Linfield Oaks residents fume over demolished building | September 5, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - September 5, 2007

Linfield Oaks residents fume over demolished building

• City staff says no rules were broken in approving tear-down of office building.

by Rory Brown

It's not a secret that residents of Menlo Park's Linfield Oaks neighborhood are fed up with construction in their part of town.

Over the last 18 months, neighbors have vehemently opposed the construction of a 56-home project on Linfield Drive, another 33-home project on Willow Road, and the renovation of a Middlefield Road office building to medical office, but all of the projects have been approved.

Now yet another project is under way at 64 Willow Road, complete with jack hammers and rumbling dump trucks, and some neighbors say the city intentionally downplayed the size of the project.

The property, behind the Sunset magazine campus, is owned by Palo Alto developer Roxy Rapp, who applied last year for a use permit and architectural control to "partially reconstruct and expand" an existing two-story office building to accommodate high-end venture capital firms, according to a staff report. The Planning Commission granted the requests.

But neighbors say that the project is much more than a "partial reconstruction" — the building, foundation and all, has been turned to rubble, and a completely new building is going up in its place.

"We're having some major ethics problems in our city," said Don Brawner, a Linfield Oaks resident, while eating a hamburger outside the council chambers before sounding off on the project at the beginning of the City Council's Aug. 28 meeting.

Mr. Brawner and Planning Commissioner Vincent Bressler, both Linfield Oaks residents, have been leading critics of the project.

"The disconnect between the information provided in the staff report/public hearing and the actual construction is a serious matter," Mr. Bressler wrote in an e-mail to the council.

In the staff report, the project is described as follows: "The construction of the proposed project would involve removal of all the existing exterior walls while maintaining existing structural beams, columns, and pier and grade foundation."

Staff's story

Members of city staff said the city hasn't done anything out of the ordinary, and there was never an intention to mislead residents.

Community Development Director Arlinda Heineck acknowledged that the city allowed construction crews to "demolish a little bit more than the original plan showed," but said the project was publicized as "an extensive restoration and demolition project."

She said demolition permits had been issued to Mr. Rapp as part of the original proposal, and staff did not bypass any inspection of the project in granting the request to demolish structural beams and portions of the foundation.

"Staff is very careful with its professional ethics, and we're very careful to scrutinize projects like this," Ms. Heineck said. She said minor changes were made, but changes to a demolition plan don't usually go back to the Planning Commission for public review.

"Neighbors have tended to think of this project as just a minor addition to an existing building," she said. "Clearly neighbors didn't expect to see as much demolition as what occurred at the site."

Council members contacted by the Almanac said they were just learning the details of the project, and had no comment as of the Almanac's press deadline.

Not 'bent out of shape'

Stu Soffer, a former planning commissioner, and a Linfield Oaks resident who has been outspoken against past development plans for the neighborhood, said he isn't too worried about the project.

"I'm not bent out of shape about this, but I see why others are," he said. "After reading the staff report last year, I didn't think a total demolition was what was in the cards. ... But Roxy Rapp builds good projects, and I'm assuming the end project will be what was originally proposed."


Posted by JoAnne, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 4, 2007 at 11:39 pm

There is no relationship between 64 Willow and the Linfield Oaks housing projects.

As far as I know, most Linfield Oaks residents are happy that 64 Willow has been, and will remain, an office building. I have heard no objections to the building itself. When the plan was presented last fall, the Planning Commission and public were informed that the building would be altered and expanded from 26,000+ to 32,000+ square feet. The staff report presented at the September 11 Planning Commission meeting does not refer to demolition at all.

The members of the Planning Commission--and the public--were not informed of the scope of the project. The neighbors who "tended to think of this project as just a minor addition to an existing building" did so because that is precisely how the project is presented in the staff report. As noted in the article, the staff report explicitly stated that the foundation would be maintained. The disruptions that have occurred pertain primarily to the fact that the foundation was not maintained but was in fact demolished and then pulverized on site. Those steps required weeks of jackhammering.

I have yet to see a reasonable explanation of the failure to adhere to appropriate public process, much less an apology to the neighborhood for inflicting avoidable levels of noise and dust/debris on us throughout the summer months.

Posted by WhatTheHeck, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 5, 2007 at 11:02 pm

So let me get this straight - we want to save an old, run-down building on its last legs (the Park Theater) - but a perfectly good office building (64 Willow) had to be taken down all the way up to - and including - its foundation to make way for... ANOTHER OFFICE BUILDING.

This does not compute!

Posted by just wondering, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:30 am

I know this is a bit of a digression, but it's generally on the topic of development issues in Menlo Park. Can anyone explain to me why some people seem to want to put road blocks in the way of getting a Whole Foods store into our community?

Posted by what a waste, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 6, 2007 at 8:57 am

The real tragedy is not the demolition of 64 Willow but the imminent demise of its neighbor at 75 Willow, a stunningly landscaped award-winning building, only 20 years old. It's about to be razed for another high density housing development. Rumors are that the Sunset properties will be next, given the state of their magazine business.

Linfield Oaks residents, hope you have stocked up on earplugs.

Posted by Green grocer, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 6, 2007 at 12:17 pm

On the subject of Whole Foods, I imagine that Trader Joe's, Safeway and especially Draeger's might be less than thrilled at the prospect of another specialty grocery story moving in nearby.

Posted by booger, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 6, 2007 at 3:26 pm

Actually, I don't think anyone is putting up roadblocks to a WHole Foods. There is no commitment by the developer that that will actually be the tenant. Equinox health club is also considered.

