A proposal to ban development in city parks fell short Tuesday when a majority of Menlo Park's City Council members failed to coalesce around whether and how to ban future development in city parks.
The council voted 2-3, with council members Cecilia Taylor, Jen Wolosin, and Vice Mayor Betsy Nash opposed, on a motion to pass an ordinance dedicating the city's parks as parklands that could not be developed upon unless a majority of residents votes to do so.
Following the failure of the vote, Councilman Ray Mueller said, "We'll be meeting with residents to figure out our next steps."
The topic of developing housing in city parks rose to the fore of the community discourse after Housing Commission Chair and Sharon Heights resident Karen Grove said in recent public meetings that the city should discuss the possibility of using underutilized parts of city parks for affordable housing, and cited as an example an undeveloped corner of Sharon Park.
She noted that the city is obligated through the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA for short), a state-mandated process, to plan for the development of nearly 3,000 new homes at a range of affordability levels citywide over the next eight years, including nearly 900 units of very low-income housing.
In a Sept. 21 email to the City Council, she explained that she had come to a different perspective since suggesting the idea.
"I've looked into the idea some more, and learned that (California's Housing and Community Development Department) would reject our housing element if we were to reduce our park land to meet our goals. I've also learned that in 2012 our city attorney at the time came to the same conclusion. I think that settles the question," she wrote.
In between when Grove's comments were made for and against the idea, a coalition of other residents formed and circulated a petition called "Save Menlo Park Green Spaces" that generated about 1,700 signatures. The petition called on the city to permanently preserve city parks from development and expressed support for developing housing in other areas of the city, including at the Sharon Heights Shopping Center, existing multifamily apartment complexes in Sharon Heights, or downtown parking lots.
Access the full petition here.
One of the key points of discussion within the council Tuesday was whether city parks are really under threat of development due to the housing element.
According to Mueller, the parks may still be threatened despite the verbal commitments of City Council members to preserve parks because of a loophole that allows councils to develop parkland if the city is the developer and the development is for municipal purposes.
In addition, he pointed to a bilingual informational pamphlet that the city of Menlo Park mailed to all residents just this week that includes, as part of a list of possible ways for the city to meet state housing mandates, the consideration of public land for housing.
"Downtown parking lots and other publicly owned lands, such as parks, could be considered a potential tool to meet our RHNA – particularly affordable income units where land cost is often a barrier," the pamphlet states.
When asked whether parkland may be rezoned to permit housing, California Housing and Community Development department spokesperson Alicia Murillo told The Almanac that, "What gets zoned, to what use, and where, is entirely in the purview of the jurisdiction. That said, there might be easements or other conservation provisions that would inhibit the jurisdiction from making the zoning change from parks to residential. For the housing element we are looking for the program to rezone to residential use if they identify one of these spaces. If it is city-owned property, the jurisdiction must demonstrate how it is adhering to the surplus lands act."
Marie Summers, an author of the petition to permanently preserve parklands from development, said she was surprised and disappointed by the council's vote Tuesday.
"If any parks are in fact safe, I don't understand why it's not feasible to just put it in writing ... if the parks are truly safe, then it should be no big deal to just close those loopholes," she said.
Summers talked about how she had also helped to circulate a petition on the same matter in 2012, noting that back then, she had been told that Sharon Park was off-limits for development.
"I feel like this is going to happen over and over again," resident and local Realtor Maya Sewald told the council Tuesday. "We've lost a lot of institutional memory. This happened years ago with Sharon Park (and I) don't want it to continue another eight or nine years from now."
Summers said she and a group of neighbors in Sharon Park have had discussions about bringing the matter forward as a possible ballot measure.
"This could have been resolved last night," she said. "We have decided we are regrouping. We will be having a meeting to discuss our next steps."
Mueller had proposed that the City Council ask the city attorney to draft a "Parks Preservation" ordinance that the council could consider in the future that would make all of the city's parks "dedicated" parks and close legal loopholes that permit development in parks under some circumstances, as well as require a majority of the public's vote for the city to permit parklands to be used for "municipal purposes."
Wolosin proposed an alternate but similar motion to direct staff to analyze and draft a zoning ordinance prohibiting the use of city parks for other municipal purposes. She said she wasn't interested in discussing ballot measures and perpetual park protections at the moment because it wasn't one of the City Council's stated goals at the start of the year and because staff resources are limited.
In a Sept. 15 video Wolosin created to explain the housing element to residents, she said that one of the main ways the city has been able to get affordable housing built in city limits has been through its inclusionary housing policy, which means that for every 100 new housing units that get built, 15 are required to be set aside for low-income residents. By that ratio, it will take far more housing growth for the city to reach that low-income goal than even the state mandated numbers suggest, she explained.
Access Wolosin's video here.
If the city doesn't comply with the mandate to develop realistic plans for how to build those new units, it could be on the hook to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines, Wolosin explained.
Mayor Drew Combs acknowledged the significant challenge ahead of the city in "getting housing at a variety of different income levels, especially some of the lower levels," because Menlo Park, "unlike a lot of other communities, doesn't have lots of excess land that it owns."
"I have to also be responsive to the fact that lots of residents are rightfully angry because without any real context from the city, this very specific idea has been thrown out there and had legitimacy," he added.
According to City Attorney Nira Doherty, the crux of whether parks can or cannot be developed depends on the terms under which the city acquired the parkland and what legal language was used in defining how the parkland could be used when the city first came to own the park. She said she hadn't yet ironed out which parks were fully protected by this policy and which might be legally vulnerable to conversion to other land uses.
Those who didn't support Mueller's ordinance agreed they didn't want to build housing in parks, but rather pointed to the topic as a non-issue, or as Complete Streets Commission member Katie Behroozi put it, "a red herring."
They argued that instead, the City Council and community should be focused on the city's upcoming housing element and ironing out how to ensure that parks remain accessible and equitable as the city plans for new residents as mandated by the state.
Nash, who voted against Mueller's proposal, said she was "100% committed to preserving and expanding parks for all our Menlo Park residents," and added "it's important for everyone to know that parklands are not viable sites and cannot be used to meet housing element requirements."
As a result, she said, she found the creation of an ordinance or ballot to be "an unnecessary exercise."
Resident Brittani Baxter said she favored the community directing its political energy toward working on identifying other affordable housing sites in Menlo Park's District 5, such as at the Sharon Heights Shopping Center, which petition signers said they favored as a potential site for new housing units in the neighborhood. That would require working with the parcel's owner to develop the site, she added.
The city of Menlo Park was also scheduled to host a community discussion on the housing element the evening of Thursday, Sept. 23, after The Almanac went to press. Go to almanacnews.com for the latest updates.