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Menlo Park Downtown Specific Plan – The Forgotten Issue

By Raymond Mueller

On Monday, June 6, the Menlo Park Planning Commission will take up and discuss the Menlo Park Downtown Specific Plan Environmental Impact Report.

The document, hundreds of pages long, touches upon many issues, including but not limited to aesthetics, air quality, noise, population and housing, land use, and of particular note, traffic. For months the EIR has been the subject of much debate in the local papers, framing the discussion of whether the Plan should proceed. And while all of the issues covered in the EIR are relevant, and deserving of discussion, there is however one issue noticeably absent from the document:

What effect will the Downtown Specific Plan have on existing single family home property values in Menlo Park? 

A word search reveals that the term “property value” appears only once in the EIR , while the term “property values” does not appear at all.  This probably should not be surprising as the Downtown Specific Plan’s effect on existing single family home property values is an indirect effect not required to be covered in an EIR under CEQA laws.

Concerned whether the City was going to examine the issue, this week I contacted the City’s staff and inquired whether the issue would be covered in any future analysis of the Downtown Specific Plan. Staff informed me that while the City was also preparing a Fiscal Impact Report, to measure how the development would affect the City’s General Fund, that report would not incorporate an analysis of the Plan’s effect on existing home values. 

Frankly, the City should reconsider examining this important issue. Those of us who are interested in City politics can argue amongst ourselves to our heart’s content about 13,000 new cars on the road, the importance of placing housing near transit, the benefits of mixed use zoning, etc. But at the end of the day there is a large majority of people in this City who are just plain busy, working hard to provide for their families, and struggling to hold on to what they have been able to build through this Great Recession. Many have refinanced or restructured mortgages. Others have found themselves forced to downsize their homes. A large number of families fear finding their homes underwater, in a stagnant housing market. That the process does not include an analysis, that considers the Downtown Specific Plan’s effect on existing single family homes property values, is misguided.

There are multiple academic studies that have been conducted with respect to the effect of mixed used zoning and high density housing development on existing single family home property values. As one might expect, different studies have reached different conclusions, depending on the development analyzed. There ought to be some component of our City’s process that includes a report containing a review isolating what factors, identified in academic studies, in high density developments contribute positively or negatively to existing home values. Thereafter an analysis should be conducted to determine how the Downtown Specific Plan measures up to what the latest research tell us. The Public, the Planning Commission, and City Council, can review the report to ensure it’s objectivity. The analysis obviously won’t resolve all politically charged issues like traffic, street configuration, noise, parking, land use, population growth etc. But at the end of the day, the conclusions reached in the analysis might bring us, as a community, a little bit closer to consensus, and decrease the possibility that the end result of the Downtown Specific Plan will negatively affect home values.

Martin Engel June 06, 2011 at 01:13 PM
Menlo Park, you're in for it. The Downtown project was described by Ray Mueller as a major traffic generator. Guess what? So is the Stanford Medical project that will dump 11,000 daily car trips into our charming, calm, quiet town. Oh, wait. Facebook intends to expand to 10,000 employees. They will be driving. Bohannon's Gateway Project also will offer us the pleasure of over 10,000 daily car trips. Then, the 12,000 unit Cargill has not gone away. It's on again, off again. More cars. Cars; smog; gridlock; shorter tempers; more fender benders. Enjoy, Menlo Park. And, I can't resist. All this anticipated traffic WILL NOT be cured by a high-speed train to Los Angeles.
Jon June 06, 2011 at 04:35 PM
I don't think any in depth analysis needs to be done to figure out if the plan is good for property values, it's pretty straightforward, if the plan is successful in creating a more vibrant & desirable downtown, then housing values will go up. As a local resident who's not even close to being able to afford a home in Menlo, I have to admit that I am surprised to learn that Menlo homeowners even have such concerns. I guess it's all relative. I appreciate the article, and who knows, maybe if I was a homeowner I would be agreeing with you :)
Jacob June 06, 2011 at 06:47 PM
Wow. Jon, I really have to disagree with you. I am a property owner in Menlo Park and I am really concerned about all the development that is scheduled to take place all over the City. For decades our city has been really conservative about growth. Because of it, I personally think Menlo Park is a great place to live. My guess is you do to or you wouldn't live here. I don't know how it happened but a City Council we put in to protect our community has put more development on the books than any other Council before it. I feel really bad for the young families in Menlo Park, because the City where they raise their kids is going to be vastly different than the one ours enjoyed. Most of them have paid a fortune to live here and aren't paying attention to the details of what the City Council is doing. I think this guy Mueller is right on. It's not much to ask given how much the City is proposing changing. It's amazing to think this City spent a million dollars on an EIR that looks at how birds nests will be affected that live near the Bay, but is not going to study how my home value will be affected. Remember too that property values directly relate to schools. When schools become overcrowded, property values drop. So our downtown needs a facelift? Then give it a facelift, don't change the town by putting five story high density housing on El Camino.
Matthew Harris June 06, 2011 at 10:57 PM
The key to successful future growth is taking an incremental approach. Maybe a four-story limit would be better as an incremental step towards high density. The big issue is population growth. Remember what the curve looks like?! Seems like we here in Menlo would be better citizens of the Bay Area region if we reach out to those who will be employed at major employers in the area and offer more affordable housing opportunities locally in the Mid Peninsula area. Transit planning, such as a future light rail to Fremont, is good. But increasing density downtown might be a reasonable compromise with the drivers of the increased traffic noted by Martin above.

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