"I cannot tell you the number of people who tried to persuade me not to buy a house in the neighborhood," Joellen McGruder, who bought a home in Belle Haven in 2011, told the Menlo Park council on Aug. 26. "And indeed within a month after I'd been there, there was a drive-by shooting and at least two gun incidents within a two block radius. But now, she has seen the community change "tremendously."
Those changes are coming about thanks to a collaboration between residents, the city and local nonprofits and other business partners as the Belle Haven action plan kicks into high gear.
Even after only six months of action, Belle Haven is experiencing a rejuvenation of spirit as the plan, first approved by the council one year ago, has shifted from identifying goals to reaching them.
As might be discerned from Ms. McGruder's comments, improving public safety is a top priority.
The new police substation and neighborhood service center on Hamilton Avenue opened in April. The city also launched a youth diversion and truancy program under the coordination of a police officer based at the substation. According to Community Services Manager Derek Schweigart, 25 families have already been referred for help through the diversion program.
The residents have also stepped up, finding 11 neighborhood watch captains and forming a public safety action team, which has tackled projects such as creating a "who to call for city services" list and fixing problems with street lighting.
Dennis Bower, who has lived in Belle Haven for about four years and now serves as one of the 18 members of the public safety team, said the recent infusion of resources has helped his community feel like a part of Menlo Park despite being on the other side of U.S. 101.
"I've seen many changes, most of them in the last year," Mr. Bower told the council. "All of these are beginnings" with room to grow, he said. "With the City Council's continued support, I see only good things for our community ahead."
The city has also convened 32 gatherings in Belle Haven during the past six months, according to Mr. Schweigart, prompting complaints of "too many meetings," although residents seem pleased at the results. The events included three neighborhood cleanups and four community dialogues involving city staff, police officers and residents.
While Menlo Park has allocated $253,000 in funding for the first two years of the Belle Haven action plan, other community partners have chipped in as well: Facebook funded the full-time police officer position at the substation, and the Belle Haven Community Development fund awarded $13,000 in mini-grants to 18 residents, who proposed projects from improving the "curb appeal" of their homes and neighborhood to hosting events such as National Night Out.
The Rotary Club has come forward with a proposal to create a community garden, and Mr. Schweigart said the lease agreement should go to the council for approval in September.
Belle Haven resident Vicky Robledo said that thanks to all of the community engagement, she's "seeing neighbors become friends. ... We've had a lot of meetings and we've complained, but we've also developed a lot of relationships."
After listening to the update on the action plan during their Aug. 26 meeting, council members expressed their gratitude for the community's "inspiring" participation and hoped that the momentum continued.
The new and improved Belle Haven may even set the standard for other Menlo Park neighborhoods. Councilman Peter Ohtaki said he wants to replicate the action plan across the city to create that "sense of belonging" in every community.