Viewpoint: It’s time to reach a reasonable solution on the Flood School site

by Ray Mueller on July 5, 2022

The City of Menlo Park has a storied history of conflict over development. Long time residents will tell you the scars from such events run deep, and, in some cases, the personal pain from the conflict between neighbors engaged in battle never is completely forgiven or healed. Such events, while great for building political factions, are horrific for building community.

This Fall, the City seems headed once again down a fast lane toward such an event. Signatures have been collected and a measure is set to be put on the ballot that would restrict the ability of the City to rezone single family home zoned sites to higher density without a vote of the public. Some level of anxiety exists regarding whether upzoning of lots in single family neighborhoods will occur, as it has been debated amongst some of the members of the City Council. Presently, however, the City’s housing element process is not considering upzoning density of single family home zoned lots, but for a few rare exceptions.

One of these rare exceptions is the Flood School site (pictured top), located adjacent to the Suburban Park neighborhood, which has given rise to this measure. The Flood School site’s access requires travel through the Suburban Park neighborhood, and I can understand and empathize with residents’ concern regarding the traffic impacts the site may bring to the neighborhood.

But those concerns do not change the fact that the site could still be a school generating traffic, nor that the Flood School site is currently zoned for single family housing, which means under current state law and city zoning, at its size the site would allow for up to 60 residential units.

The Ravenswood School District’s present proposal is to build 90 residential units at the site.

So in essence what this “battle” really boils down to is a fight over the impact of an additional 30 residential units, and their traffic impact driving through the Suburban Park neighborhood versus the need for workforce housing and an ongoing revenue source for the Ravenswood School District.

The reasonable solution

I want to thank Councilmember Drew Combs who has been engaged in discussions with all the key stakeholders in his district in an effort to reach a compromise. To save our community the cost of this ballot measure, at this time I want to daylight to the public the following proposed solution which has been discussed amongst the stakeholders. It’s time to move towards resolution, and it’s important for City residents to know a reasonable solution is on the table.

First, the City of Menlo Park would agree to work with Caltrans and neighbor LifeMoves, to open an additional access road and entry point to the Flood School site via Van Buren Road. Second, the applicant Ravenswood School District and City of Menlo Park would agree to the creation of a removable physical barrier that essentially halves the site, restricting parking access on each side of the barrier. Only the Fire District would have access via the removable barrier to both sides via either access point. Third, 45 residential units would access parking at the Flood School site via Suburban Park, 15 less than is currently allowed by state law. The remaining 45 units would access and park at the Flood School site via Van Buren Road. Fourth, as a result of this compromise, the measure proponents would withdraw the measure from the November election and hold the measure off the ballot while City and applicant perform the actions required in the compromise agreement.

While not an ideal compromise for any party, the result is reasonable and addresses the impacts which lead to the measure. For Suburban Park, the impacts are limited to what would occur under single family home zoning. The school district still gains much needed workforce housing and a sustainable revenue source. And the parties, the City and its residents are spared the costly pain and exercise of a needless battle.

Finally it is notable that residents located near Van Buren Road may complain regarding the traffic impact generated from this compromise proposal. While the complaint is valid, the reality is the project could have been originally designed with this entry point, and other compromise solutions offered suggested diverting all the traffic to Van Buren Road, which, in my view, is entirely inequitable.

Photo by Linda Hubbard (c) 2022

9 Comments

Carolyn Bowsher July 05, 2022 at 3:59 pm

Thank you to Ray Mueller, Drew Combs, and everyone who participated in finding this solution!

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Judy+Horst July 05, 2022 at 5:48 pm

The battle mentioned above is more than how many houses will go on this property, because the article and the proposed ideas in it didn’t mention that the Flood School property is adjacent to Flood Park. For many months nearby residents and others have worked with the County and the School District to find ways to use the old school grounds to expand Flood Park, particularly since the County’s current plan to expand the park’s athletic activities within the current park’s boundaries would cut into the park’s woodlands, family picnic areas, nature trails and harm natural animal and bird habitats. Proposed sports leagues would add to traffic congestion and expanded sports fields would add to the noise levels in the park and for nearby neighborhoods. FloodPark.org has proposed several ways to use the land, provide sports fields, and maintain the park’s natural character. What’s proposed by FloodPark.org is something the County and City of Menlo Park should consider. We all should consider the alternatives proposed on this website. In these days of climate change, an expanded Flood Park would help both the County and Tree City (Menlo Park) meet its goals to reduce carbon emissions. Let’s rethink for the long term what is best for Flood Park and surrounding areas. We don’t need to consider only housing options. Housing mentioned in the article, adjacent to Flood Park, is not the answer, especially since there are no public, business or transportation services nearby. This is a chance for the County, Menlo Park, neighbors and those who use Flood Park to reconsider doing business as usual.

