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Menlo Park's District 3 candidates propose unconventional fixes for city's woes

The three candidates running for Menlo Park's District 3 City Council seat are Jen Wolosin, Chelsea Nguyen and Max Fennell. Photos by Mark Tuschman (left) and Magali Gauthier (middle and right).

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.

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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.

Housing

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."

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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.

Speeding

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.

Watch the League of Women Voters forum here and the Menlo Together forum here.

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Menlo Park's District 3 candidates propose unconventional fixes for city's woes

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Thu, Oct 8, 2020, 11:30 am

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.

Watch the League of Women Voters forum here and the Menlo Together forum here.

Comments

Jen Wolosin
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 8, 2020 at 11:48 am
Jen Wolosin, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 11:48 am

Thank you to The Almanac for continuing to cover this important election. All housing options must be on the table. It would be premature to recommend any one solution, or to rule anything out before the next Housing Element (Web Link which includes a robust public outreach process, even begins. Because of state mandates (Web Link Menlo Park, like all other cities in the region, will be required to zone for a tremendous increase in housing units. We'll need to come together and figure out how to accomplish this.

For those interested more in this topic, I am hosting a Q&A about Housing and Menlo Park on Sunday (10/11 at 5pm). RSVP here: Web Link


Logan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2020 at 12:38 pm
Logan, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 12:38 pm

@jenwolosin thank you for commenting on this thread. It is very important voters understand what your advocating. I am concerned you just started to share these ideas at the end of the election.

In the article you are reported as saying, "the city should look at allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family areas." You are quoted as saying the city SHOULD do so.

You are also quoted as saying, "No neighborhood should undergo radical change and no neighborhood should be exempt from change," noting the idea came from Strong Towns, a national urban development nonprofit. You just wrote it's premature to rule "anything" out in the next housing element.

Do you believe if you are elected, that means voters in District 3 share your belief that the City SHOULD look at allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family home zoned areas?

Being more specific, you say no neighborhood should be exempt?

Would Felton Gables be exempt from your proposal that the City should look at duplexes or triplexes rezoning in single family home zoned areas?

Would Vintage Oaks be exempt from your proposal that the City should look at duplexes and triplexes rezoning in single family home zoned areas?

Would Linfield Oaks be exempt from your proposal that the City should look at duplexes and triplexes rezoning in single family home zone areas?

Do you subscribe to Strong Towns other ideas, such as those found on their blog, that apartment dwellers inequitably subsidize single family home owners, and that the "Suburban Experiment" is a failed Ponzi scheme?

Web Link

Web Link


Logan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2020 at 12:48 pm
Logan, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 12:48 pm

@jenwolosin do either or both of the two groups you are holding your housing forum with on October 11th advocate for the elimination of single family home zoning?


Lynne Bramlett
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:02 pm
Lynne Bramlett, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:02 pm

The next Housing Element Update Advisory Committee gives a major developer a seat as as "public benefit." That would be David Bohonnon.

According to provision 5.13 in the Menlo Gateway Developer Agreement Ordinance No. 971 (Menlo Gateway), “Developer [David Bohonnon] agrees to participate in a resident advisory committee to assist City in identifying future housing sites within the City when the city updates the Housing Element of the General Plan or if the City decides to create such a Committee. Such participation shall include utilizing its contacts within the commercial brokerage community to assist the City's efforts as well as such other expertise as many be reasonable in assisting the City to locate and identify land that may be available for housing sites.”

I have a 'clean copy" of Ordinance No. 971 but I was unable to find one today at the City's website. My copy of Ordinance No 971 was approved by four Council members on June 22, 2010 and signed by the then City Clerk.

