Property owners in Menlo Park's former industrial area near the Bay as well as the federal government should take note: The Menlo Park City Council is considering some zoning changes that could seriously affect the values of those properties.
During a special meeting held Wednesday, Dec. 8, the council was tasked with reviewing and making recommendations about potential sites for new housing and policies to encourage that it be affordable at a range of income levels.
Two potentially controversial proposals emerged, which a majority of City Council members agreed to look into further. The first proposal is to decrease the residential zoning in Menlo Park's M-2 area and add that same amount of residential growth capacity somewhere else in the city. The second is to zone 10 acres of the federally-owned USGS property to allow a middle school to be built there.
The city of Menlo Park, like communities throughout the state, is undergoing a state-mandated planning process to add a certain number of homes within city limits to accommodate expected population and job growth. Called the "Regional Housing Needs Allocation" or RHNA, the city has to plan for the addition of roughly 3,000 new housing units citywide to be added between 2023 and 2031. Of those, nearly 1,500 have to be set as aside as affordable housing.
As Menlo Park's upcoming RHNA mandate, the city is expected to plan for at least 740 very low-income homes (from 0% to 50% of the area median income), 426 low-income homes (from 50% to 80% of the area median income), 496 moderate-income homes (from 81-120% of the area median income) and 1,284 above-moderate income homes (from above 120% of the area median income, for a total of 2,946 new homes.
These are the properties currently under consideration for redevelopment during Menlo Park's 2023-31 housing element cycle that are planned for further evaluation over the next year or so.
In addition, unlike in previous eight-year cycles of this state-mandated process, there are many more rules this time about which sites can be considered for housing development, explained Geoff Bradley, principal at the M-Group, the consulting firm that the city of Menlo Park is working with to complete the plan, called the "housing element." The housing element is expected to be completed by January 2023, which means that the M-Group and the city are on a tight schedule to begin the time-consuming environmental review process to evaluate the potential impacts of adding all of that new housing citywide.
It's been a long time coming, but Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor's desire to discuss the possibility of decreasing the zoning density in her district finally came to the forefront of the City Council's policy discussions Wednesday night.
The council voted 3-1, with Councilman Ray Mueller abstaining and Mayor Drew Combs opposed, to ask staff to research and analyze how to decrease residential zoning in District 1 and increase residential zoning by an equivalent amount elsewhere in the city – and evaluate how that would affect the housing targets in the new housing element. Mueller abstained because he said that the matter hadn't been put on the City Council's agenda and the public hadn't been given enough notice about the discussion, while City Attorney Nira Doherty said the issue wasn't a concern.
"I think it's going to be a quagmire, and I don't know that at the other end of it that we'll get a great deal of benefit," said Mayor Drew Combs when explaining why he planned to vote against it. "What I see is a process that would be likely litigated."
Under the 2019 state law SB 330, cities are prohibited from rejecting developments on properties for which certain housing development applications have already been submitted, or changing zoning to decrease housing density or enacting a moratorium on new housing development. It also stipulates that any downzoning must come with an equal amount of upzoning elsewhere within the jurisdiction.
Doherty and Jerome-Robinson said the matter could be brought back to the City Council for further discussion as soon as the council's Jan. 11 meeting going into more details about what analysis would be required to explore the idea of residential downzoning in District 1 further.
Currently, under the ConnectMenlo plan, a rezoning project in Menlo Park's formerly industrial area near the Bay that was approved in late 2016, certain properties in those rezoned areas now allow as many as 100 dwelling units per acre – and not just for all-affordable housing developments, as is being considered elsewhere in the city as part of the housing element update, but for market-rate housing developments as well.
This proposal would backpedal on adding housing density in an area where there are fewer transit options than in other parts of the city and try to spread that housing out a bit more.
"Whatever's been good enough for the bayfront should be good enough for downtown," said Katie Behroozi, a complete streets commissioner and resident.
Since the ConnectMenlo plan was approved, 22 of the 31 parcels zoned for residential mixed-use development have already either been approved for development or have project applications pending in City Hall, leaving only a little under 13 acres still available for potential zoning shifts, or a rough maximum of 1,300 residential units, according to Deanna Chow, assistant community development director. Halving that development potential would leave a gap of about 650 residential units to plan for elsewhere in the city, according to Bradley.
Land for a new middle school?
When it comes to the new population that new housing can bring, leaders from the Menlo Park City School District have been vocal in pushing to ensure that the district gets the resources and support it needs to continue to accommodate the educational needs of the children within district boundaries.
So, the City Council asked staff unanimously on Wednesday to look into what the procedure would be for the city to set aside 10 acres of the currently federally-owned U.S. Geological Survey property on Middlefield Road for educational purposes.
One way to ensure that the district gets land to build a new school, which is expected to be needed should the student population continue to expand, would be to set aside some portion of the USGS property to be zoned for educational purposes, according to Mueller. While the roughly 17-acre USGS property is currently owned by the federal government and gets to set its own zoning, that will change when the property is sold. The property is expected to be put up for a public auction "soon," according to Chow. At that point, the city will be able to decide how to zone the property. The current proposal is to dedicate about two acres of it for housing, but Mueller said he'd like to see 10 acres set aside for educational purposes, ideally for a future middle school for the Menlo Park City School District whenever the site is redeveloped. Ten acres is roughly the size of Hillview Middle School, the district's sole middle school.
Other big decisions
Ultimately, the City Council also voted to permit city staff and M-Group to study the implications of adding up to 4,000 new housing units citywide with the following policy changes:
● Change zoning to permit roughly 3,700 new housing units citywide, to be geographically spread out throughout Menlo Park, mainly in the city's Districts 2 through 5. There are already about 3,650 new housing units considered to be in the city's development "pipeline," a majority of which are in District 1. This new zoning category would allow at least 30 housing units per acre, according to staff.
● Allow some properties in the city's El Camino Real/downtown specific plan area to build 30 housing units per acre and potentially more at a "bonus" level of density, and remove the cap of new 680 housing units that was installed when that plan was adopted.
● Change the city's "affordable housing overlay" – a set of incentives for developers to build affordable housing – to allow up to 100 housing units per acre for all-affordable housing developments. This step could also include permitting developers to add more density for mixed-income housing projects.
● Get rid of the 10,000-square-foot minimum lot size requirement for properties that are zoned "R-3" to allow those properties to also add up to 30 housing units per acre.
The Council also agreed to change zoning districts for retail and commercial to allow for residential uses and other standards to promote mixed-use developments that include residential components, and to consider increasing the amount of required below-market-rate housing at new larger housing developments to 20%, up from the current 15%.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash also asked for staff to prepare a memo laying out what 100 dwelling units per acre looks like and to provide some examples of that level of density in neighboring communities.
Just before adjourning the meeting, Mayor Drew Combs added, "We have affected lots of people's property rights over the course of this discussion."