Menlo Balance's initiative to prohibit the Menlo Park City Council from redesignating lots zoned for single-family homes without voter approval has all the signatures needed to appear on the November ballot. Rather than immediately vote to place the initiative on the ballot, the council at its June 28 meeting delayed it, deciding that further information was needed and authorized a study on the impacts.
Eight residents came to voice their opinions on the Menlo Balance initiative, with seven speaking in opposition and imploring the council to order a report on its impacts. Menlo Balance is a grassroots organization created by two Menlo Park residents with the goal of preventing the council from rezoning single-family lots for multi-unit development. If the initiative passes in November, any rezoning would have to be put to a public vote.
Belle Haven resident Vicky Robledo said that the Menlo Balance initiative would disproportionately affect residents in her neighborhood, which is Menlo Park's most diverse, according to 2020 U.S. Census demographic data.
Robledo said that Belle Haven is already the site of 4,000 units of housing development and by passing the initiative, projects that would more equally distribute housing in other areas of Menlo Park could be blocked. She also pointed out that Belle Haven has the worst air quality in the city.
"It seems that (the city) tend(s) to focus on Belle Haven, like it is the only space to build and it isn't, and we are literally being poisoned in our own communities," Robledo said. She called the decision to concentrate development in Belle Haven a little bit of "modern-day redlining and racism."
Multiple residents took to public comment to say that they agreed with Robledo's stance and that affordable housing in the city should be built outside of Belle Haven.
Other residents complained of being fed misinformation by Menlo Balance's canvassers, including false reports that council members and city staff have given their support to the initiative.
"As one of those Belle Haven residents who was given misinformation by the canvassers, it really concerns me that even the people that are promoting this may not understand what it is," resident Pam Jones said.
This initiative has the potential to impact the Flood School housing development, a proposal that could build up to 90 units of affordable housing at the site of the former James Flood Magnet School. The former school property is zoned for single-family housing.
Council member Jen Wolosin went on the record to say that she opposes the measure.
"I am eager to hear the results of the report in terms of unintended consequences that may not have been fully considered by myself and others," Wolosin said. "However, given the known impact to the Flood School site, I am opposed to this ballot measure."
Rebecca Barnes, manager at MidPen Housing mentioned that Menlo Park had previously been cited for non-compliance by the state for its housing element, a state-mandated plan for accommodating housing growth over an eight-year period. She said that the ballot initiative could only make the problem worse.
"Requiring a vote of the people in order to produce new affordable homes will have a detrimental effect on affordable housing development, and preclude the development of church and school sites, which are some of the best places to consider due to being mission-aligned or already held as a public asset," Barnes said. "We are deeply concerned that this ballot measure as is will be a step backward for the city."
The current housing element has identified sites for potential affordable housing development that have single-family zoning, but they don't have existing homes -- they are churches, a school and a vacant lot.
The City Council had the option to adopt the initiative itself or submit it to citizens for a vote at an upcoming election. The council elected to order a report on the potential impacts of Menlo Balance's initiative on racial and economic equity, educational equity, ability to comply with state housing laws, climate and traffic impacts, and impacts on the current sites included in the draft housing element.
Council member Drew Combs implored the staff not to allow any bias when analyzing data.
The motion for the report, proposed by Combs, passed unanimously. The report must come back in 30 days, after which the council will take further action.