Facebook's latest proposed project, which the company is calling "Willow Village," would be a 3.4 million-square-foot mixed-use complex on 59 acres in eastern Menlo Park southeast of the Dumbarton rail line and Willow Road.
The company proposes to build 1,500 housing units, nine office buildings, a grocery store, pharmacy, food and beverage retail space, a 200-room hotel and a culture/visitor's center; plus 5,319 parking spots and 18 acres of open space.
During a lengthy study session with the Menlo Park City Council on March 27, many preliminary questions were raised about the project, including a number of serious concerns about the proposed development's potential impacts to schools, traffic and the city's ratio of jobs to housing.
The event signaled the launch of what will likely be many such conversations. Because Councilwoman Kirsten Keith is out of the country, and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton is recused from Facebook-related matters, an immediate follow-up study session will be planned within the next couple of months, when Ms. Keith can attend.
In short, to quote Menlo Park Mayor Peter Ohtaki: "All the fun is just beginning."
Depending on who you ask, the proposed development will address some problems and worsen others. The company's proposal to build 1,500 housing units - 225 of which would be for rent below market rate - has been hailed by some as exemplary for taking the initiative as a tech company to build housing units. And during a presentation to the council, OMA Architecture partner Shohei Shigematsu said he thought the proposed development is unique because "the master plan and design is basically focused on providing great amenities for the community, which is quite rare for a master plan initiated by one company." But others in the community say the proposed development – Menlo Park's largest ever – comes with a slew of unanswered questions.
High school district apprehensive
Representatives from the Sequoia Union High School District and Menlo-Atherton High School – the public high school that would serve the residents of Facebook's proposed 1,500 new housing units – expressed frustration in public comment that they hadn't been consulted by Facebook on the project previously.
Over the last couple of weeks, District Superintendent Mary Streshly sent a letter to Facebook and the district did meet with officials from the company to discuss the proposed development.
Parents of students at Menlo-Atherton High School then launched a letter-writing campaign to urge Facebook to work with the district. District board president Chris Thomsen handed the council a stack of what he said were 166 signed copies of the petition. He said he thought the addition of new housing, especially affordable housing, could be helpful to recruit and retain teachers to the area, but that the potential downside of the project is school overcrowding.
The district's chief facility officer, Matthew Zito, said he's "wedged a building on every part of the property" at the high school campus and felt there is "no more room to develop" student space there.
Menlo-Atherton High School Principal Simone Kennel said 1,300, or more than half, of the 2,400 students who attend Menlo-Atherton High are Menlo Park residents. She asked the council, "Work with us. Don't forget about us. Remember that we're here."
"These are your students," she said. "The future cannot fall on the backs of parents to support."
Councilman Mueller expressed reservations about the proposed development because he said the city hadn't yet spent the time to figure out what infrastructure would be needed to support all the new workers and residents, and who would pay for that infrastructure - criticisms he's held since he opposed approving the city's general plan update in November 2016.
In public comment, former mayor Mickie Winkler recommended requiring a solid transportation plan before the development plan is approved. "I am not squeamish about development," she said. "I am squeamish about traffic."
One question councilman Rich Cline raised is: how seriously are Facebook officials talking with SamTrans about the Dumbarton Corridor?
The proposed development is right along the abandoned Dumbarton rail line that stretches from Redwood City to the East Bay. Facebook has funded a study by SamTrans that evaluates potential options to deal with congestion on the Dumbarton corridor. Reinvigorating the rail line is one such option. The company is reportedly in talks with the transit agency about some kind of partnership to speed up improvements to the rail corridor.
Facebook representative Lewis Knight told the council that the company "remains in conversations" with SamTrans and maintains a goal to "accelerate Dumbarton corridor mobility from Redwood City to the East Bay."
Romain Taniere and Luis Guzman of East Palo Alto asked that the council consider the needs of residents of Kavanaugh Drive in East Palo Alto, which borders the south side of the proposed development. Mr. Taniere recommended more sidewalks and ADA-compliant crosswalks be installed.
In addition to the other worries raised about potential impacts to the high school, Ms. Kennel noted that increased traffic can have a major impact on students' ability to get to school all over town. M-A students who live in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven already have to spend a lot of time on the bus getting to and from school, she said, and when it comes to local elementary schools, roads like Ringwood Avenue or Middlefield Road are already jammed at school drop-off and pick-up. "It can't get worse," she said.
Few discussed the problems Facebook is facing outside of Menlo Park as the company grapples with the public revelation that a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Cambridge Analytica, got access to more than 50 million Facebook users' private information.
Menlo Park resident Karen Porter was one to bring up the subject. "Facebook is simply not acting like a good corporate citizen," she said. "I believe now is not the time for business as usual."
Other questions, such as the following from Councilman Mueller, remained unanswered:
● What happens when more than one council member can't participate in Facebook-related council business? For instance, Councilwoman Carlton is recused from all Facebook matters for about a year, and, when the city transitions to district elections, there's a chance that the representative elected to the district east of U.S. 101 might live too close to vote on the matter.
● Will the proposed development worsen the city's jobs-housing balance?
● How many trips will be generated from the development?
Some raised concerns about Menlo Park becoming a "company town." Resident Jennifer Wolosin asked that the city consider "life after Facebook," and recommended the council "make sure this development can outlive Facebook if needed." Herbert Stone suggested Facebook simply start its own city.
"Another concern, raised in public comment by Britt von Thaden, is that there are reportedly parts of the project area that cannot be developed for residential use until environmental contaminants on site are mitigated. Facebook Director of Campus Facilities Fergus O'Shea acknowledged this, and said the company is developing a mitigation plan for the contaminants. According to Vice President of Global Facilities and Real Estate John Tenanes, the area was initially used as a manufacturing site for Hiller helicopters.
City planner Kyle Perata said that staff is aware of the problem and that it will be studied further during the environmental review process. A fiscal impact analysis is also planned for the project.
The next step in the process is the start of the proposed development's environmental review, which begins with what's called the release of a "notice of preparation." After that is released, which is expected to occur in mid-April, the public will have a chance to give feedback on what potential environmental impacts they'd like to see evaluated in an extensive environmental impact report.
A spokesperson from Facebook responded to this story with the following written statement on March 28: "We’re working with the community to ensure our presence is a benefit. We know the community wants housing as part of Willow Village and we’re discussing how to mitigate any impact of that development with public officials."