parking lots — and we can consider buying land at $7 million or more per acre (based on the starting price for the USGS site), assuming we find land that is for sale and are able to compete with fast-moving private buyers.

Even assuming an ambitious 100 homes per acre, to meet our mandate, we need to identify 9 acres where we can plan for housing that is affordable to very low- and extremely low-income households (over and above what we must plan for low- and moderate-income households).

We cannot afford to take options off the table. Instead, we must examine every possibility, starting with land the city already owns.

The city-owned surface parking lots downtown are ideal sites for deeply affordable housing. We must make them a priority for that purpose. Our neighbors in Burlingame and Mountain View have dedicated public parking lots to affordable housing, and the plans and results are inspiring.

In addition to Sharon Park and downtown parking plazas, where else does the city own land?

The Civic Center is arguably the highest opportunity site for deeply affordable housing. It's walking distance from shops and services, in the award-winning Menlo Park City School District, and sits on the transit corridor. A study by Housing Leadership Council and TransForm California found that the more deeply affordable the housing, the more likely residents are to not own a car and to take public transportation instead of driving, thus reducing the traffic impact of adding new homes. It's an ideal location for deeply affordable housing, and we need not lose any of our green spaces. The Civic Center hosts several buildings that are aging and dated, and could be redeveloped in partnership with an affordable housing developer to include extremely low and very low-income affordable housing for large families and people with disabilities.

We can and must create a zoning and policy environment that encourages private developers, whether that be the owners of the SRI campus, Sharon Heights or El Camino shopping centers, or other private parcel owners, to include deeply affordable housing and new parks as part of their projects. But ultimately, we only control the land we own.

In addition to the climate challenge, it's a matter of public health. If the public health consequences of housing insecurity and homelessness were not apparent before the pandemic, they are glaringly clear now.

This feels like a crisis, but it's also an opportunity. We can produce extremely low-income and supportive housing above a state-of-the-art new library and beautiful civic buildings. New privately developed housing developments can include new parks. The possibilities exist. Let's channel the creativity, innovation and abundance that are our hallmark and use it to make Menlo Park a city that is integrated and diverse, multigenerational, and environmentally sustainable, with walkable, bikeable, vibrant places, and much less climate-change-inducing solo driving.

Karen Grove is a resident of the Sharon Heights neighborhood in Menlo Park. She is also a founding member of Menlo Together and sits on the city's Housing Commission but is writing on her own behalf.

The Almanac publishes guest opinions, editorials and letters to the editor online and in print. Submit signed op-eds of no more than 750 words or letters to the editor of up to 350 words to [email protected] The weekly print deadline is Tuesday at noon.

Comments

dana hendrickson
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 21, 2021 at 12:27 pm
dana hendrickson, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 21, 2021 at 12:27 pm

In general, I strongly oppose using city land to solve our housing crisis but would likely accept it if (a) a large majority of voters supported this action, (b) the gains were huge, (c) the trade-offs were objectively documented and communicated and (d) all reasonable alternatives were researched and explained BEFORE use of public land was decided.

I would prefer that city regulations permit higher density commercial residential development especially on El Camino. It's time that our Specific Plan be updated to reflect the need for more housing of all kinds.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 21, 2021 at 12:46 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Sep 21, 2021 at 12:46 pm

"Hi, I live in Sharon Heights, in the Las Lomitas School District. So it makes the most sense to me to add thousands more people to the Civic Center/USGS/SRI area. Those kids can attend MPCSD schools, their families' cars will clog El Camino, and none of it will affect the people living in my neighborhood or our quality of life.

P.S. I'm including my neighborhood park in the development list just to appear evenhanded and because I can count on Ray Mueller to make sure it doesn't happen."


Running hard to stay in place
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm
Running hard to stay in place, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Sep 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm

What's the point of living in a place where the local government is hell bent on destroying the commons to build housing so that a few people can feel like they are making a difference.

The worst tyrants are those who think that they are doing good.

The decades long destruction of our middle class has everything to do with corruption of our political and financial systems. These solutions simply take us further down that dreary road.


Armando Castelano
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Sep 21, 2021 at 3:19 pm
Armando Castelano, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Sep 21, 2021 at 3:19 pm

Thanks you Karen! I live here and I want this type of housing. Let's do it.


new guy
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 21, 2021 at 4:14 pm
new guy, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Sep 21, 2021 at 4:14 pm

Here I thought local government worked on behalf of the residents of said local town. Can you image the amount of time and effort now shifting at OUR town council, then endless commissions (planning, housing, equity...) all now working on behalf of those who do not live here. What happens to the work said council and commissions already have to do (you know, the work on behalf of the current residents that pay for all of this.)?


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 22, 2021 at 12:57 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Sep 22, 2021 at 12:57 pm

City employees seem unaware of who pays their salaries (we do!) and are too easily beguiled by the big checks coming from developers. Too, the developers take them out to dinner and chat them up; residents complain. It's only natural for staff to favor the developers. (Don't believe me? Have a conversation with staff in the planning department.)

The council and commissions, conversely, are volunteer jobs held by residents, who theoretically should be working on behalf of the community. In recent years, though, we've seen more self-serving behavior among some of the volunteers, and now Menlo Together seems to have a stranglehold on the council. It's a group with its own agenda, and if members are somehow personally profiting -- by being offered jobs or investment opportunities -- well, we don't know. But it's clear that many decisions being made now are not in the best interests of those of us who live here already.


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