A small non-profit elementary and junior high school is pushing the City of Menlo Park to sell a piece of vacant land adjacent to it, which has long been set aside for affordable housing. But the City Council shot that down Tuesday night.
Richard Jacobsen, chairman of Beechwood School on Terminal Avenue, is pressing officials to consider his foundation's efforts to buy the lot, after a Habitat for Humanity project to build 22 units on it ran into staunch community opposition.
Jacobsen sent an e-mail to city staff on Tuesday before the council met to present them with his position on the issue.
"Our proposal for purchase of the site has always been that we are willing to pay full market value," Jacobsen stated. "We remain willing to do that."
At Tuesday's study session, however, the council displayed little interest in the offer and stuck to its original plan to dedicate roughly $2 million from its below market rate housing fund to the Habitat project.
A developer struck a deal with the city to pay for the Habitat project a few years ago, rather than build the city's mandated number of below-market units in project.
Vice Mayor Heyward Robinson said selling the land is a non-starter and convinced his cohorts to create a subcommittee tasked with moving the affordable housing project forward.
"I don't think we've made any progress," Robinson said. "I don't think we've really moved this forward."
Habitat's project has been in limbo since neighbors on Terminal Avenue, along with the Belle Haven Homeowner's Association, came out against any high-density housing there, including Habitat's proposal. They have sided with Beechwood's proposal to buy the land and build a new campus, Matt Henry, BHH Association President, said in a phone interview.
At the meeting, Henry told the council the entire process seems lopsided, as if the community of Belle Haven doesn't have a say.
"We just don't understand," Henry told the council. "This is just a no-brainer for us."
As the project stagnated, the global non-profit Habitat for Humanity got tougher with the city and gave it an Oct. 15 sink or swim ultimatum two months ago.
Habitat's regional director for greater San Francisco, Philip Kildridge, sent the same message Tuesday night.
"What we are asking for is your direction," Kilbridge said. "Lacking it -- no offense to you -- means we have to move on. We need to either fish or cut bait."
During the meeting, he said council's decision to form a subcommittee was adequate action and that it could help diffuse the complicated situation between the city, Beechwood, Habitat and the neighbors.
"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I have enormous respect for Beechwood. It's a great school."
Beechwood did not have a representative at the meeting, but Tuesday afternoon Principal Dave Laurance laid out the logic behind buying the land. He said he and the board have wanted to build a permanent campus for years. They rent their current land from the city — albeit for a dollar per year — and the school can't raise money for the improvements, he said. He said the school is ready to buy their existing land or the adjacent land.
"The school is getting better and better every year," Laurance said. "These temporary buildings are aging and our teachers want to do more. They need more space — and we can't expand until we own the land."
A major sticking point has been the perceived market-value of the parcel. Laurance said the school has tried several times to buy the existing campus, but the city's asking price has been way above-market value.
Mayor Richard Cline said he recalled the city's assessment at $900,000 and Beechwood's at $300,000. The value assessed value of the land Habitat plans to build on was not immediately available.
"I think there are serious issues between what we and what Beechwood see as fair market value," Cline said.
The council did not set a date for the subcommittee's first meeting.