Meta is offering a more than quarter-billion dollar package of community benefits for its massive Willow Village development. But the Menlo Park City Council questioned if the proposal is the best way to spend the money at its May 24 meeting, with council member Betsy Nash taking a skeptical view of the benefits.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has plans to build an ambitious development that includes 1.6 million square feet of offices, a 4.6-acre retail campus, a town square and publicly accessible park in the Belle Haven neighborhood. The main development would be built along Willow Road between Hamilton Avenue and Ivy Drive across 59 acres, according to the application. While there has been some scrutiny of the plans to build over the site of a buried Native American village, the project is moving through the planning process with proposals for community amenities for Belle Haven.
Along with the offices, the project would include 1,730 residential units and a 193-room hotel. Over 15% of residential units are to be offered at below market rate to satisfy both the city's inclusionary housing policy and commercial development requirements, according to Meta's application.
Meta is required to provide $133.3 million in community amenities, according to Menlo Park's ConnectMenlo initiative, but the amenities offered by Meta are valued at over $267 million according to the city and over $295 million according to Meta.
One of those amenities is a grocery store, something the Belle Haven neighborhood has long requested. However, Nash noted that the grocery store was not a full-service grocery store as advertised, but rather a pre-built grocery store space. While the rent of the space would be subsidized for two years, there is no promise that a tenant will move in and stay in operation. The grocery store space is valued by Meta and the city at over $30 million, while the rent subsidy is valued at around $2 million.
"We believe that (Meta) expects that an operating grocery store will come in," Nash said. "We do too, but we don't know that it will be there long term."
Ten residents who spoke at the meeting heavily supported the grocery store. One Menlo Park resident, Nicholas Pataki, said he wanted a more easily accessible grocery store for him and his family.
"The grocery store is just an absolute must for us," Pataki said. "It's not that we're a food desert per se, but having to move to drive to East Palo Alto or kind of deal with Willow (Road) and get into west Menlo Park ... it's always felt like a pretty big oversight, as someone who's invested and raising a family here in the neighborhood."
However, some residents shared similar fears to the council regarding the staying power of a grocery store. Resident Lynne Bramlett pointed to grocery store proposals in Palo Alto that have lost momentum over the years.
"I think the wording of the grocery store, the space (and) the rent subsidy is a red flag," Bramlett said.
Another major community benefit is a 2-acre elevated park proposed to cross Willow Road. The park would include public access for pedestrians and bicycles and a safe crossing over Willow in addition to a tunnel for bikes and pedestrians. The elevated park is valued at over $133 million, which would fulfill the required cost of community benefits on its own. The tunnel is valued at over $35 million according to Meta, but just $22 million, according to the city.
Some council members believed that amenities such as the park, even while carrying large price tags, didn't fulfill the required job of serving the community. They suggested that some of these amenities aimed to serve future Meta employees instead of residents already living in Belle Haven.
"To count toward bonus level development, the amenity must actually provide value to the impacted bayfront residents," Nash said. "Most amenities proposed here primarily benefit the proposed project's new residents, its commercial tenants, Meta and its employees and visitors. It would be a mistake to attribute full community benefit value to those amenities."
But some residents came out in support of the park. Resident Arvind Chari said that Belle Haven deserved not just functional items, but beautiful ones as well.
"We don't just need basics here," said Chari. "We need to see ourselves as a community, a part of Menlo Park that deserves services that are at or above par with the other parts of the community."
Council member Jen Wolosin said that while beauty is important to a community, it's also important to analyze what can count as a community amenity when working with hundreds of millions of dollars, and make sure there are live-work-play amenities.
"I think we can all agree that the concept of the elevated park ... we can all get really excited about," Wolosin said. "But again looking at what was asked for versus what was delivered ... and trying to kind of distill a little bit more of how we value the benefit as defined."
Other offered amenities include a dog park, a bank, a pharmacy, job training programs, a mobile market and two years of rent subsidies for 22 teachers in the 777 Hamilton apartment complex.
Menlo Uptown traffic improvements
Another topic discussed at the May 24 council meeting was a right-turn pocket on eastbound Willow Road, at the intersection with Gilbert Avenue, as a part of the ongoing Menlo Uptown development. Wolosin argued that adding the pocket may benefit drivers but would create problems for pedestrians, while council member Drew Combs favored the turn lane, saying that adding it would negate traffic issues and allow for shorter waiting times for drivers. He opposed the idea that it would be unsafe.
The Menlo Uptown project was cleared to continue by the council in an effort to prevent delays, but the council members are expected to discuss the intersection again at a future date.