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Paige Hurst July 05, 2022 at 6:25 pm

Can sponsors withdraw a certified petition? What is the public obligation to signers?

On its face, the petition speaks to R-1 zones *everywhere* not just a single site. To me, the 3000 city-wide signatures speak to a much broader issue than the single Flood School site.

SB9 woke people up. Now more than ever, the body politic understands clearly that ever increasing tech job densities in Menlo Park will inevitably increase RHNA pressure to build more housing in R-1 zones. Everywhere. Not just Flood. That’s why neighbors everywhere signed.

Saying the Housing Element for this cycle doesn’t require upzoning R-1 zones kicks the can down the road. There are millions of square feet of new unmitigated office projects now proposed in Menlo Park. Where will that housing go?

In my opinion, the fight for control over R-1 is a needed battle. We live in interesting times. I look forward to an interesting fight. I fear that if Menlo Park does not have it now, it might never get the chance.

Regardless, thank you petition sponsors for the opportunity to have a democratic debate about what kind of future we want for our neighborhoods. Don’t be so quick to shrink from that debate.

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John Pimentel July 06, 2022 at 6:52 am

Drew and Ray have shown great leadership in thinking through this creative solution that helps our community in multiple ways: Ravenswood School District can better recruit and retain talented staff, neighborhoods north and south of the Flood School site will see less traffic than expected under current zoning rules, and our city will add needed housing capacity. Ideally, the County will contribute to additional traffic mitigation by allowing occasional access through Flood Park during open park hours. Thank you for your leadership Drew and Ray!

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Kelly Blythe July 06, 2022 at 9:51 am

Ray

On the surface this seems reasonable, but it assumes 60 homes will fit on that site which does not seem practical.

Can you clarify how the current single family zoning would allow 60 homes and just how they could fit? What would be the lot size (if single family homes) or what would be the make-up of buildings if they are condos or townhouses?

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Ron Snow July 06, 2022 at 10:04 am

Affordable housing for Ravenswood School district and area homeless is important. Generally, such housing should be near good transportation hubs, markets, and in clean – pollution free locations. If San Mateo Coastal flood maps are correct, this particular location seems extremely low from the perspective of including sea level rise as a criteria for locating housing.

With an emphasis on ‘affordable’, there seems to be nothing published as to what that means from a dollar perspective. Related the missing actual cost disclosure, is a lack in guarantees that all of these residential units would be and remain to be truly affordable.

What is the true goal — is it feasible?
It seems unreasonable to think that this Flood School’s 2.5 acres would be able to improve the Ravenswood long term financial goals if this were to truly be affordable and/or low cost housing. Whether it is 15 , 30, 60, or 90 units, the huge cost of development and the ongoing cost of maintenance doesn’t seem to be covered by the low margins from truly affordable rates. The risk and long term liabilities don’t seem to add up. This dilemma is probably one reason school districts are not in the real estate business – they are best at focusing on providing the education infrastructure for the area students: school programs for music, physical ed, science, math, language, the arts, etc. and the facilities that make those programs possible.

It seems that the only way a financial goal could be achieved is for the majority of the proposed residential units to be at market rates. That defeats the affordability goal. It deflates the argument for affordable housing at this location. Development of this property permanently ties the hands of the school district from using this space for future school district needs. A district that will need to provide physical education, sports, outdoor learning, or other needs that are directly related to a school district’s purpose.

Our population in Menlo Park and the adjoining communities is forecasted to greatly increase. There are currently thousands and thousands of new housing units on the books now and more are being added.

With an increase in population, other quality of life infrastructure needs to be increased and included. We need a balance that insures a good living environment. Schools need to handle the influx of the students from this increase in population, but not only that. The infrastructure that provides recreational spaces, green peaceful nature areas, biking and hiking paths, well planned retail and transportation routes. We will need greener more ecological planning and design, not a willy-nilly approach to putting in more and more housing and corporate space on any and every available patch of earth.

It might be better to hit “pause” and, in the meantime, allow this 2.5 acres to be used to expand the open green space needed in this area. It would provide district students a good place for outside recreation and could easily be, if only on a temporary basis, incorporated in the Flood Park green space. An extension of the park. If, at some time in the future 8 to 12 years from now, the school district would still have the option to use the 2.5 acres for a purpose that is directly related to school district youth and function.

