"Menlo Together," a new group of local residents, has formed to provide more education to the public and support for advocates interested in addressing city problems.
Menlo Together describes itself as a group of "Menlo Park and Peninsula residents who envision a city that is integrated and diverse, multi-generational, and environmentally sustainable." It's made up of many familiar figures who are among a set of council meeting "regulars."
"We're engaged citizens," explained Courtney Pal, who is working as a Menlo Together organizer. "We wanted to learn about issues together, and support each other's issues together for a more equitable Menlo Park."
Instead of approaching the council with comments from each of their respective expert topic areas – which can be roughly summed up as the city's lack of affordable housing, its chronic traffic and dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, its environmental sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions, and its inequity between residents on one side of U.S. 101 and the other – group members are seeking to learn from fellow members who are experts in other areas to understand the combined impacts of those problems on the city.
The key groups involved so far are: Parents for Safe Routes, Belle Haven Action, Friends of Caltrain, the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, Menlo Spark, and TransForm.
"We formed Menlo Together to elevate conversations on the key issues of housing, transportation and sustainability in our community," the organization's members say in a written statement.
Menlo Together will host its first event, a public forum for Menlo Park City Council candidates, on Monday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. in the Juniper Room of the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, 700 Alma St. It will be moderated by Renee Batti, editor at The Almanac.
All candidates have been invited and all but one had confirmed attendance as of Sept. 19, Pal said. In addition to the core groups that are part of Menlo Together, co-sponsors of the event are Youth United for Community Action, Nuestra Casa, Imagine Menlo, Radical Resilience: Silicon Valley, Cafe Zoe, the Belle Haven Neighborhood Association, and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.
RSVP for the event by Sunday, Sept. 30 here.
How it started
The group got its start months ago when several of the "regulars" met for dinner one night before a public meeting.
They began to discuss how deeply interconnected the problems of housing and transportation are in Menlo Park, and how those are tied to broader problems of environmental sustainability and equity on both sides of U.S. 101 in Menlo Park.
One example: Economic inequality in the community leads low-income people to seek housing that's more affordable elsewhere in some cases, very far away and then to commute here, which clogs roadways and increases greenhouse gas emissions.
As these factors played out in different ways in Menlo Park, advocates realized that many of the problems can be addressed by boosting the amount of affordable housing downtown, near transit. As Menlo Park begins its review of the downtown specific plan, advocates see this as a good time to develop an integrated policy platform across topic areas.
"We need to really make progress on transportation in order to have the job and housing growth happen in a way that is really effective," said Adina Levin, who is with Friends of Caltrain.
Menlo Together is funded by Menlo Park resident Karen Grove through a $40,000 grant from a discretionary, donor-advised fund. Grove is a city housing commissioner and the chair of the Grove Foundation. The grant should fund Menlo Together through December, Grove said.
A key reason she decided to fund Menlo Together through the foundation is that while she believed some people might be willing to work for free, she wanted people compensated for their work. Nonprofit workers, and especially women, often aren't compensated for all the work they do, she said.
After the candidate forum, the group plans to host events for the public to learn more about CASA, which is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's regional housing initiative, and "healthy mobility, access and parking for downtown Menlo Park," according to an organization flyer.