A rare plot of vacant land, the former James Flood magnet school at 321 Sheridan Drive, is creating a divide in a Menlo Park community.
On Tuesday evening, more than 120 people, mostly former and current local residents, tuned into a virtual meeting about development plans for the 2.6-acre parcel owned by the Ravenswood City School District which was recently marked as a potential "opportunity site" for housing as part of a citywide process to update Menlo Park's housing element for 2023-31.
The site has a long history of leases and failed leasing bids, before it was razed in 2018 and eyed for teacher housing that would support lower-income staff and also bring steady revenue to the underfunded district.
In January, Ravenswood's governing board voted to enter into exclusive negotiating agreements with developer Alliant Strategic. The district is discussing a 90-year lease with Alliant to build a three- to four-story, 90-unit, affordable rental housing development with first preference to district teachers and staff.
But on Tuesday, May 3, Suburban Park residents fiercely opposed to the project expressed fears that life in the small neighborhood would be permanently destroyed by higher density and traffic congestion.
"I can assure you that I'm very much in favor of affordable housing, but not to the detriment of our neighborhoods that we have come to love," said Curtis Evans, a longtime Suburban Park resident.
It was the common refrain of the night from many of the neighborhood's residents. They stressed their support for affordable housing, some citing their experience serving lower-income families, but decried the idea of putting a three-to-four story apartment building in their neighborhood.
Evans recalled the "charm" that first reeled him into Suburban Park more than 30 years ago, when children safely played outside and families walked through the streets — a trait that has returned ever since Flood School moved out of Menlo Park, he said.
Ruth Schechter, a 25-year Suburban Park resident, described the neighborhood as "quiet." Another neighborhood resident painted it as "one of the last 'Leave it to Beaver' neighborhoods," referencing a 1950s sitcom.
All of that, they argue, would be irrevocably stripped away by the potential development.
"There is a need for affordable housing, but just not here," the resident said.
A major focal point of many of the residents' arguments was around traffic, one of the impact areas that will be studied.
The neighborhood has two access points on Hedge Road and Greenwood Drive, and the site itself sits on a road that ends at a cul-de-sac.
By building apartments, some of the neighborhood residents fear that traffic will quickly plague Suburban Park. Schechter said traffic clogged the streets when Flood School was opened, even when parents dropped off their kids closer to Flood Park, the county park that's adjacent to the site.
The school enrolled around 275 students with 16 teachers before it closed in 2012, according to publicschoolreview.com, which cites data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the California Department of Education. Carolyn Bowsher, board chair of the Ravenswood Education Foundation (REF) who also attended Tuesday's community meeting, said the school had around 50 staff members at the time.
Some of the residents said they would support an affordable housing project at a much reduced density and height, and if the plans come with alternative entry points.
Part of the backlash stemmed from the assumption that the land is poised to be developed not for 90 units but up to 260 units. The latter figure came from the city's rules on Housing Overlay Zones, which gives developers a "density bonus" or the right to build additional units per acre, if the project is 100% affordable housing. With this planning tool, a developer could have the option to build up to 100 units per acre in this case, 260 total units.
No other type of development besides housing is being considered, the district wrote in its explanation of the plans, and the contract that is still under negotiation "explicitly caps the number of units at 90 units and four floors." To do so, the city must rezone the site, currently designated for multi-family housing.
It also added that "due to the type of construction planned and the number of parking spots on the site, it is not economically feasible to have more than 90 units or four floors for the site."
Read more about the district's plan here.
Arguments in favor
Proponents of the development plan argued that the location provides much needed affordable housing for lower-income Ravenswood district staff and additional funding for a district that has less than half as much per-pupil spending than the neighboring Menlo Park City School District, according to a district analysis.
"It is time for the Ravenswood City School District to be able to use their public lands to be able to better serve the community," said Ronda White, teacher and president of Ravenswood Teachers Association.
In its explanation of the plans, the district wrote that it would ensure teachers and staff, who qualify for affordable housing based on local income eligibility thresholds, will have the first opportunity to apply. According to White, the district has about 115 teachers and 200 classified staff members, which includes janitors and campus relations employees.
Bowsher, who is also a 24-year Menlo Park resident, added that the housing development would help with staff retention and argued that it would ultimately benefit the students through the revenue that the site could generate for the district.
"This is a really strategic use of that land," she said.
Members of the REF board that attended the meeting were also receptive to neighbors' concerns around traffic mitigation and tried to mollify community members, saying that it was an issue with solutions.
John Pimentel, Menlo Park housing commissioner and a former state deputy secretary of transportation who serves on the foundation board, said he expects residential use of the land "would generate less traffic than a school ever would."
He also expressed confidence that the district would end up with a proposal to provide egresses through Flood Park and Van Buren Road.
The two alternative entryways being explored would go through Flood Park and near LifeMoves' Haven Family House transitional housing.
"Both entrances are being actively discussed with the County of San Mateo, which controls much of the surrounding land," the district wrote.
Adina Levin, an executive director of Friends of Caltrain and past member of the Complete Streets Commission, acknowledged that there are some "circulation issues" in the neighborhood but that it shouldn't be an excuse to rule out the site entirely.
"I think those are things that we should look at addressing them, rather than to use as a rationale to not have much-needed homes on this site," she said at the meeting.
Others threw in general support for Ravenswood and frustration about the opposition that has formed at the very outset of the district's plans.
"I've had the absolute joy of working with the Ravenswood School District for many years, and I'm struggling to understand how one can assume that all these horrible things are going to happen to the neighborhood when the Ravenswood district hasn't even had a full opportunity to plan out this entire project," said Kathleen Daly, owner of Cafe Zoe.
Like any large project proposals, the developer will then need to submit plans subject to several stages of review and city approval, including an Environmental Impact Report that outlines a development's impact to air pollution, noise, traffic and city resources such as nearby schools.
Opposition groups form
Recently, a group of local residents have begun to organize campaigns that could stop Ravenswood's plans in its tracks.
One group called Stop Goliath, describing itself as a "network of concerned Menlo Park residents," has characterized the potential deal between Alliant developer and the Ravenswood district as a bid driven by the pursuit of "hyper-profits" and an educational mission "corrupted by greed."
Two residents of Suburban Park, Timothy Yaeger and Nicole Chessari, have also submitted a ballot initiative they've billed as the "Menlo Park Neighborhood Protection and General Plan Consistency Initiative."
The language of the ballot measure would essentially bring any proposal to rezone single family-home parcels, such as Ravenswood's Flood School site, to a citywide vote.
In a brief interview, Yaeger said that the measure came out of community concerns around some of the stances a majority of the City Council — specifically members Betsy Nash, Cecilia Taylor and Jen Wolosin — appeared to have taken on development throughout the city. He referred to a decision in September when the three council members voted against a proposal to ban housing development in city parks.
When asked, Yaeger said that the ballot initiative was not meant to specifically target the Flood School site and that it is a citywide initiative to stop commercial development in residential zones.
To find more information on the city's housing element process and provide feedback to city staff, go to beta.menlopark.org.
Read the full text of the ballot initiative below.