Within the odd-shaped strip of the Peninsula that defines Menlo Park city limits, the past year brought about many efforts dedicated to building the community back from the impacts of a global pandemic, preparing for a new climate change reality – on top of the usual bustle that comes with being a desirable Silicon Valley community where there never seems to be enough homes or office buildings.
On one hand, as COVID-19 vaccines became more widely available, many Menlo Park residents were able to slowly return to activities that they enjoyed pre-pandemic. On the other, the year ended with a startling rise in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant has spread quickly through communities, even in well-vaccinated ones like Menlo Park. San Mateo County Health reports that 100% of Menlo Park residents 5 and up had been vaccinated, but notes that the number may be slightly off because it compares self-reported cities of residence among people who received vaccinations to 2019 population estimates, generated prior to the 2020 U.S. Census.
However, cases of COVID-19 are also on the rise in Menlo Park. As of Dec. 30, there had been 405 confirmed cases of COVID-19 identified citywide within the previous 30 days, representing nearly 16% of the 2,600 total cases identified citywide since the county began tracking COVID-19 infections.
When it came to Menlo Park politics, the City Council tackled its fair share of controversial policies and its decisions were frequently split.
Mayor Drew Combs set a priority of rebuilding from the worst of the pandemic's impact on city operations. After dramatic staff cuts last year, the city brought back about 22 staff positions that had been eliminated in the city's 2021-22 fiscal year budget. The city also managed the task of figuring out how to reopen city services safely, from day care to library services to City Hall.
The council hashed out which environmental policies to adopt to work toward its ambitious goal of becoming a zero carbon city by 2030, cutting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 90% from 2005 levels and eliminating the rest of the emissions through carbon removal programs. The council is considering the possibility of banning new gas-powered heaters and gas-powered leaf blowers (ahead of a state mandate to phase those leaf blowers out), as well as programs to encourage commuters to ditch driving solo to work.
Another significant topic of discussion was how the city should go about complying with new state mandates to plan for roughly 3,800 new housing units citywide, including 802 homes for very low-income households, 299 low-income homes, and 389 moderate income homes. There are already 3,053 homes in the city's development pipeline for households in the "above-moderate" income bracket, starting above 120% of the area median income, according to staff and consultants.
An idea put forward to consider building housing in some underutilized areas of city parks was rejected, while another idea to not rule out possible zoning changes to single family homes – a concept that until this year was widely considered out of the question – moved forward. State laws, in the form of Senate Bills 9 and 10, passed this year, changing the landscape for future housing construction. SB 9 permits homeowners to build duplexes on single-family lots, as well as to split those lots to permit up to four homes where only one was previously allowed, while SB 10 allows cities to enact zoning changes to enable construction of 10-unit housing developments in transit-rich and urban-infill areas. To support housing affordability, the city council also recently discussed the possibility of creating a community land trust to boost affordable homeownership.
One thing that did not slow down over the past year were development plans for Menlo Park. The new community center in Belle Haven, funded by Facebook (Meta), earned approval earlier this year and work began in the fall. A number of development proposals on the city's Bay side were also approved, including more than 800 new housing units.
Developers submitted plans to redevelop the SRI campus, opening up a 63-acre campus that's been fenced off for more than a generation, to provide housing, park space and bike and pedestrian paths, plus new research and development offices. Menlo Park's federally-owned U.S. Geological Survey campus also hit the market at the end of 2021, and the City Council has signaled its interest in zoning a portion of the property for educational purposes possibly a middle school.
There were some tensions too. In October, three members of the City Council set up a closed session meeting without the prior knowledge or consent of the mayor, breaking with protocol and questions about why they did it remain unanswered. A committee tasked with publicizing Menlo Park's efforts to plan for new housing citywide, called the "Community Outreach and Engagement Committee," saw five of its 13 members resign for a number of reasons, including objections to the limited role of the committee, feeling disrespected, lost surveys and unfair representation across districts.
Many of the priorities that emerged in 2020 continued to occupy residents in 2021. Protests and vigils to combat hate incidents against African Americans and Asian Americans were held, while other organizations collaborated to support Latino residents affected by the pandemic. In addition, this year, Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, became a federal holiday.
The City Council held a discussion to start discussing police reform with new chief David Norris. Starting this year, the police department will be implementing the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), which will require the department to provide data on every traffic stop, pedestrian contact, arrest or call for service to the California Department of Justice. The police department is also planning to conduct a pilot program to evaluate using three Teslas as police vehicles.
Efforts to protect the environment also occupied city and residents' priorities. Big Basin remains closed a year after the CZU wildfires struck in August 2020, and Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke to reporters at the site of the park's headquarters. "The most powerful force in the world is Mother Nature, and right now we are struggling, as are many of our colleagues around the Western United States (and) all around the rest of the globe, to reconcile her fury," he said at the time.
Meanwhile, Menlo Park advanced in a highly competitive grant application process to receive $50 million from the federal government as part of the SAFER Bay Project aiming to protect a number of communities along the bay from the impacts of sea level rise by constructing levees. The city has teamed up with PG&E and Meta on the application.
The city's downtown scene also changed some this year. Ann's Coffee Shop closed in April after 75 years in business; e-bike shop Pedego opened; and Feldman's Books moved to Curtis Street after being displaced from its former location by new development. The new Guild Theatre is wrapping up construction, with plans to open up for concerts starting in February, according to Drew Dunlevie, president of the Peninsula Arts Guild, the organization leading the project to rebuild the former arthouse movie theatre into a state-of-the-art nonprofit live music venue.
There were goodbyes too. After 40 years of service with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Chief Harold Schapelhouman retired. Other influential and beloved residents died in 2021, including former planning commissioner and civic volunteer Katherine Strehl and Riekes Center founder Gary Riekes.
This reporter found herself drawn to writing about stories of resilience in the community during challenging times. The Almanac ran stories about people making pizzas and virus-shaped piñatas to spread cheer amidst quarantines; about a phone buddy program launched by two Menlo Park friends to support lonely seniors; about a number of children's books that Menlo Park authors published this year – about picky eating, youth activism, the harms of gasoline and the inspiration of stars. Highlights included a Menlo Park family that created a food locker to feed the hungry after someone stole food from their garage; how a Menlo Park couple serves the community in quiet ways, donating platelets and being foster parents; and how a Menlo Park doctor helped out a researcher in distress while on vacation in the Florida Keys – a few of the stories that brought joy and inspiration in a tough year.