By John Pimentel
Menlo Park’s Measure V is unfortunate and unnecessary. Unfortunate because the public debate on Measure V frames a false choice between fear of rampant overdevelopment versus NIMBYism and zero growth. Unnecessary because, by law and custom, Menlo Park’s zoning and land use decisions are made through a transparent, reliable planning process, and have been so for decades.
Statewide mandates to increase housing supply have left some single-family detached homeowners fearful that high density development will steamroll their way of life. When the Ravenswood School District proposed teacher housing on the abandoned Flood School site, neighbors raised legitimate concerns about traffic. Normally, these concerns would have been addressed through the well-trod land development process.
Typically, a project owner formally proposes to the City Planning Department a well-defined project and any necessary zoning changes. City staff comments on the project, and the owner often makes modifications or accepts conditions incorporating the planners’ recommendations. Then, the City Planning Commission and the City Council hold open meetings where project impacts are defined and discussed, more mitigations are proposed, and more compromises are made.
The proposal is eventually rejected or approved in public meetings. If someone doesn’t like the result, then litigation ensues, and Courts usually identify and enforce additional modifications and compromises. Or, people vote to change the City Council. The process is far from perfect, but generally it works. The Flood School Site project may have some rough edges, but Measure V is a massive overreaction like using a chainsaw to trim a budding flower.
Our school district proposed this unique project to provide affordable staff housing that would attract and retain the great teachers who raise and nurture our children in our public schools. Barely past the ideation stage, the school district still hasn’t even submitted a proposal to the Menlo Park Planning Department. Sadly, some neighbors lack confidence that our City government and our school district will address their concerns through the normal process. So, the neighbors organized and activated to bring public attention to their concerns.
Unfortunately, the result is Measure V which proposes that any change of single-family residential zoning be approved by a citywide vote. While I deeply respect Measure V’s supporters’ goal to have their voice heard in City land use decisions, here’s why I voted against Measure V:
(1) Civic planning through the ballot box is a bad idea. The current planning process has flaws, but it usually results in reasonable outcomes. Subjecting every residential zoning change to a citywide public vote will discourage any developer from proposing anything that triggers a citywide vote. Menlo Park’s urban planners and City Council may not be perfect, but this ain’t Houston. We’ll get more housing, but there is no risk that big box retail stores or skyscraping apartment towers are going up in Menlo Park’s residential neighborhoods.
(2) Measure V is unfortunate and unnecessary because the project hasn’t yet been proposed to the City. Neighbors’ legitimate concerns are best managed and addressed through a robust planning process that will include conditions, mitigations, and modifications to any initial proposal, not through a citywide ballot initiative.
(3) The State’s current enthusiasm to push local governments to approve more housing is not ephemeral. If Menlo Park ignores state goals, then we should prepare to suffer laws from the Legislature, mandates from state bureaucrats, and lawsuits from housing advocates that reduce local control.
(4) Affordable teacher and staff housing is a massive unmet need. Enabling teachers to live where they work yields significant social, economic, and environmental benefits for generations. In fact, the Flood School Site project could also be made available to teachers in Menlo Park City Schools and other essential workers like police and firefighters who suffer long commutes to serve our community. Such a condition could be required in the normal planning process.
Measure V will force Menlo Park voters to regularly vote on complex, technical land use matters, or bring an end to any material new development in the city. Please only vote for Measure V if you believe it is a great idea to present a divisive zoning conflict that pits citizens against each other every two years.
John Pimentel is a Menlo Park Housing Commissioner, a Ravenswood Education Foundation Director, and a San Mateo County Community College District Trustee. The opinions expressed here are his alone and not made on behalf of any organization he serves.