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Guest opinion: It's time for real protection of our green spaces in Menlo Park

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

During the last housing element cycle, a proposal to use part of Sharon Park for affordable housing was put forward. The proposal was only taken off the table after a petition opposing it gathered almost 1,700 signatures and the city attorney found that converting parkland to housing would likely require a vote of the public.

Fast forward to the current housing element cycle, and Karen Grove, chair of the Housing Commission ("Guest opinion: Green spaces, a healthy planet, and affordable housing," Sept. 17), recently stated that the city should consider parts of both Sharon Park and Burgess Park as housing sites. The reaction was immediate! A new petition opposing the use of any parkland in Menlo Park for housing, which has now gathered 1,800 signatures with more coming in every day, was presented to the City Council prior to its meeting on Sept. 21. And, to add fuel to the flames, the city's September 2021 housing element update states that "... and other publicly owned lands such as parks, could be considered a potential tool to meet our RHNA ..."

Council member Ray Mueller had asked that a motion to prepare an ordinance protecting our parks by requiring a public vote for parkland to be converted to other uses be placed on the Sept. 21 meeting agenda. The ordinance would also have provided that all parks be classified as dedicated parks under the government code, to enjoy the fullest protection of law. His motion had strong public support, expressed in emails to the council, written comments regarding that agenda item prior to the meeting and verbal comments during the meeting.

After considerable discussion by the council, Mueller's motion was defeated by a margin of 3-2, with Mueller and Mayor Drew Combs voting in favor and council members Betsy Nash, Cecilia Taylor and Jen Wolosin against, on the grounds that the parks are already adequately protected so staff time spent on preparing an ordinance would be better spent on other priorities. Interestingly, just before the council meeting, Grove sent an email to the council saying that after looking more deeply into it, she had learned that the state Department of Housing and Community Development would reject a housing element that reduced parkland to meet its goals. She also referenced a 2012 memo by the then-city attorney, without discussing any of the exceptions that would allow conversion contained within that memo, and then stated, "Our parks are protected." Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The parks issue has also helped to spotlight fundamental flaws in the housing element process. While it considers proximity to existing transit, schools and grocery stores when evaluating potential housing sites, it fails to address the additional capacity that will be required. The public comments during the housing element workshop on Sept. 23 highlighted that failure with respect to schools and transit in addition to parks. Adding several thousand more housing units to Menlo Park's housing stock, as much as a one-third increase, will create significantly greater demands on all of them that are not being taken into account. The current process also fails to take into account the likely oversupply of office space due to the recent shift to more remote and hybrid work. Planning for housing cannot be done in a vacuum it needs to be integrated with planning for transit, schools, parks and recreation, and employment opportunities.

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Even though it was echoed by several council members in the Sept. 21 meeting, the assertion that the parks are protected is simply not true! There are already some who are suggesting using park hardscapes for housing, which would reduce available parking and restrict public access to parks. And, as council member Mueller has pointed out, there are a number of legal loopholes, such as one that could allow the city to convert parkland to "other municipal uses," that need to be closed. The council could decide to reverse course at any time and the one line statement in the Sept. 23 housing element workshop slides that there would be "no use of green space" could easily be erased with a few keystrokes. And, while an ordinance requiring a public vote to use parkland for other purposes would be a step in the right direction, it could also be reversed by the City Council at any time. What is really needed is a ballot measure to enact enduring protection for our parks into the law that closes all the loopholes and requires a public vote to convert parkland to any other use, and Menlo Park residents are now organizing to support one.

This is a watershed moment in the history of Menlo Park. Let's make sure we don't go down the wrong path by building housing, or anything else, in our parks, now or in the future!

Bob Dickinson and his wife Sylvia have lived in Menlo Park since 1983 and are founding members of Save Menlo Park Green Spaces. A former tech CEO, Bob has consulted on climate impacts and adaptation since 2011.

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Guest opinion: It's time for real protection of our green spaces in Menlo Park

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Sun, Oct 3, 2021, 8:24 am

During the last housing element cycle, a proposal to use part of Sharon Park for affordable housing was put forward. The proposal was only taken off the table after a petition opposing it gathered almost 1,700 signatures and the city attorney found that converting parkland to housing would likely require a vote of the public.

Fast forward to the current housing element cycle, and Karen Grove, chair of the Housing Commission ("Guest opinion: Green spaces, a healthy planet, and affordable housing," Sept. 17), recently stated that the city should consider parts of both Sharon Park and Burgess Park as housing sites. The reaction was immediate! A new petition opposing the use of any parkland in Menlo Park for housing, which has now gathered 1,800 signatures with more coming in every day, was presented to the City Council prior to its meeting on Sept. 21. And, to add fuel to the flames, the city's September 2021 housing element update states that "... and other publicly owned lands such as parks, could be considered a potential tool to meet our RHNA ..."

