Wide public support exists for policies which facilitate homeownership, expand affordable housing and reduce homelessness. Likewise, two-thirds of Californians live in single-family housing.
Rising housing costs and rapid office space expansion over the past several decades led the state of California to require cities to change zoning to require significant housing construction. This year, the state went a step further and passed laws mandating that areas zoned for single-family housing, like those found in most Peninsula neighborhoods, must allow up to four units per lot.
Menlo Park is expected to build 3,800 housing units. It's more urgent than ever that we proactively locate new housing in Menlo Park in strategic locations, before we are mandated by the state government to do so.
Many homeowners intentionally chose to live in our single-family neighborhoods — and paid well for it. Some observe this dynamic created an ongoing economic advantage through real estate appreciation, thereby contributing to intergenerational disparities in wealth creation. Whatever the intentions or impacts of previous zoning decisions, no one is "wrong" to want to live on single-family residential lots.
About five years ago Menlo Park rezoned our Bayfront area — east of 101, south of Belle Haven — for significant new development, including office space and dense apartment/condo housing. Much has been built, and more is in progress. Unfortunately, this area was already near gridlock, and planning efforts to address critical transit infrastructure and resulting gentrification were insufficient.
Another, perhaps more comprehensive planning effort was the decade-old Menlo Park downtown plan process. The plan allowed for new development, including housing, adjacent to the Caltrain station. The theory of dense housing in city centers is that residents can walk to stores and use the train to avoid traffic, parking and time lost from auto commuting.
Urban dwellers know inherently the value of avoiding the car. So why aren't we building dense housing in downtown Menlo Park? Well, when the downtown plan was developed, some merchants feared the loss of our convenient free parking in the city's downtown lots. The issue was framed as a false choice between parking and housing.
We think central Menlo Park can have both new housing and plentiful parking.
Our proposal is that the City Council authorize a process to solicit proposals from developers to construct housing on some of our eight downtown city-owned parking lots.
Proposals would need to preserve the existing number of parking spaces at ground level, and provide the required new spaces for the new dwellings. In return, the city would enter a long-term ground lease, like Stanford does for housing and retail developments, that would reduce the cost of land, thereby improving the economic viability of the proposed housing.
The city would also allow for taller buildings in locations where nearby residents are adjacent or otherwise adversely impacted. The city would also require some units proposed to be available at below-market rates, creating new affordable housing supply.
We have discussed this idea with a few established local housing developers and believe this approach is economically viable. In fact, it's been done. The new Wheeler Plaza in San Carlos is such a project, preserving city parking and providing handsome new housing downtown, amidst shops and adjacent to Caltrain.
Menlo Park must respond to the new state housing mandate. Merchants and residents want more vibrancy downtown. Housing advocates and aspiring Menlo Park residents rightly seek more housing supply. Suburban residents want to preserve their yards and neighborhoods. It should be simple to establish a process to ensure these lots are free of legal encumbrances, then invite developers to propose projects that meet the city's design and affordability goals.
By creatively repurposing our valuable land asset (downtown surface level parking lots), Menlo Park can offer an greener, transit-oriented lifestyle for the many who want it, foster a lively and more liveable downtown, and do so without disrupting the very concept of residential Menlo Park that drew many of our residents to settle here.
We hope you will join us in asking our City Council to think creatively about our housing and parking needs before we have no choice. Please email our leaders at [email protected] to urge their direction to embrace housing and parking in downtown Menlo Park.
John Pimentel is a Menlo Park Housing Commission member, and Henry Riggs is a Menlo Park Planning Commission member. Both offer these opinions as individuals.