Ordinance No. 971 is listed in the City's Ordinance table (found by googling Municipal Code and going to the end) but there is no link to specifics. The title is also extremely vague. Ordinance 971 should also be available at the Menlo Gateway page. I see a link to the Developer Agreement, but this document is different than the details in Ordinance 971. Web Link

I believe that Bohonnon had a seat on the last Housing Element Update Advisory Committee. (That would be the one where MP had to be sued by East Palo Alto to take action.) He also had a seat on the Connect Menlo Advisory Committee where he helped to oversee zoning decisions in the Belle Haven (M2) area where he was a major property owner. Apparently his presence was not viewed as a conflict of interest despite the Bohannon Company gaining materially due to the Connect Menlo zoning decisions.

I would like to see the District 3 Council candidates discuss their opinions regarding the role of developers, especially major property owners, in Menlo Park's land use decisions. I've done some research and I see no other City adding developers to Housing Element Update Committees. Of course, my data set is limited but still...

More transparency into the City's developer agreements are also needed via an annual holistic report on them all to Council. I found the Ordinance No. 971 when I was working on a holistic draft report for all the development agreements. Once done, I planned to first share this with the Finance & Audit Committee and then discuss next steps. My "best practice model" was one from the City of Santa Monica. Unfortunately, I got busy with other matters but I could certainly return to my draft, as Council might like and as my time permits.

The Planning Commision reviews compliance with the developer agreements, individually, but there (so far) is no holistic annual Menlo Park report on outstanding developer agreements. One is needed, so that Council can make more informed decisions on these topics. I also suggest that these be reviewed by the FAC, if that is not currently a practice.


Long Time Resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:17 pm
Long Time Resident, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:17 pm

@Lynne Bramlett You raise an excellent point. Thank you.

Should we also explore limiting the number of members who belong to a single advocacy group?

Diversity of thought is important, especially when making longterm decisions.


Long Time Resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:18 pm
Long Time Resident, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:18 pm

@ JenWolosin Thank you for engaging in the comments.

"Listening" to the community is not the same as representing the views of the community. Menlo Together still lists you as a member. Will you join council to use your vote to advance this group's advocacy, or to represent District 3 constituents?


Bob McGrew
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:53 pm
Bob McGrew, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:53 pm

@Logan - I'm a resident of Vintage Oaks, and I support allowing duplexes or triplexes here. In fact, Vintage Oaks already contains several duplexes and I live next door to one!

When the development was built, several homes were set up as duplexes. They look fairly similar to most other homes, except with a front and back unit and a long driveway to allow entry into both garages. Contrary to what you might be afraid of, I haven't noticed any meaningful impacts to noise, parking, traffic, or other issues. In fact, the neighbors are both wonderful and it's been a pleasure living next to both of them.

If other houses in the neighborhood were re-developed as duplexes, I doubt I would notice the difference.

The state of California now requires localities to allow "accessory dwelling units", including junior ADUs, which I believe are quite similar to duplexes. Allowing homeowners to build two or three smaller units on a lot instead of maxing out their lot with one large house isn't particularly radical or an elimination of single-family zoning - it just seems like a simple, pleasant way to moderate California's housing crisis without requiring major changes to any neighborhood.


Bob McGrew
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm
Bob McGrew, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm

To the larger point, we have a serious housing crisis in California. For the moment, it's being hidden by the pandemic, but as we move past the pandemic in the next year, it will return in force. We have a robust economy in California, which many of us residents are benefiting from, but we have the strictest laws preventing housing development of any state in the union, and the result is skyrocketing prices.

The increasing prices we've seen in the last couple decades since I moved to California mean that cities like Menlo Park are already very different from what they looked like when I moved here. If we don't make some changes - and developing housing on some of these large lots and allowing gentle changes to the housing stock in our existing neighborhoods are two pretty moderate ones - we're going to see that process continue and we won't like the results.

Let's try to keep Menlo Park a welcoming place for people to raise families!


