Menlo Park council commits to more housing, but not everyone's on board | October 31, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - October 31, 2007

Menlo Park council commits to more housing, but not everyone's on board

• State law requires city plan for the construction of 993 new homes in the next seven years.

by Rory Brown

According to a loosely enforced state law, Menlo Park has to adjust zoning for, if not approve, the construction of 993 new homes within city limits over the next seven years.

But in a city where a lot of neighbors regularly oppose the increased traffic, construction noise, and influx of students associated with new housing developments, building houses is no easy feat.

Menlo Park City Council members sided with state law on Oct. 23, voting 3-2 with councilmen Cline and Cohen opposed, to endorse a resolution that pledges the city will do its part to build its fair share of apartments and/or single-family homes.

The decision means Menlo Park is officially on board with the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, a state program that requires cities to build enough homes to maintain a sufficient housing-to-jobs ratio.

"This doesn't mean we're going to go build 993 homes by 2014, but it does mean that morally, if not legally, we have an obligation to figure out what available land we have, and what can be zoned for housing," said Councilman John Boyle.

Mayor Kelly Fergusson and Councilman Heyward Robinson noted that 993 homes is a lofty goal, but both council members said the city must follow the law and create a plan to determine what type of housing the city needs.

A weak law?

Under state law, cities are required to adjust zoning for a specific number of homes — a process referred to as a city's housing element.

But the law is loosely enforced by the state, and Menlo Park has ignored recent requests by the state to update its housing element.

"I don't think our city is ready to commit to what [the state] is demanding, and I'm not satisfied the law has the teeth sufficient to compel us to do it," Councilman Cohen said after the meeting.

Councilman Cline said adjusting zoning for 993 more homes would put a lot of pressure on the council to approve housing projects — something residents don't necessarily want to see more of in Menlo Park.

He said too many housing developments have been "shoehorned" into the Linfield Oaks neighborhood — a phenomenon he doesn't want to see occur in other parts of town.

"I don't think Menlo Park can hit that number, and I don't want it being hung over our heads on a regular basis," Mr. Cline said. "By making this promise to add housing, we become a prisoner to this number."

Potential lawsuits

Although the state has yet to punish cities that fail to create and uphold housing elements, housing advocacy groups have taken it upon themselves to take legal action against cities without enough homes — and they've won.

So why hasn't Menlo Park gotten in any trouble over the years?

"Because they haven't been sued yet," said Paul Peninger, the co-policy director of the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California.

Mr. Peninger said recent lawsuits have been filed against the cities of Benicia, Corte Madera and Gilroy by housing advocacy groups, such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Advocacy groups often claim the city isn't providing adequate affordable housing — a claim that is hard to deny without a certified housing element, Mr. Peninger said.

"You have a housing element adopted by the state, or you don't," he said. "It's a pretty straightforward issue. If you don't have a housing element, you can get sued."

Aside from the legal requirements, Mr. Peninger said, planning for more homes is necessary to accommodate a growing population.

"In Menlo Park's case, you have a city that has housing needs to plan for, as it is part of a region that's growing," he said. "The city hasn't been shy about creating new jobs, so it needs to build more homes."


Posted by Paul Collacchi, a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Technically, I think its true that "housing advocates" can sue cities, but clearly this does not mean that they can force cities to build housing, or even to change their General Plans, or even pay monetary damages.

As I recall from my conversations with the City Attorney, it means that housing advocates might have stronger grounds to oppose or block city approvals of non-housing projects. This makes the stymied office or retail developer the real party in interest not the city.

Frankly, I can think of worse things to fear than housing advocates blocking office complexes, but in any case, I think the reporter should qualify who is suing whom for what rather than raise the cloud of a non-specific lawsuit, which arguably holds little actual threat to the city.

Posted by creeping socialism, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 12, 2007 at 6:29 pm

Rumor has it that the state housing advocates and affiliated nonprofit organizations are sponsored by real estate interests. Even if that's not true, it's hard for me to see flaws with deferring to market forces. Sure, some people won't be able to afford to live here, but a lot of others are moving out of the area because the towns/schools/roads are getting unpleasantly crowded.

You can't just mandate housing without becoming entangled in a host of other issues, blithely overlooked by those who care only about adding more housing. However, it's interesting to note that other local cities that have much larger quotas than we do seem to be much more irate about the forced imposition of housing. I suspect that any lawsuits may be backed by the cities that are seeking to wrest themselves from the authority of the housing zealots.

Posted by open space, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 13, 2007 at 8:10 am

It seems that creating/preserving open space should be of higher priority than more housing. Has there ever been any serious discussion in this town about asking the citizens of Menlo Park to support the buyback of land in centrally located city areas to increase parks and open space? This is frequently done by townships back east.

Posted by more parks, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 13, 2007 at 8:33 am

open, that is an interesting comment. We have so much money from in lieu fees that we should be able to buy some land. The ideologues in town are always saying that we need more dense housing so that we can preserve open space, but in actuality, the dense housing that is being developed has destroyed a number of small but valued open spaces that residents used to enjoy.

A quick walking tour of Linfield Oaks will demonstrate how easy it is to sacrifice acres of green space and heritage trees to high density units. Even Manhattan has parks every few blocks.

Posted by oak knoll neighbor, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Nov 13, 2007 at 8:59 am

the school district wants to wipe out over 2 acres of parkland at Oak Knoll school to build a huge auditorium and 20 plus car parking lot. Open space gone forever, when they could easily put it on the back asphalt playcourts, with a whole open playfield next to it. You should go check it out and then go to the school board mtg. on the 19th at Encinal and loudly protest this crime.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 13, 2007 at 4:06 pm

This discussion, it seems to me, strikes at the very heart of the central issue for Menlo Park. Do we, as a community and city, want to grow, to have a larger resident population, to have higher, more urbanized density?

Or, don’t we? What is our ratio of open space to commercial and residential land use, and what is our per square mile population density vs. other similar towns?

Are Hillsborough, Atherton or Los Altos Hills confronting this dilemma? Are there residents there demanding more BMR and "affordable" housing?

Can we be forced to sacrifice the current “quality of life” of Menlo Park to comply with abstract and arbitrary jobs-to-residence ratios? Whose formulas are these? What if, in a major economic down-turn, Menlo Park were to lose population and job slots? Would we then be obliged to tear down the housing we were recently required to construct? Is population expansion inexorable and beyond our control?

Even the best of intentions can have disastrous results. Beware of unintended consequences. Fortunately, we all know that all this ABAG-talk is political correctness, and disconnected from any reality, implementation or even intention toward compliance.