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.