Caryn Wasserstein
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:05 pm
Caryn Wasserstein, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:05 pm

I’m saddened to see that the comments here are reflective of semantics vs issues. Based on what I have read, candidate Wolosin said that (when read as a whole) she believes the City “should explore” all options as they relate to housing in MP. She did not say MP should build housing of one type or another in one type of neighborhood or another. Exploring all options is wise and prudent. It makes sense in virtually all aspects of our lives, serious or benign: should I take one doctors opinion or should I explore a second and third opinion before I decide what treatment is best or needed. Should I send my kids to school before a vaccine or should I explore what may happen with their learning if I wait until there is a vaccine for Covid 19. Should I make hamburgers for dinner tonight because that’s what I want or should I explore recipes for fast spaghetti and meatballs because then my kids will be happiest.

Since when have our city’s citizens decided that not exploring all options as part of a decision is not important? Are the other candidates planning to make their decisions without exploration? Thank you @jenwolosin for letting us know that as a member of City Council you believe the Council should explore all options before making decisions.


Logan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2020 at 3:09 pm
Logan, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 3:09 pm

I haven’t said whether what @jenwolosin is saying is right or wrong. I just think it’s not clear. Can she answer instead of everyone else trying to answer for her? She is the candidate.


Logan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2020 at 3:42 pm
Logan, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 3:42 pm

A bunch of “likes” from a special interest group really isn’t that impressive. @jenwolosin you can clear this all up just by saying directly you don’t support eliminating single family home zoning and will look at duplexes and triplexes in single family home zoned areas on a project by project basis? Is that right? Or are you saying the City Council should look at eliminating single family home zoning all together?


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Oct 8, 2020 at 8:46 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2020 at 8:46 pm

Wolosin simply wants to have a full discussion on how the city deals with the housing issue and you can only have a full discussion if you keep every option on the table.

Very reasonable and very responsible.


Kevin
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 9, 2020 at 11:01 pm
Kevin, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 9, 2020 at 11:01 pm

@Logan,
Maybe you hadn’t noticed, but Vintage Oaks was built with a bunch of embedded duplexes, though far fewer than the developer promised to the Seminary when the land was sold. The rest of the city could learn from that experiment in affordable housing, and avoid all the fear-mongering that you seem to want gen up.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Oct 10, 2020 at 12:18 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Oct 10, 2020 at 12:18 pm

I urge people to look at Park Forest. We have a much higher density than almost any non-apartment area in the city but the townhouse configuration with shared common space is a wonderful arrangement. It is like a European village. And notably it was built before the area was incorporated into the city and as a consequence it is "non-conforming". If other areas were zoned to the "Park Forest standard" hundreds of new single family homes could be added to our community with no loss of amenities.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Oct 10, 2020 at 8:46 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Oct 10, 2020 at 8:46 pm

More about Park Forest:


Web Link


Logan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 11, 2020 at 7:37 am
Logan, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 11, 2020 at 7:37 am

If a developer buys a house next to mine and wants to tear it down and build a triplex I think it’s fair to me and my neighbors that the decision should go through the City Planning Commission. If @jenwolosin is considering changing zoning so the developer can do that without going to the Planning Commission by changing the zoning, I think it’s a fair question for me to ask and get a straight answer to the question.
It doesn’t make me a fear monger, or any other names people want to call me, to want an answer given her comments reported in the Almanac and the Daily Post. I am not saying we shouldn’t have duplexes and triplexes. But the difference is whether @jenwolosin is proposing changing the rules so a developer can build them without the current planning rules. If @jenwolosin is open to changing rules this way, can she herself clarify it?


Long Time Resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 11, 2020 at 5:58 pm
Long Time Resident, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Oct 11, 2020 at 5:58 pm

@ Logan

Please send her an email and let us know what you learn.


Kevin
Registered user
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Oct 11, 2020 at 9:30 pm
Kevin, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
Registered user
on Oct 11, 2020 at 9:30 pm

@Logan,
You do realize that with the recent city and state laws, any neighbor or developer can essentially build a triplex next to you without any review ? We recently had a developer buy a home next to one of our properties, essentially add a extra floor for an JADU and add an ADU in the corner of the lot, all with expedited permits, non-confirming setbacks and no planning review. So your neighbor can already build that duplex or triplex without any approvals or review on your part. Methinks thou doth protest too much.


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