Menlo Balance circulating petition for ballot initiative on residential housing

by Linda Hubbard on May 17, 2022

There’s a petition being circulated by a relatively new organization — Menlo Balance — to get an initiative on the November ballot that prohibits the conversion of existing low-density residential parcels to other uses.

We recently spoke with two of the organizers — Nicole Chessari and Tim Yaeger — about it. “The initiative is to preserve what is already designated as residential so it can not be changed to commercial and industrial,” said Nicole.

Added Tim: “Our proposal is not to discourage housing but to put housing where it makes sense. We are trying to put it on the [November] ballot so all of Menlo Park can make a decision. That’s our goal — let all people have a democratic process.”

Those who are advocating for Flood School housing say this initiative would stop it. You can read Menlo Balance’s retort here.

For more information and to find out how to sign the petition, email info@menlobalance.org.

Photo of Nicole and Tim by Robb Most (c) 2022

16 Comments

Katie Behroozi May 17, 2022 at 6:28 pm

“The initiative is to preserve what is already designated as residential so it can not be changed to commercial and industrial,” said Nicole.

This hypothetical rezoning of residential land to commercial/industrial uses that Nicole describes is bewilderingly off-base. It is understandable that residents who hear this would be concerned but that scenario has no basis in reality.

I really hope that the City of Menlo Park can come out and clarify a few things, including:
–is the city considering/planning/legally allowed to rezone residential properties for non-residential usage?
–when and how might city council make zoning changes to low-density residential neighborhoods?
–which zoning changes to low-density residential neighborhoods are actually on the table? which changes has council ruled out?
–what would this ballot initiative actually do?

From my own extensive research, I’ve learned that:
–Rezoning residential land for commercial or other usage is just not a thing our city does. (there’s actually a California “No Net Loss” law that discourages converting any housing to non-residential usage.) In fact, council is charged with increasing residential land.
–In general, city council rarely if ever changes zoning outside of the context of a general plan/specific plan update (which is a lengthy process that generally takes months, even years and involves extensive community outreach). We are in the middle of one such planning process right now, the housing element update. This happens once every eight years. Interested residents can learn more here: https://beta.menlopark.org/Government/Departments/Community-Development/Planning-Division/Comprehensive-planning/Housing-Element/2023-2031-Housing-Element-Update
–Every potential change that council is considering to residential neighborhoods can be found within the recently released draft housing element.
–In the draft housing element update that council will eventually vote on, there are only five low-density “opportunity sites” proposed for potential up-zoning. These include three church parking lots, a vacant lot owned by Stanford, and a vacant lot that used to be a public school. The proposed up-zoning of these five sites (and only these sites!) would enable housing development on land that currently does not contain housing, if and only if council votes to allow such usage. It would then be up to the landowners to determine whether or not to redevelop those sites.
–Aside from these aforementioned five parcels, council is not contemplating ANY zoning changes to low-density residential neighborhoods or single-family homes anywhere in the city.

So what would the initiative actually accomplish?
–If the Menlo Balance initiative passes, it would mean that the owners of those five sites (three churches, a school district, and Stanford) would each individually have to get the entire city to vote in a general election on any changes they might want to seek. So if St. Bede’s (one of the sites) wanted to develop 20 units of affordable housing on their parking lot, they’d need to wait for a general election and get the city as a whole to vote to approve the zoning change that would enable this. At a minimum, this would be costly and time-consuming, and would likely deter these landowners from pursuing housing creation.
–the Menlo Balance initiative would not have any bearing on potential development on commercial, mixed-use, public, or higher-density properties (the vast majority of sites where the city is considering permitting additional housing).
–the Menlo Balance initiative would have no impact on SB9.

Perhaps InMenlo could interview the housing element consultant or a city planner to get the facts into the public eye.

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Nina Wouk May 17, 2022 at 7:37 pm

Menlo Park needs more housing, especially more housing that isn’t just for rich people. The Ravenswood school district’s proposal to build more affordable housing would be a step in the right direction. I have yet to see any convincing objection to it.
https://www.floodschoolhousing.org

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Jennifer Johnson May 17, 2022 at 8:04 pm

Just another NIMBY tactic. You want to preserve areas of low density housing (like where all the rich people live) and force more housing into already overcrowded areas of high density so you don’t have to have any of “those” people in your exclusive, wealthy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the areas that already have high density housing have traffic so bad people can’t get out or return home during rush hour. Sure, let’s just shove more housing over there. The state has ruled on this. We need tons more housing. It needs to go everywhere including your neighborhood!

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Buck Bard May 17, 2022 at 8:27 pm

When the City Council just rolls over for developers we need the voters to step up. No one, including the Menlo Balance group, is opposed to development. Let’s just have reasonable development. Not some 200 unit apartment building at the end of a neighborhood because it checks a box for the 4 other city council members who don’t represent that district.

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Devon Caldron May 21, 2022 at 2:53 pm

I keep hearing the claim of over 200 units for the Ravenswood project when the plans I have seen call for 90. It’s that kind of brazen misstatement that makes Menlo Balance look like a fear-based sham.

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Buck Bard May 23, 2022 at 10:04 am

Devon, read the laws. The land can easily be developed up to 260 units. This is from the city’s own laws rules on Housing Overlay Zones, which gives developers a “density bonus” or the right to build additional units per acre, if the project is 100% affordable housing. It’s the law and the plan was NOT written to preclude this.

But then, why would a developer or land owner make a switch to make more money???