Posted by curious, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 6, 2007 at 4:36 pm

why did they cut down all of the mature trees in front of the building?

Posted by JoAnne, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 6, 2007 at 6:30 pm

Curious, Menlo Park is no longer the tree sanctuary it used to be. Developers now have two successful techniques for dealing with the inconvenience created by the large number of trees in town.

* Stop watering the property well in advance of the application. The trees will appear distressed, and the arborist that you hire will describe them as unhealthy and in poor condition. You will be given permission to remove them.

* Focus on the trees that are not being destroyed. Instead of drawing attention to the fact that you're cutting down 2/3 of the heritage trees on the property, announce repeatedly that you are going to "save so many trees!" Surely the residents should be grateful.

I have yet to see either technique fail.

Posted by curious, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 7, 2007 at 10:01 am

thanks, JoAnne for your comment. I was so sad to see all of those trees go. It looks awful and barren. I also do not see how those trees could have interfered with the construction. Such a shame.

Posted by Just the Facts M'am, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 9, 2007 at 7:37 pm

For the benefit of "what a waste" and the other 6 unhappy Linfield residents, I remind you all that 75 Willow will have a density of about 10 units per acre. For comparison, your single family neighborhood is about 6 units per acre; Menlo Square across from the Caltrain Station is 18 per acre and the apartments adjacent to 75 Willow managed by Don Brawner is about 25 units per acre.

Sorry, if you are looking for "high density" housing, it's not going to be at 75 Willow.

Posted by Check those facts, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 9, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Just the facts has her/his facts wrong. Most Linfield Oaks lots are minimum 1/4 acre; quite a few are close to an acre. Let's not distort reality by introducing studio apartments into the equation.

Many units at 75 Willow will have lots that are less than 1/2 the size of the smallest Linfield Oaks single family home lot. The development simply does not fit with the neighborhood. And more than 7 people are very unhappy to see the demise of what was one of the most beautiful properties in town, including park-like landscaping, in favor of squeezing a few more people into a city that can't adequately serve its existing population.

Posted by joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 11:42 am

Mature trees have no chance against short term profits.

Posted by tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 5:17 pm

I love trees and hate to see them go, and I expect that most property owners probably feel the same way. I expect that even the developers understand the value that mature trees add to properties. But old trees can sometimes present safety issues and they need to be cut down. Let's not make it too hard for property owners to manage safety conditions on their property. This is what led to the Angora wildfire raging out of control in Tahoe this past summer.

Posted by true tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12 pm

If trees cause safety issues, that's a different story from trees that are destroyed because they are in the way of a developer's plans. 75 Willow in particular was well maintained, and the developers did not own the property. They only decided to buy it after getting permission from the city to modify the General Plan, bypass existing zoning parameters, and cut down dozens of trees that were in their prime.

I'm bet the developers have calculated the value of having a mature tree on a piece of land and have determined that it adds very little, if anything, to the selling price. Most trees could have remained if the developer had been willing to build fewer homes.

Joanna said it well.

Posted by tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 11:44 pm

Do you really think that the City staff and the City Council members would be letting this happen if there were no justification for cutting down the trees? I guess I'm just not that cynical.

Posted by true tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Sep 11, 2007 at 12:32 pm

Tree lover, I invite you to read the staff report for 75 Willow and the Linfield properties. Dozens of gorgeous trees--46 heritage trees at 75 Willow alone-- with no problems were sacrificed in the name of housing. The developers didn't even pretend that the trees were in trouble, just noted that they were in the way.

Posted by tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 4:10 pm

I guess I'm confused. Are you saying that City staff is ignoring the current regulations vis-a-vis heritage trees? Or are you arguing that the current regulations are insufficient to protect the public interest?

Posted by so much for heritage trees, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 11, 2007 at 5:17 pm

The mayor's green task force has discussed the fact that the current heritage tree ordinance has no teeth. As far as I can tell, all you need to do to remove a heritage tree is get a permit and agree to plant a new tree.

Of course, the city doesn't even care about species that don't get big enough to qualify as heritage trees, such as birches. The 75 Willow property included quite a few of those lovely trees. Most are gone as of last week.

The city also just removed a couple of heritage trees from a little park near Burgess and Laurel, then plowed under the entire park. Apparently they are going to replace it with parking. The neighbors were given no notice; no one in the city seems to know anything about it though it's on city property.

Still waiting for the Almanac to do an expose on MP planning.

Posted by tree lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 6:09 pm

If the Mayor's task force found a problem with the current ordinance, then I would assume that the City Council will be looking into making the necessary adjustments? Wouldn't it be better to just call the Mayor and talk her about this? Who knows if she even has the time to keep up with blogs like this.

Posted by cynic, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 12, 2007 at 9:11 am

Our mayor, the future county supervisor, has little interest in anything other than projects that will boost her profile in the eyes of her future employers. She doesn't really care about the fate of a few dozen heritage trees.

Posted by H. Winthrop Simpson, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 12, 2007 at 10:58 am

I disagree about the heritage tree comment. I applied for a permit for PGE to remove a problematic tree where PGE was willing to plant a new one. The permit was denied by the city / environmental quality commission.

I suspect that people are not treated equally in this regard.

On the other hand, the wholesale elimination of heritage trees is routinely performed by the planning commission. No tree gets in the way of big project$$.

Posted by cynic, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Sep 12, 2007 at 2:16 pm

Mr Simpson, you have it right. You, operating as an individual resident, could not begin to take the kinds of liberties that the big boys can.