In two virtual candidate forums held over the past week, Menlo Park's three District 3 candidates were invited to hash out their positions on key policy issues impacting residents.
The three candidates seeking the City Council seat are Chelsea Nguyen, a U.S. Air Force veteran and project manager at Cisco; Max Fennell, a professional triathlete and coffee entrepreneur; and Jen Wolosin, founder of Parents for Safe Routes. The district includes a section of Menlo Park bounded between Palo Alto and Atherton, stretching southwest to Crane Street and northeast to the VA property off of Willow Road. It includes the Civic Center, the Caltrain station and the neighborhoods of Vintage Oaks, Linfield Oaks and Felton Gables, among other areas.
During a candidate forum hosted Sept. 30 by the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County, the candidates spoke about their policy ideas and priorities should they win. At a second forum scheduled Saturday, Oct. 3, Fennell and Nguyen announced that they would not participate, alleging that the advocacy organization hosting the forum, Menlo Together, was too politically aligned with Wolosin, a former member of the group who quit near the end of June. Menlo Together invited a representative from The Almanac to moderate the debate, but the editor was unavailable.
Candidates aligned in broad strokes on a number of topics, but had different perspectives on how to bring about the changes they said are needed in Menlo Park.
Read The Almanac's voter guide stories on each candidate here.
While the other candidates generally expressed positions that The Almanac has previously reported on, in the forums, Wolosin came forward with two unconventional policy positions. She said that the city should explore zoning changes to permit duplexes and triplexes in single-family zoned areas, and that it should set a maximum speed limit of 25 miles per hour citywide.
Several questions posed in the League of Women Voters forum focused on the topic of affordable housing – how can the city get more of it built, and where?
Nguyen and Wolosin said they both favor increasing the percentage of below-market-rate housing developers are required to build or pay for to greater than 15%.
Fennell said he favors stepping back even further and starting out by defining affordable housing, looking at what renter households like his can actually afford.
"Where is the solution going to come from if you're not directly affected by this?" he asked. "That's why we need to elect someone who understands what we're going through."
As for where to build, Wolosin said the city should look in all areas of Menlo Park for places to develop more housing – including large sites like the USGS campus, which is soon to be vacated, as well as the area near the Safeway shopping center in Sharon Heights.
In addition to large sites, she said, the city should look at allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family areas. State law already permits up to three housing units on a single-family lot, counting a main house, a detached accessory dwelling unit and a garage or attic conversion, she noted.
"No neighborhood should undergo radical change and no neighborhood should be exempt from change," she said, noting the idea came from Strong Towns, a national urban development nonprofit.
Fennell said he favors working first to figure out how to get existing vacant and designated "luxury" apartments occupied by talking to developers and property managers.
The middle class is shrinking, Nguyen said, because the city doesn't have cheap housing for them; housing development skews toward luxury development instead, she said.
The Menlo Together forum, in which only Wolosin participated, posed the following three-part question: Would you support setting speed limits to a maximum of 25 mph citywide? Would you support setting design standards to gradually redesign streets to support 25 mph speeds? And would you support the city joining other cities in advocating for changes to the state's 85th percentile law, which sets speed limits based on the speed at which 85% of drivers travel?
To all three questions, Wolosin responded with a yes.
"Right now, the injury rate and fatality rate of people who are hit by a car walking or biking is exponentially higher when speeds are higher," she said. "Someone who comes into contact with a vehicle traveling 40 mph or higher has a much greater likelihood of being seriously injured or killed than somebody hit by a car traveling at 30 or 20 mph."
She added that under state law, there is a rule that says that cities can't enforce speed limits more than 5 miles per hour slower than how fast cars generally travel on the roads. "I do not agree with this at all," she said. "It incentivizes the wrong driving behavior." Despite the law, she said, she favors setting up signs saying the city's speed limit is 25 miles per hour even though it's not enforceable, to promote safe driving. She also said she favored road designs that make the road look less open to further slow drivers.