Menlo Park grapples with significance of new state housing law | October 23, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - October 23, 2019

Menlo Park grapples with significance of new state housing law

by Kate Bradshaw

As Menlo Park's City Council continues to grapple with the challenges of unequal growth in different areas, recently passed state laws are complicating matters in new ways, as became evident at the council's Oct. 15 meeting.

In June, the council considered passing a moratorium on some kinds of development in the city. However, council members ultimately decided to proceed by breaking into two subcommittees, with Mayor Ray Mueller and Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor coming up with suggestions for potential zoning changes for District 1, which includes the Belle Haven neighborhood, and council members Betsy Nash and Drew Combs doing the same for Districts 2 through 5.

At the June discussion, the rough conclusions were that the ConnectMenlo Plan, which updated the city's general plan, had overwhelmed District 1 with new commercial and housing growth potential, while the area in the El Camino Real/Downtown specific plan near the Caltrain station — as well as the rest of the city more broadly — could better handle more housing density because that area is near transit.

But, as Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver explained to the council in a study session to explore the subcommittees' recommendations, starting on Jan. 1, it will be illegal to downzone any area designated for housing unless the city rezones another area to allow the exact same number of housing units. That's according to the Housing Crisis Bill of 2019, or SB 330, which Gov. Gavin Newsom approved on Oct. 9.

The law bans cities from backtracking on already approved zoning for housing, so would prohibit moratoriums on housing projects.

According to Silver, the law will also ban cities from conducting more than five hearings on a proposed housing project, so long as it complies with the city's general plan and zoning standards.

Silver and Mueller also talked about the expected new Regional Housing Needs Assessment cycle, which will have major implications for how the city proceeds with its plan for housing growth.

Those numbers haven't been made public yet: The City Council is expected to take up the matter at its next meeting.

However, Mueller and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said they expect that the number of housing units the assessment will require Menlo Park to plan for in the new cycle will be substantially higher than in previous cycles.

"We are going to have to embark on a new housing element very shortly," Mueller said.

With that question mark of just how many housing units the city will be expected to plan for under the state mandate, the council decided to wait before deciding whether District 1 should simply be excluded from the next cycle, or whether the area should be actively downzoned with zoning moved elsewhere in the city.

(Menlo Park last updated that element in 2013 as part of a lawsuit lawsuit settlement after failing to update it since 1992.)

The District 1 subcommittee recommended identifying immediate infrastructure improvements to alleviate traffic; updating the city's general plan elements for housing, land use and environmental justice; updating its "community amenities list," laying out what big-project developers should provide to the community; teaching people in the community about how the development process works; holding a meeting with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to evaluate and plan for emergency vehicle access to the district; and monitoring air quality.

The subcommittee for Districts 2 through 5 recommended that the city stimulate the construction of new multifamily housing units by streamlining the permitting process for the remaining 180 housing units permitted under the downtown specific plan, and change the zoning code to allow more multifamily units and permit residential mixed-use development in new areas near basic services and transit. It also suggested that the city identify city-owned land for affordable housing and partners to help build it; revise its accessory dwelling unit ordinance to encourage more secondary units at single-family properties, and update the general plan to meet new numbers set forth by the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

"There's been so much development and not enough infrastructure and transit," Taylor said.

Cap-and-trade, but for jobs and housing?

During the council's study session to talk about the subcommittees' recommendations, Mueller presented an idea to the council about the concept of a type of cap-and-trade system, but for jobs and housing, as one way to force business developers to match the job growth expected from their building projects with new housing units in the region.

Under such a system, a developer or employer would have to identify how many jobs the proposed project is expected to generate, then would be expected to identify the same number of housing units being created in the area, and claim those units as "housing credits" that couldn't be claimed by other commercial developers.

"I think if we did it in Menlo Park, other jurisdictions would be forced to do it." Mueller said. If you had a system like that, other cities (would have to) keep track of their jobs-housing balance. That's been the difficulty as we do this in a vacuum."

In theory, he argued, a city could prevent occupancy of a new office building until the developer comes up with the needed housing "credits." Just what a credit would count for and how much it would be worth would be up to further discussion, as well as market forces, he added.

He said wants to hear from academics first before moving forward with the idea.

Appeal process

The council also voted Tuesday on the conditions under which it can appeal Planning Commission decisions. Over the last few months, there have been several long discussions about whether the council should automatically be expected to take on certain Planning Commission decisions, or if it should just be notified by staff when the Planning Commission makes decisions about significant projects. Ultimately, council members voted 4-1, with Combs opposed, to allow the Planning Commission to make decisions for projects of a certain size.

The council defined those projects triggering notification as: any commercial bonus level development in the Bayfront area or in the El Camino Real/Downtown specific plan area; any commercial project exceeding 10,000 net new square feet; or any mixed-use project meeting one of the first two criteria and that has less than two-thirds of the project's square footage dedicated to housing.

In addition, at Councilwoman Nash's request, the council will also be notified when the Planning Commission approves a "statement of overriding considerations" for an environmental impact review — a document indicating that the commission accepts the claim that a project has environmental effects that can't be mitigated. It would also be alerted when a notice of preparation is released for any development project, indicating the start of the environmental review process, through the council's public email inbox.

Combs, a former planning commissioner, said he favors more direct involvement of the City Council in taking on decisions delegated to the Planning Commission. Even a discussion about the possibility of a moratorium, he argued, indicates "things have gone wrong."

"More than two dozen people spoke in favor of a moratorium," he said. "They were speaking about something ... a sense that the city had gone in the wrong direction. ... It became clear that one way to respond to that concern ... was to make sure the City Council was having the final say."


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