A ballot initiative that would take key decisions on new housing out of the hands of the Menlo Park City Council sharply divided community members at the July 26 meeting.
Eight residents voiced disapproval of Menlo Balance's initiative at the June 28 meeting, paling in comparison to the 33 residents who spoke out on July 26, with 15 in support and 18 against the initiative.
"It is very clear from the findings that this ballot measure is taking a very complicated and intricate problem and using a blunt instrument to solve only one part of that problem," said Evelyn Stivers, executive director of the Housing Leadership Council. "This measure attempts brain surgery with a baseball bat."
The initiative proposed by Menlo Balance would prohibit the Menlo Park City Council from redesignating areas zoned for single-family homes without voter approval, effectively blocking the development of multifamily housing in large swaths of the city. It has all the signatures needed to get on the ballot. The council on June 28 delayed action to put it on the ballot and authorized a study on the impacts to be conducted first. Council members voted unanimously at the July 26 meeting to put the initiative before voters in November. The council's other option was to pass it immediately into law.
"Menlo Park's current system is broken when three City Council members who don't represent a certain district can currently vote to rezone a low-density, single-family parcel against the wishes of the City Council member for that district and against the wishes of the public," Menlo Balance founder Nicole Chessari said. "People's homes are sacrosanct. People choose to live where they want to live, and they should have a vote."
Another resident countered the assertion that living situations are a choice.
"I think (the report) certainly puts the lie to the assertion that people choose to live where they live, because it shows that people live where they can afford to live," said Catherine Dumont.
The study found that the ballot initiative would impact 53 lots in Menlo Park that could have been developed, and zoning would be frozen throughout approximately 80% of Menlo Park's residential areas without a public vote. The ballot measure covers 1,540 acres of city land, what translates to 43.8% of all land in the city. A similar initiative passed in Saratoga has been on the books for 26 years, never facing a vote to amend it, according to the staff report.
Residents shared their worries over what could happen if the initiative passed, with some fearing for the ability of current residents to continue living in the Bay Area, while others voiced concerns with their inability to take action if the initiative doesn't pass.
"(My sons) grew up in this community, they will not be able to live here," said Ronen Vengosh. "They're not going to be able to afford to do so and they'll probably end up leaving the Bay Area, probably the state. I've seen so many other young families and people leaving for that reason and it makes no sense to me. You know, worst of all, this is self-inflicted. There's no shortage of space in the Bay Area, there's no shortage of ability to build. What we have is a shortage of political will."
Wayne Muesse said there was no other choice but to support the initiative. "We're not being listened to, you know, there are many other sites that are more suitable for what's going on out here. But yet, they're not being considered."
One concern is that this initiative could contradict policies laid out in the city's general plan, as addressed in the report. One states that each neighborhood should shoulder its fair share of new housing developments, while another requires that the city support housing opportunities for all without discrimination. Also mentioned in the report are policies for identifying housing sites and to address local housing needs. All four policies could be affected if Menlo Balance's initiative was to pass.
Resident Adina Levin mentioned that Menlo Park had been sued for noncompliance with the housing element before.
"Because we have some famous companies in our city, the eyes of the world are going to be upon us," Levin said. "And this is something that's going to make the city very vulnerable if this (initiative) passes."
"We need housing in communities throughout the state, and our region, especially housing for critical workforce, like teachers and school staff," said Alex Torres, director of state government relations for the Bay Area Council. "There is an economic benefit, and of course an equity benefit, in that we are undoing some of the harm that single families zonings at single homes zoning has caused in basically segregating our communities historically."
While some arguments hinged on the report, others spoke of their personal experience with housing in Menlo Park. Resident Sandeep Gupta said Menlo Balance's initiative would preserve what he finds special and vital about his local community.
"The safety of our kids and families is important to the residents, and that was evident to me and other volunteers," said Gupta. "When we went for signature-gathering across the city, the traffic from commercial and high-density residential buildings and single-family neighborhood is (bad), especially during weekends, evenings, when kids are playing on streets, neighbors are taking a walk connecting with their neighbors. This has not been thought through properly."
Another resident, Keith Diggs, spoke about what brought him to Menlo Park, and how housing could impact his life.
"I went to attend law school, worked for a national nonprofit for seven years, and then I got priced out of Phoenix, Arizona because my rent went up 30%," Diggs said. "It's frustrating to me that we're even having this conversation in the first place. Nothing about development requires anybody to give up the home they have, the problem is that so many of the rest of us are homeless. I don't even know where to register to vote because I don't have a home anymore."
One project that would be immediately affected is the redevelopment of the old Flood School site, a proposal that could build up to 90 units of affordable housing at the site of the former James Flood Magnet School. The 2.5-acre vacant school property is zoned for single-family housing.
Residents expressed concern about the availability of units to teachers.
Kathleen Daly spoke in support of housing for district staff, referencing a report by the Ravenswood City School District on the effect of the development would have.
"'It would change my life,'" Daly said, quoting a staff member. "Say that again: 'It would change my life,' a super important point for teachers, staff, the people that feed our children, who take care of the facilities. These are people that are committed to the education of our young people going forward."
Others, however, voiced concern that the units wouldn't actually be made available to district staff, and that a developer would use the project as an opportunity to make a profit.
"I want to talk about the sort of false focus on teachers, how many units in this development are reserved for teachers? Zero. There's nothing reserved for teachers," said resident Buck Bard, a claim that was rebutted by Ravenswood City School District officials.
Ravenswood's Chief Business Officer Will Eger said that the development agreement, regardless of zoning, would hinge on the idea that Ravenswood faculty and staff would always receive priority if there's a unit available. While non-staff members can rent a unit if there are no other takers, Ravenswood district workers get priority.
The long-term effects of the initiative were a focus of both the analysis commissioned by the city and the comments at the meeting. According to the report, Menlo Park would feel the effects not just with the Flood School site, but more dramatically in the future housing element cycles.
Over the next several eight-year housing element cycles, options for development sites could be drastically reduced, and may become incompatible with state housing law requiring that sufficient vacant land be zoned for residential use, according to the report. If the initiative passes, it would become increasingly difficult for future city councils to plan for affordable housing, pushing all development into non-single-family housing areas.
"Please do not cede your authority in future planning for the city. Don't screw the future councils ... which would also, frankly, screw our future residents," said Katie Behroozi.
Resident Steve Wong, said he hoped that the ballot measure would have a positive effect on the future of city residents.
"I support our initiative not just for my backyard, but for the backyards of all my Menlo Park neighbors who also have the right to maintain the expected quality of life in their neighborhoods," he said.
However, not all residents thought that the long-term effects would be helpful.
"This measure is a one-way door that's permanent, that will make it so that these sites that are perfect housing sites, large tracts of land where schools used to be, where churches might want to build housing, very reasonable parcels will have to go to a vote and it will never happen," said Michael Levinson. "So they may say they support housing, but this measure in effect will make it impossible to build and these sites, these are not high-density sites."
Equity was also a focus of the comments, with some speakers saying they feared that the initiative could contribute to housing inequality along lines of wealth and race. Other speakers said that one could support both the initiative and low-income housing, and that they were not mutually exclusive.
"In 2020, we marched for Black lives. So I really want to thank the City Council for including racial and educational equity impacts in the study of the ballot measure, because the report validates, in government, to us what we have been hearing people say in human words for years and years and years, based on lived experience," said Karen Grove. "It will function as a continuation of this historic use of strict land use controls to perpetuate unequal and unfair governmental aids by enforcing and locking in residential, racial and economic segregation."
Ballot arguments will be submitted by Aug. 14, and the initiative will be available for public review beginning Aug. 19.