'Willow Village' too short on affordable housing, locals say | May 15, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - May 15, 2019

'Willow Village' too short on affordable housing, locals say

by Kate Bradshaw

In the second formal study session the Menlo Park City Council has held to discuss Facebook's massive "Willow Village" development proposal, it was clear that residents and council members are going to be asking the corporation for more than a grocery store and pharmacy as public amenities. Specifically, they want more affordable housing and a more equitable jobs-to-housing ratio to be added as part of the development.

Facebook is working with Signature Development Group, which specializes in mixed-use development. Revised plans were re-submitted in February.

Since then, according to Michael Ghielmetti, Signature's founder and president, Facebook has had more than 100 meetings with people in the community to talk about the revised project.

Since February, early talks with potential local retailers have begun, and the city has been invited to weigh in during the process. The development group will also be working with the Belle Haven neighborhood to determine how the public park will be used as well as 10,000 square feet of community space. Facebook also plans to have transportation hubs on the first level of each of its two proposed parking structures, according to Ghielmetti.

He points to the buildings that now sit on the Willow Village property — the former "Prologis" campus of about 59 acres that includes about a million square feet of old single-story commercial buildings. Those buildings aren't sustainable, resilient or connected with the community, he said. "That's something we want to change."

While Facebook has expanded its footprint into other parts of the Bay Area now, with offices in San Francisco, Burlingame, Fremont, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale, Facebook wants to be able to grow in Menlo Park, Ghielmetti said. He's hoping, he said, that the new neighborhood will be an "extension" of the Belle Haven neighborhood where the Facebook campus is located, and is more integrated with the community. "We think we can do better to make this a friendly place," he said.

Facebook already has about 3,500 people working at the Prologis campus, and about 15,000 others across its Menlo Park offices. With all the office space proposed for Willow Village, the employee population at the site could include an additional 6,000 or so workers, Ghielmetti said.

He said he worked on The Hive, a mixed-used development in Oakland, which, in its retail portion, has prioritized businesses owned by women and people of color. He said the retail space at the Willow Village could include various traditional retail vendors —for example, a bakery, a barber shop, an apparel shop — as well artisan workshops or maker spaces.

The new plans also consolidated some of the park spaces into a bigger park near the development's southern border, near Mid-Peninsula High School.

There are also an extra 50 hotel rooms, which Councilwoman Catherine Carlton asked about. Ghilemetti explained, "We thought it would lead to a more successful hotel."

Council comments

Carlton also said she was interested in seeing additional housing units dedicated to middle-income earners such as teachers. She's happy, she added, that a grocery store and a pharmacy are being proposed after years of discussing the need for those businesses in the community, but noted that "it's a good start."

Councilwoman Betsy Nash asked that the proposal be brought before the Complete Streets and Housing commissions for review.

"There is a significant jobs-housing imbalance in Menlo Park and the region," she said. "Facebook is definitely contributing to that. Just looking at Willow Village. ... It doesn't pencil out."

Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor brought up the possibility of an office building moratorium. City Attorney Bill McClure said that a moratorium can't last for more than two years and has to be done for a stated purpose.

Taylor also asked: What if the entire Willow Village were to be dedicated to housing instead? According to staff, because so much of the property is designated for office space right now, the maximum number of units that could be permitted is about 1,700. However, if the entire property were to be zoned for housing, then about 5,900 units could be built.

Taylor said she wants to make sure that "reinvestment in Belle Haven is visible." The neighborhood, she said, has been asking for the same things they've requested for decades, and the sole responsibility shouldn't fall on Facebook; the city should shoulder the burden too.

She said she was interested in an inclusive and comprehensive community amenities plan that considers local hiring, housing, education, infrastructure and transportation.

Facebook also has the potential to develop an additional 1,500 "corporate housing" units on its "classic" or east campus on the Bay side of the Willow Road/Bayfront Expressway intersection.

Mayor Ray Mueller said he acknowledges the progress and hard work by the developer, as well as the concerns voiced by the community. He expressed interest in improving the amount of affordable housing provided and reducing the jobs-housing imbalance in the project.

"We have work to be done, but there is opportunity here," he said. "It's just we're not yet where we need to be. I think we can all get there together with hard work."

Public comments

About 34 speakers weighed in on the proposal. Some, such as nonprofit leaders Barrie Hathaway of JobTrain and Melissa Lukin of Rebuilding Together Peninsula, said they appreciated Facebook's contributions to their organizations and, in the case of JobTrain, its efforts to promote job opportunities through its development projects. Representatives from a local carpenters union also expressed support for the project.

Jules Thomas, an East Palo Alto teen who says he wants to pursue a career in tech and expand a business, said he doesn't see himself as "part of the ecosystem created by approving this project in its current form."

His mother, Jennifer Lyons, added, "Growth of tech is not bad. Growth of tech without people like us, of this community, is intolerable."

Jennifer Wolosin, a Menlo Park bike and pedestrian safety advocate, said the project's conceptual "live, work, play" intent sounds more like "work, displace, commute."

"Fifteen hundred units doesn't come close to mitigating the new office (development)," she said.

Belle Haven resident Matt Henry called the proposal Facebook's iteration of a factory town. "I think this city should place a moratorium on all developments," he said, noting that there are already eight to 10 big projects in the pipeline. "This city just can't handle all of that," he said.

Next steps

The topic was scheduled to return to the City Council on May 14, on its "consent calendar" agenda, for the council to authorize the scope and budget for the preparation of the project's environmental impact review and fiscal impact analysis.


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