They could have easily written that exclusion into the plan, but they did not.

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Buck Bard May 17, 2022 at 8:29 pm

You’re using the same disinformation you claim of Menlo Balance. There is nothing stopping the City Council from rezoning to industrial or commercial, except this petition.

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Katie Behroozi May 18, 2022 at 5:05 pm

“There is nothing stopping the City Council from rezoning to industrial or commercial, except this petition.”
Actually there is, Buck.
1) There’s a state law that prevents the city from downzoning/eliminating residential land unless we somehow rezone for residential land elsewhere.
2) Beyond that “No Net Loss” law, we’re supposed to *adding* residential zoning around the city, and part of the reason is because of our jobs:housing imbalance. Every time we add jobs (which non-residential sites do), we have to ratchet up our housing production in response.

Council is actively considering doing the OPPOSITE–rezoning commercial land for residential uses in our current Housing Element update. But the thing that Menlo Balance is suggesting is wildly implausible. No council in recent history has rezoned residential land for commercial use. No council candidate has expressed a desire to do it. No such thing has come before council. It’s just…not a thing. Truly.

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Katie Behroozi May 18, 2022 at 5:42 pm

Hi AH,

There are a couple of things in the FAQ that are not accurate.

1) No one on city council has expressed a desire to develop housing on city parks. It’s not “still on the table.” It was taken off the table last fall, although council disagreed at the time on whether/how to codify this into law. The council is likely to formalize their intentions to prohibit development of parks in the near future, as both Vice Mayor Wolosin and Council Member Mueller have asked the mayor to prioritize it.

2) In the public info session on the Flood School site last week, the city’s housing consultant patiently explained why he supported the inclusion of the Flood School site in the draft Housing Element, despite the fact that it is technically zoned R1–so the statement that “the City Council is continuing to explore development that is contrary to what their own highly compensated expert publicly advised against doing” is also incorrect. (I think this was actually in response to a question that you asked!)

I think it’s also important for residents to understand that the Housing Element process is a bit of a funnel: at the beginning, council gives the consultants and staff direction about what changes they’d be willing to discuss–and then consultants and staff come back with a proposal that has a very specific list of possible sites and policies for council to consider.

Right now we have a draft housing element on the table. It doesn’t include any changes to the zoning of single-family homes anywhere in the city. It does have a long list of “opportunity sites” that could be rezoned to induce housing development. Residents who want to learn more can read about it here: https://beta.menlopark.org/Government/Departments/Community-Development/Planning-Division/Comprehensive-planning/Housing-Element/2023-2031-Housing-Element-Update

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Buck Bard May 23, 2022 at 10:28 am

So how is it inaccurate if you yourself write, “The council is likely to formalize their intentions to prohibit development of parks in the near future,” They haven’t written anything down. That is the literal definition of “still on the table.”

Nothing protecting parks is anything more than a conversation today, and you know it. The City Council could change their minds tomorrow. If they really mean it why haven’t they gotten around to “formalize their intentions”?

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Buck Bard May 18, 2022 at 7:46 am

If you take the time to read the petition you will see that it doesn’t even mention a specific site. It’s ridiculous that any 3 city council members can decide to rezone any residential single family homes area to whatever they wish with no reason given or vote of the people. Everyone I know who is a homeowner in Menlo Park invested their family’s future here because of the family neighborhood feel. The only people that should be allowed to change that are the people themselves. If the city council would fight for the existing homeowners in Menlo Park instead of their developer donors we wouldn’t have any need to alter the process.

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Katie Behroozi May 18, 2022 at 5:23 pm

Hi Buck,

1) You can look up the campaign donations to current city council members. 4/5 haven’t taken any donations from developers.

2) Council members can’t just decide to rezone any residential single family home area to whatever they wish with no reason given. This isn’t how city planning works. When council opts to make changes to residential or non-residential areas, they do this in the context of a general plan update such as the current Housing Element Update (previous such efforts happened in 2016 with ConnectMenlo and whenever the Downtown Specific Plan was produced).

3) Residents who want to see what zoning changes council might be voting on in the fall should review the draft housing element. There is a list of proposed “opportunity sites” where council might change zoning to incentivize housing production. None of them is a single-family home. Five of them are currently zoned “R1”: three church parking lots, a parcel of undeveloped Stanford land off Alpine Rd., and the site of the former Flood School. That’s it.

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victoria robledo May 18, 2022 at 12:40 pm

I’m definitely in favor of placing as much housing as possible on the West side of 101. People need to stop complaining about the few homes be suggested to build when the community of Belle Haven ( East) of 101 has been bombarded with over 2,000 homes and a Village proposed by Facebook… Go build over near Safeway at Sand hill, modern day racism is a live and well in Menlo Park, specifically on the East side !!

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Nina Wouk May 19, 2022 at 8:37 am

Amen, Vicki!

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Michael Levinson May 21, 2022 at 1:32 pm

“The initiative is to preserve what is already designated as residential so it can not be changed to commercial and industrial,” said Nicole.

This is misdirection. I have many friends who have been taken in by Menlo Balance, and the objection is apartments. They realize it looks bad to oppose apartments so they are fearmongering about “big box stores” and “1,000 person office buildings”, neither of which are a remotely plausible fear.

We have a massive housing crisis in our city and the peninsula overall. We should all be supporting ways to incrementally increase density so more people can live in Menlo Park.

(I am a single family homeowner in Allied Arts)

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