In most Bay Area cities, an all-affordable teacher housing project is met with excitement – it's exactly the kind of housing that's needed, because schools are losing employees due to the high cost of living. But in Menlo Park, it was met with a ballot measure that stands to hinder its path forward, and that is profoundly disappointing.
Measure V, as written, would take the highly unusual step of stripping the Menlo Park City Council of its power to make zoning decisions when it comes to areas designated for single-family homes. Instead, it would require any changes to such properties to come before the residents for a vote in a regular election. We believe the measure is a solution in search of a problem, creating a cumbersome process for a city trying to do its job.
Voters have no real reason to think the Menlo Park City Council has gone off the rails and needs to be prevented from packing tranquil neighborhoods with incongruous uses like big-box stores or huge apartment buildings looming over the house next door. Council members are not going out of their way to destroy Menlo Park's suburban neighborhoods. If a project comes forward that isn't a good fit, the community can rally together and oppose it the old-fashioned way: Show up at meetings and give the council an earful.
Contrary to its backers' disingenuous campaign slogans, Measure V is decidely not "pro-teachers, pro-housing." While Measure V's rules would be applied to the entire city, the ballot measure's focus and raison d'etre is to prevent the Ravenswood City School District from building a 90-unit affordable housing project for school employees at the former Flood School site, a 2.6-acre property near Highway 101. No formal development application has been submitted yet, but Ravenswood officials are optimistic that they have a viable project.
The Ravenswood district is struggling with significant teacher turnover, and in a staff survey this year, the shortage of nearby affordable housing is a major factor. This project could go a long way toward attracting and retaining teachers to a school district of modest means serving a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
The argument that the district and its developer is only out to make money is unfair – leasing unused school campuses as a source of funding is common in many nearby districts. Why it's fine for Las Lomitas or Menlo Park City school districts but not Ravenswood, with its greater need, doesn't make sense.
The concerns about traffic, parking and other impacts that some residents living near Flood School have expressed about the project are understandable. These are exactly the things that get studied, vetted and addressed during normal development review, once a project is submitted to the city. Preemptive panic about peak traffic volumes is not a solid rationale for supporting Measure V and smacks of the NIMBY attitude that proponents are so anxious to distance themselves from.
The passage of California's Assembly Bill 2995 (AB 2995) last month would give the Ravenswood City School District a possible path to teacher housing at Flood School the circumvents Measure V, but it does not change our stance on this issue. The law allows districts in metropolitan areas to sidestep local zoning rules and build up to 30 units per acre for teacher housing, limiting Menlo Park to imposing only "objective zoning standards" in its approval process.
Whether 30 units per acre, or roughly translate to 78 apartments, on the Flood School property would make for a financially viable project is questionable. Even if it is viable, we have no idea if this by-right approval process is going to lead to a better project. Neighbors worried about impacts would fare better with a cooperative process between the city and the school district to build the right project, not the one that fits the confines of AB 2295.
While Flood School may be the focus, but there are much broader impacts of Measure V. The city identified 53 developable properties not currently occupied by single-family homes that nevertheless fall under single-family zoning, and making any changes to them will be incredibly difficult if the measure passes. Properties owned by churches and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District will be preserved in amber. Measure V proponents argue that the voters will do the right thing and approve good projects at the ballot box, but they fail to account for reality.
Development, particularly affordable residential development, already carries a great deal of financial risk, and taking on the delays and expenses of putting it to a vote of the people – which includes launching a campaign and pounding the pavement to get support – is certain to bury most, if not all, projects before they ever make it on the ballot.
Throughout the election season, there has been an undercurrent of distrust in local government. Measure V's camp is pushing the idea that the Menlo Park City Council and the Ravenswood City School District will make the wrong choices when it comes to teacher housing, and that voters should seize control in an act that will have consequences for years to come on projects totally unrelated to Flood School.
We believe this drastic move is unnecessary, and that these public agencies, headed by elected representatives and accountable to the public, will have a transparent development process for Flood School. The city of Santa Clara was a trailblazer with its subsidized teacher housing in 2002, and in recent years Mountain View and Palo Alto have followed suit. Let's do the right thing and ensure teachers can stay in the community in which they work. Vote No on Measure V.