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.