Menlo Park dodges builder’s remedy with new housing plan

Approval blocks builder’s remedy projects aiming to bypass zoning rules

Menlo Park Dodges Builder’s Remedy with Housing Plan
From left: Menlo Park Councilwoman Jen Wolosin and N17 Development founder Oisin Heneghan along with 80 Willow Road in Menlo Park (Getty, N17 Development, LinkedIn, Embarcadero Capital Partner, Jen Wolosin)

State housing officials have approved a tardy housing plan for Menlo Park, allowing the city to thwart new builder’s remedy proposals aiming to bypass zoning rules.

California’s Department of Housing and Community Development gave conditional approval for the Peninsula city’s required plan to add nearly 3,000 homes by 2031, the Silicon Business Journal reported.

The conditions for a final certification for the housing element plan were not disclosed.

“For now, it’s a very good thing that we have a (conditionally) approved Housing Element,”  Councilwoman Jen Wolosin wrote in response to the states’s approval. “I am grateful for our city staff for getting this over the finish line.”

The plan, which was supposed to have been approved by Jan. 31, opened the city up to a legal loophole in state housing law known as the builder’s remedy, which allows developers to skirt local zoning rules in locales deemed to lack adequate affordable housing stock.

For cities and counties across the state without an approved housing plan, developers have opened the door to builder’s remedy proposals, preventing governments from denying housing construction projects even if they run afoul of local zoning and planning guidelines.

Such projects — largely untested in state courts, despite being on the books for three decades — face automatic approval as long as they contain at least 20 percent affordable housing for low-income households, or 100-percent affordable housing for moderate-income families.

The state housing department has certified housing plans in 354 out of 539 jurisdictions throughout the state.

Before Menlo Park’s approval, the state found four out of 21 local jurisdictions in San Mateo County — Brisbane, Burlingame, Redwood City and South San Francisco — to be in substantial compliance.

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The state requires cities within the county to plan for 47,312 homes by 2031 to keep up with population growth estimates. That includes 2,946 units in Menlo Park.

Portola Valley, San Mateo, Foster City, East Palo Alto and Daly City have recently filed housing drafts to the state. A plan submitted by Belmont was turned down last week.

Because of its tardy certification, Menlo Park gave developers a 10-month window in which to file builder’s remedy proposals, whose girth hasn’t gone over well with neighbors.

In July, N17 Development triggered the remedy for a 300-foot, mixed-use project at 80 Willow Road, the former site of Sunset Magazine. The proposal included up to 1,150 apartments, up to 280,000 square feet of offices, 150 hotel rooms and 8,400 square feet of shops and restaurants.

The firm led by Oisin Heneghan, a former executive at Dallas-based Trammell Crow, then trumped itself with new plans for 421-, 371- and 305-foot towers.

— Dana Bartholomew

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of cities that have gained state approval for their housing plans in San Mateo County.

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