EPA not yet ready to ‘unfriend’ Facebook

Feb. 17, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

In December, Facebook relocated its headquarters from Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto to the former headquarters of Sun Microsystems at 1601 Willow Road in Menlo Park. In the coming year, the social networking company plans to expand its campus and seeks to amend the existing conditional development permit in Menlo Park by increasing the existing employee cap to roughly 6,600 employees, concerning neighbor East Palo Alto. This article presents East Palo Alto’s concerns. Please see our separate article in today’s issue that deals with Menlo Park’s responses to the proposed expansion here.


Though the city of East Palo Alto has expressed concerns about Facebook’s proposed expansion in neighboring Menlo Park, city officials and some residents said they believe the social networking company’s growth will positively affect the area. Other officials and members of the public, however, continue to express sentiments that the city of Menlo Park has not adequately heard or addressed their worries.


Menlo Park has drafted an environmental impact report for the expansion, but East Palo Alto representatives said they feel the effects on their community have not been adequately addressed.


“The draft did not include some mitigation measures that could help,” said East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Ruben Abrica. “Maybe the city cannot solve the entire problem, but there are some areas [in which] it can definitely improve the situation.”


The East Palo Alto City Council discussed issues with the expansion and brainstormed possible solutions with members of the public at a regular council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 14.


Concerns in EPA

Because the commute route of many of the more than 7,000 new Facebook employees would run through East Palo Alto, most of city’s concerns regard transportation–including automobile, bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Health issues due to toxic emissions are also under consideration.


According to Abrica, traffic along University Avenue, the main thoroughfare for approaching the Facebook headquarters from the south, will be one of the most impacted areas.


Menlo Park’s impact report places more emphasis on Willow Road, which runs parallel to University Avenue along the border between East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.


“Our concern is that the side streets around University in our neighborhoods are going to be impacted,” Abrica said. “It’s going to make them more unsafe, there’s going to be more congestion and overall it’s going to impact the health and safety of our local residents.”


Improvements for bicycle transportation were also not addressed to the extent the East Palo Alto community would have liked, Abrica added. Since Facebook is urging its employees to commute by bike, Abrica said he feels that this type of transportation needs to be made safer and smoother.


In favor of collaboration

In January, East Palo Alto considered suing Facebook over the expansion, but the city has decided not to take this approach.


Abrica said that a lawsuit would only be an option if Menlo Park did not address the issues submitted by East Palo Alto.


“Our concerns are not against Facebook,” Abrica said. “Facebook being there is actually going to have a large positive impact.”


The city submitted its concerns to Menlo Park in writing. Over the next couple of months, Menlo Park will consider the issues before publishing a final impact report and deciding to what extent Facebook should be held financially responsible for countering negative effects of its expansion.


Facebook officials said the company is looking forward to building a good rapport with East Palo Alto.


“We are going to favor a collaborative approach,” said a Facebook spokesperson to The Daily.  “Ultimately, we would like East Palo Alto to see the enormous benefits to having a good, responsible neighbor like Facebook. We are in close communication with officials in East Palo Alto, and as a result, we believe we’re in the process of building strong and lasting relationships there.”


City council brainstorms

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, some members of the public spoke on behalf of Facebook while others expressed concerns about the expansion. Potential traffic solutions discussed include the use of shuttles by local residents.


Housing prices in East Palo Alto could also be affected by the expansion, Abrica said. More Facebook employees, who typically have a higher income level than the average East Palo Alto resident, would move into the area, driving up housing prices, especially for the renting population.


East Palo Alto has appointed a city council subcommittee to meet with a Menlo Park group by next week in order to negotiate and discuss East Palo Alto’s needs.


Councilmembers Carlos Romero and David Woods both serve on the subcommittee.


California law

State law requires that during the environmental review process, the city issuing the report must release a draft–as Menlo Park did in the middle of December. Members of the public were free to submit written concerns until Jan. 30. After that point, the state mandates that staff from Menlo Park must respond to all the presented concerns in writing.


Menlo Park does not have to agree with East Palo Alto or admit to any other faults in their report, but the city is required to address the issues that have arisen.


East Palo Alto officials hope that when these concerns are analyzed, Menlo Park representatives will note areas where they feel Facebook should be held financially responsible for projects–such as the widening of bike lanes–that have been proposed to counter the effects of the company’s expansion.


Other project ideas include a pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 that would be a safer commute option compared to dealing with increased traffic on University Avenue.


Stanford and Facebook

Considering Stanford’s proximity to both East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, questions remain about what effect the expansion may have on the University. With the expansion, Facebook has moved out of its location at the Stanford Research Park. Further repercussions for the campus are unlikely.


“There is no impact to Stanford except for the loss of an exciting and growing company and employer, but that impact has already taken place, and we are busy working to lease out their former space,” said Stanford Research Park’s Director of Asset Management Tiffany Griego.

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