Lets not make decisions when it is unknown what rates will be charged for all units and what the guarantees are for those rates 20, 30, 40 years from now. What number of homeless will be housed at the location? Will minimum wage workers be able to afford units there and how many units?

We need to expand the standard of living – quality of life – infrastructure and make it a factor in every housing development.

There is some discussion and other considerations on various online forums, including at http://www.FloodPark.org/school. Learn more and contribute to the discussion.

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Andrew Cope July 06, 2022 at 10:18 am

Thank you Mr. Mueller for posting this suggestion. In case you’re checking the comments, I appreciate you wanting to find a solution, but I also have a few points of clarification. My first question is where you came up with the figure of 60 single family housing units under the existing zoning? The site is 2.6 acres or 113,256 square feet in total. The single family parcels in Suburban park are between 5,000 and 6,000 square feet. Using even the smaller size lots as comparison, that would equal 22 single family homes on the parcel. To get to 60 single family homes (as you suggest) each entire property, including driveways, garages/carports, and roadways would have to be smaller than 1,800 feet per home. Unfortunately it seems like the 60 single family housing units that is the center of your compromise is hard to envision. Perhaps you can clarify. My second point is a request. In your article you reference that the Flood site “could still be a school generating traffic.” I ask that you please don’t continue to use this false equivalency to residential traffic. I know you realize it’s false because I brought it up directly to you when you visited our neighborhood, and you agreed with me. Schools are only in operation at best for 9 months of the year. During the time they are in operation, traffic is concentrated to about 30 minutes before the start of the day and 30 minutes at the end of the day. Traffic impacts are minimal and concentrated, thus making it a very poor comparison to residential traffic. Secondly, when the Flood School was last in operation, the entrance to and from school was through Flood Park. There were signs on the fence in Suburban Park telling families it was not a drop off or pick up spot. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, which you agreed was the case, so I please ask that you resist using it as part of your argument in the future. It’s deliberately misleading unfortunately.

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David Jones July 06, 2022 at 4:06 pm

I believe having a measure on the ballot (and hopefully passing) that puts rezoning to a vote will serve the greater Menlo Park community in a very valuable way. Stakeholders, developers, and community leaders will be forced to find solutions that work for all parties from the start or roll the dice on campaigns to convince the greater public of their one-sided solutions. All residents of Menlo Park can see the writing on the wall: There will be increasing pressure for high-density housing. We all have the same fears: Will we lose the character and livability of our neighborhoods? We want practical solutions acceptable to the existing residents, not the deep-scarring battles that this article warns us of. This can only come through mutual respect and compromise, with leaders that negotiate in good faith. The leaders will know that the odds of passing a vote to rezone are dramatically higher once acceptable solutions are found with support from neighborhoods, stakeholders, and developers. The greater Menlo Park community will know and respect these compromises, for they know the next compromise may be in their neighborhood. It may take more leadership up front, but there will be no easy path of convincing (horse-trading) 3 council votes in your favor. All residents will feel more secure knowing we have each others’ backs.

I appreciate the efforts being made in this article to start a dialogue for the Flood School site. There’s no way you can fit 60 houses on that site, by the way, just look on the map. I think Ravenswood would benefit more from dedicated teacher/staff housing than signing over all rights to a developer for a long period of time – hoping that it goes to worker housing. Perhaps developers could make enough selling leases to brand new townhouses with either 15 or 30 year leases that would then be wholly owned by Ravenswood at lease expiration. Knowing that the extra density is going to help the Ravenswood system directly and not some developer would make a big difference for residents around the site. Splitting the traffic amongst the Suburban Park and Flood Triangle neighborhoods (and through Flood Park) is genius. Perhaps the compromises found for this site, endorsed by all parties, will usher a win through the first rezoning proposition in this new era. Then we can all rest assured that we have a system that will work for all of us.

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Buck Bard July 07, 2022 at 1:37 pm

“….dedicated teacher/staff housing than signing over all rights to a developer for a long period of time – hoping that it goes to worker housing.”

This is the one piece of data that’s always left out of the conversation. The only way to get 60 units on that lot is to build a very large apartment building. This isn’t housing that somehow teachers are going to have the opportunity to purchase and raise families. Teachers simply get “first dibs” on renting an apartment. The rest are market rate with the money going to the developers and the Ravenswood School District.

If the district truly wanted to help teachers they would build houses more suited to/desired by families and sell them to teachers at a very below market rate (obviously with provisions they remain employed by the district for a long period of time). But that isn’t the plan.

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