Menlo Park can go one of two ways, said Tom Jackson, Menlo Park resident. Private developers can build high-density housing, or residents can add little rental homes in their back yards.
“We have millions and millions of dollars of land in this city that isn’t being utilized,” Jackson said, as we walked through freshly laid dirt in back his yard toward his new cottage.
Tom spent seven months filing paperwork with the city of Menlo Park, so could build a 600-square foot home in his back yard. It is an energy efficient, top-of-the line home, he said, noting that he did all the design work himself.
“I followed all the rules,” Jackson said. “It was arduous and expensive,” he said. It took four months to build the home.
For the past 12 years, Jackson has been building homes in the Willows neighborhood.
This year, the city of Menlo Park started creating new land use laws that allow builders to place “affordable” housing within city borders. Housing advocates threatened to sue the city for not having enough housing to accommodate the people who are employed in town. The state mandates that as a city welcomes new businesses into town, it must at minimum rezone land to accommodate housing for the employees who will work there. Menlo Park had not done so since 1992.
If the lawsuit had gone to court, the state could have frozen all building permit distribution, which at the time would have included the permits for Facebook’s new campus in the Belle Haven neighborhood.
The city settled and agreed to update its general plan. A city advisory board is rezoning land to find space for more than 1,000 new homes. It is counting some existing properties into the tally.
Homes such as Tom’s new cottage, which are referred to by the city as “secondary dwelling units” are not likely to be included, given the amount that he could charge for the home.
“I haven’t tested the market,” he said. “With Facebook about a mile away, I could probably charge about $2,500-$3,000 a month for it,” he said, noting that homes in his neighborhood usually cost about $800 a square foot.
Homes for sale in the Willows neighborhood are listed for as low as $850,000 and as high as $4.4 million on zillow.com, a property appraisal website.
Andy Cohen is a Menlo Park City Council Member who is also on the city’s Housing Element Update Steering Committee. The Committee is tasked with writing the new housing section of the general plan. Cohen said Menlo Park's new housing element could be a model for other cities facing similar conditions: projected population growth and no more available land.
“Economic realities require radical change, and on a recent tour of our neighborhoods I identified several substandard city owned lots that could easily accommodate small dwellings, as well as several underutilized privately owned properties that could be zoned in this innovative manner,” Cohen said.
“County leaders have expressed support for this concept, and architects and contractors have come forward offering to create experimental models. Residents can make a big difference by speaking out in favor of these innovative ideas,” he added.
Cohen said that in his opinion seven months was an unreasonable amount of time to spend on paperwork when the original plan is the one ultimately approved, as was the case with Jackson’s cottage. It is not clear how many secondary dwelling units exist in Menlo Park, although their presence is apparent to multiple Planning and Housing Commissioners. Many builders have constructed them illegally. It may be this paperwork process that prevented them from properly documenting their properties.
Menlo Park's Planning Commission will be discussing the Housing Element Update at 7 p.m. in located at 701 Laurel St., on October 15.
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