Council member Ray Mueller had asked that a motion to prepare an ordinance protecting our parks by requiring a public vote for parkland to be converted to other uses be placed on the Sept. 21 meeting agenda. The ordinance would also have provided that all parks be classified as dedicated parks under the government code, to enjoy the fullest protection of law. His motion had strong public support, expressed in emails to the council, written comments regarding that agenda item prior to the meeting and verbal comments during the meeting.

After considerable discussion by the council, Mueller's motion was defeated by a margin of 3-2, with Mueller and Mayor Drew Combs voting in favor and council members Betsy Nash, Cecilia Taylor and Jen Wolosin against, on the grounds that the parks are already adequately protected so staff time spent on preparing an ordinance would be better spent on other priorities. Interestingly, just before the council meeting, Grove sent an email to the council saying that after looking more deeply into it, she had learned that the state Department of Housing and Community Development would reject a housing element that reduced parkland to meet its goals. She also referenced a 2012 memo by the then-city attorney, without discussing any of the exceptions that would allow conversion contained within that memo, and then stated, "Our parks are protected." Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The parks issue has also helped to spotlight fundamental flaws in the housing element process. While it considers proximity to existing transit, schools and grocery stores when evaluating potential housing sites, it fails to address the additional capacity that will be required. The public comments during the housing element workshop on Sept. 23 highlighted that failure with respect to schools and transit in addition to parks. Adding several thousand more housing units to Menlo Park's housing stock, as much as a one-third increase, will create significantly greater demands on all of them that are not being taken into account. The current process also fails to take into account the likely oversupply of office space due to the recent shift to more remote and hybrid work. Planning for housing cannot be done in a vacuum it needs to be integrated with planning for transit, schools, parks and recreation, and employment opportunities.

Even though it was echoed by several council members in the Sept. 21 meeting, the assertion that the parks are protected is simply not true! There are already some who are suggesting using park hardscapes for housing, which would reduce available parking and restrict public access to parks. And, as council member Mueller has pointed out, there are a number of legal loopholes, such as one that could allow the city to convert parkland to "other municipal uses," that need to be closed. The council could decide to reverse course at any time and the one line statement in the Sept. 23 housing element workshop slides that there would be "no use of green space" could easily be erased with a few keystrokes. And, while an ordinance requiring a public vote to use parkland for other purposes would be a step in the right direction, it could also be reversed by the City Council at any time. What is really needed is a ballot measure to enact enduring protection for our parks into the law that closes all the loopholes and requires a public vote to convert parkland to any other use, and Menlo Park residents are now organizing to support one.

This is a watershed moment in the history of Menlo Park. Let's make sure we don't go down the wrong path by building housing, or anything else, in our parks, now or in the future!

Bob Dickinson and his wife Sylvia have lived in Menlo Park since 1983 and are founding members of Save Menlo Park Green Spaces. A former tech CEO, Bob has consulted on climate impacts and adaptation since 2011.

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

Bike Menlo Park
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Oct 4, 2021 at 11:10 am
Bike Menlo Park, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Oct 4, 2021 at 11:10 am

To be clear, parks are wonderful community assets. If Menlo Park is going to have increased housing density, having ample open space is important for community health and quality of life. At the same time, it seems unnecessary to place extra constraints on what the city can or can't do with public space. Parks, like the rest of the built environment, are designed spaces, and many parks were designed during a different era. If our community priorities have changed, then our parks may (or may not) need to be redesigned accordingly. It seems only appropriate for city council/staff to have the whole spectrum of options to consider what is the best possible use of city-owned real estate--rather than have those options limited from the start with the enormous bar of a public ballot.


new guy
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 4, 2021 at 1:28 pm
new guy, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Oct 4, 2021 at 1:28 pm

to Bike Menlo Park and whatever group you are advocating here for...

To be clear. "Our" community priorities have not changed. "our" = current MP residents. "We" wish to keep our limited park space... simple as that. Interesting to learn that parks were "designed spaces", that could be re-designed. That my friend is a new one to me, and another notch up on redefining language for the day.

I have read the guidelines for the upcoming housing element and yes, cities cannot currently use parks to satisfy RHNA requirements.

Also "to be clear", our council people should have limits placed on them, and to be "even more clear" the state housing commission will eventually take away most of the town council's ability to decide anything, as the new element will be, in my opinion, be nearly impossible to create "the plan", and absolutely impossible to implement "developers actually build units".

But sure, let the circus show go on, with the "resident" surveys, planning and council meetings, public outreach, and in the end, a plan that is not feasible.


SP resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Oct 4, 2021 at 2:35 pm
SP resident, Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
Registered user
on Oct 4, 2021 at 2:35 pm

Where can we find this "new petition opposing the use of any parkland in Menlo Park for housing, which has now gathered 1,800 signatures with more coming in every day" to sign it.


Bob Dickinson
Registered user
Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 4, 2021 at 5:04 pm
Bob Dickinson, Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
Registered user
on Oct 4, 2021 at 5:04 pm

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