Opinion: How bribery works in today’s world

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

America has come a long way from the days of Tammany Hall, when a developer would have to lug a briefcase full of cash to City Hall to pay off a politician in order to get a project approved.

Today, bribery is done out in the open. Nobody gets arrested. Instead of cash, the bribes are in the form of dog parks, branch libraries and teacher housing.

Facebook wants Menlo Park to approve its plans for a 59-acre “Village” on Willow Road that calls for 1.75 million square feet of office space at an estimated cost of $255 million to $340 million. It’s the biggest development proposal in the mid-Peninsula’s history after Stanford’s request for 3.5 million square feet of development that is currently pending before the Santa Clara County Supervisors.

Coincidentally, Facebook said last week it would:

• redevelop the Onetta Harris Community Center at 100 Terminal Ave. in east Menlo Park and include a branch library in the re-done building;

• give $25 million to Santa Clara County to fund Supervisor Joe Simitian’s effort to build 90 to 120 apartments for teachers on a 1.5-acre plot of land near the Palo Alto courthouse on Grant Avenue.

The timing of Facebook’s philanthropy is striking. Facebook has been in Menlo Park since 2011. This company, with a market cap of half a trillion dollars, has had ample opportunities to make such donations in the past eight years. Why now? I think it’s because Facebook’s Willow Road project is now moving through the city approval process, and the company needs some people to sing its praises.

By promising a renovated community center and branch library, Facebook will coopt some vocal residents of Menlo Park’s east side into becoming their advocates. Now they’ll speak at every public hearing, urging the council to approve whatever Facebook has proposed, no matter how much it increases traffic or worsens the housing-jobs imbalance.

This has happened before. In 2012, billionaire developer John Arrillaga, acting on Stanford’s behalf, proposed a complex of office buildings, some as tall as 10 stories, at 27 University Ave. in Palo Alto, near the bus/train station.

Arrillaga probably knew that Palo Altans wouldn’t want 10-story buildings there. So he threw in a theater for the performing arts.

The supporters of live theater, fans of TheatreWorks, became the development’s most vocal bloc of supporters. At every hearing, they would go to the microphone to talk about how badly Palo Alto needed a theater for live performances.

It didn’t work.

Palo Altans soon figured out that the theater was just a piece of bait Arrillaga was stringing along to get council to approve the office towers that nobody wanted. (Residents also got wind of some behind-the-scenes wheeling-and-dealing Arrillaga was doing with the city council over some land he wanted near Foothill Park. Suddenly the theater-office complex was scuttled along with the land deal.)

Are Menlo Park residents as smart as their neighbors in Palo Alto?

In 2016, Menlo Park City Council approved a 420,000-square-foot development at 1300 El Camino after the developer added a dog park to the project.
Never mind the environmental impact report that said the project would increase traffic by 25% in the surrounding area.

Who cares as long as the city got that desperately needed dog park?

When Facebook’s high-powered negotiators saw that the council was willing to accept a dog park as a trade off, they must have realized they were dealing with rank amateurs who wouldn’t demand much from them.

And, true to form, council voted 4-0 last week to start negotiations with Facebook over the re-do of the Oneida Harris Community Center.

Know your priorities

While it would be nice to have a remodeled community center and a branch library, those aren’t the top priorities for most people in Menlo Park. The top two problems are a lack of housing and the horrendous traffic.

Facebook’s Village will make both problems worse. It will bring 9,500 jobs to Menlo Park but only 1,750 homes, which will significantly worsen the housing-jobs imbalance. At the very least, Facebook should create housing for all of its new employees, so that those new workers aren’t pushing others out of their homes.

Secondly, 9,500 more employees will increase the traffic on Willow Road to gridlock conditions. More bike paths aren’t going to solve that problem.

Council members need to have some courage. I got the impression from Tuesday’s meeting that this was the first time some of the council members had been offered a bribe. They were so excited. I guess there’s a thrill in knowing somebody wants to buy your vote.

Full mitigation

I would have liked to have seen some courage instead. They should have told Facebook that while the remodel of the Oneida Harris Center is a nice gesture, it will have zero impact on whether they approve the Village development. And the only way they’ll approve the Village is if Facebook completely mitigates the housing and traffic problems created by this project. Half measures aren’t enough.

The number of homes Facebook will build should equal the number of jobs they’re creating.

The homes can be nearby, like in North Fair Oaks or Redwood City. But they have to actually build the homes and tenants have to move in before they get a certificate of occupancy from the city for the Village.

Anything short of that, council must have the courage to say “no — application denied.”

You can’t effectively negotiate in a situation like this unless you have the willingness to walk away from the bargaining table.

In general, I like development. But developers can’t make the lives of their neighbors worse. That’s when you have to say “no.” It’s either full mitigation or no permit.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Price, as always, you’re a class act and one of the last true journalists. Well said.

    If I lived in the Menlo Park city limits instead of unincorporated San Mateo County, I’d attend the next City Council meeting, hold up a copy of your editorial, point to it, and silently mouth ‘Hey, read this!’ In fact, I might do that anyway.

    Somewhere, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur are nodding in appreciation.

    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

  2. How can we buy you off? Let us count the ways!

    I coined the term “soft corruption” to describe this phenomena – as Mr. Price said so well; it’s all out in the open, and it’s all legal. None of that makes it ethical.
    Our system has become so badly corrupted that even the best of people likely give in
    to this bribery by government system. I’m sure they all justify it as a necessary evil if you want to get anything accomplished.

    Too bad politicians and the public allowed corporations and uber rich individuals to buy the system that works best for them at the public’s expense. Most of the public is
    either more concerned about their next beer, or uneducated to the point of not realizing they are paying to make others richer.

    Capitalism isn’t the enemy, socialism/communism is. But in any system, its the career
    bureaucrats that either make it work better, or corrupt it even worse.

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