Political Notebook: Housing, safe streets top of mind for Sunnyvale's Mehlinger

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 23, 2023
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Sunnyvale City Councilmember Richard Mehlinger. Photo: Courtesy Richard Mehlinger
Sunnyvale City Councilmember Richard Mehlinger. Photo: Courtesy Richard Mehlinger

Before he won his seat last November on the Sunnyvale City Council, Richard Mehlinger had been chair of the South Bay city's advisory body for bicycle and pedestrian issues. Thus, when it was time for the council to approve this month a controversial plan regarding bike lanes on a main street in town that runs near several schools, it was no surprise to see Mehlinger cast a vote in favor of the item.

Talking to the Bay Area Reporter hours after he had done so, as the council meeting had gone until 1 a.m. due to the scores of people who spoke either in favor of the bike lanes or against the removal of 200 on-street parking spots for cars, Mehlinger said the matter was illustrative of how he has tried to approach his being on the council.

"I think it speaks to the importance of our job, which is to consider the public interest. And it is not narrowly construed," said Mehlinger, explaining he took into account how the bike lanes would benefit students, residents, and employees biking to work from neighboring cities. "One of the tradeoffs I am having to consider on the City Council is everything has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to what is in the public interest."

Mehlinger, 36, who identifies as queer and bisexual, represents District 5, which includes the Cannery Park neighborhood where he owns a townhouse. He serves alongside queer District 2 City Councilmember Alysa Cisneros, who will be up for reelection next year.

During her 2020 race, Mehlinger served as Cisneros' assistant campaign manager. He had begun to become more involved in local politics and civic matters following the 2016 presidential race.

He joined his city's grassroots group Livable Sunnyvale and became a board member of the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale. It provided him a base of support for his winning council bid and signaled he would be a progressive voice as a councilmember.


Another key issue for Mehlinger that led him to run last year is the need for more affordable housing in Sunnyvale. As a key bedroom community for Silicon Valley, the city has been one of the few in the area to embrace new home development.

Nonetheless, thousands of additional units are needed to meet the demand for housing within its borders. The council is still working to finalize its housing element as required by the state, which lays out how Sunnyvale will build its allocation of 11,966 new housing units by 2031.

"I think we, as a city, recognize that there is a growth in housing demand," said Mehlinger. "We do need to be changing some things to make sure we can meet the needs of our population, of our economy, and meet the needs of the 21st century on climate change and sustainability."

One of his more important votes on the council this year came in July, when the governing body approved the development plan for Moffett Park, a large swath of land adjacent to the historic airfield bordering San Francisco Bay. Basically a rezoning of the area, it calls for the construction of 20,000 new homes in the city in addition to parks, trails, retail spaces, and offices.

"One of the things we put into there is that office developers have to provide maker spaces intended for small businesses and startups," noted Mehlinger, adding that "we are not just talking about big companies there. It is meant to be an eco-innovation district."

Along with ensuring the planned housing doesn't favor single-family homes, Mehlinger also worked to revise what its design requirements are for the new buildings. He penciled out such things as facade elements that he feared would end up downsizing the new construction.

"Those requirements make it more expensive to build and harder to get the kind of density we are going for," said Mehlinger, who first moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 due to landing a job as an engineer at a networking company based in Moffett Park. "The reason it was in there is you don't want it to feel like being in an undifferentiated canyon of buildings. But there are other ways you can prevent that from happening."

As for the types of housing units city leaders want to see built, Mehlinger said, "We are not putting single-family homes in Moffett Park. That is something we absolutely don't want there."

With build out of the area expected to take several decades, it will be some time until the true impacts of the new development will be felt. The planned dwelling units alone represent a one-third increase to Sunnyvale's current housing stock of roughly 58,600 homes.

"We are building a city inside a city. It will be a walkable, bikeable, public transit district," noted Mehlinger. "It will be a very urban district. It is something very different than anything built in Sunnyvale before."

Economic issues

As for the rounds of layoffs that hit various tech firms this year, Mehlinger told the B.A.R. that certainly many of his constituents and other city residents have been impacted, though there is no indication that the city itself is being negatively affected. According to data from NOVAworks, which assists job seekers in Silicon Valley and has an office in Sunnyvale, there was an uptick in unemployed Sunnyvale residents during the first half of 2023 but it is unclear in what industries they had worked in.

Among those laid off, as it happens, was Mehlinger, who disclosed in April that he had been let go by Dropbox, where he had worked as a software engineer. Due to "a good severance package," said Mehlinger, he was able to focus over the next three months on his duties as a city councilmember plus take some time off for rest and relaxation.

It included a recent trip to Long Beach, where he grew up, to see friends and family. His sister is vice president of communications and marketing for the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

By November Mehlinger anticipates being back to working. He has been talking to several recruiters and has some promising leads, he told the B.A.R.

"I am staying as a software engineer. I have got a mortgage, so a career change isn't in the cards right now," said Mehlinger, who graduated from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California with degrees in computer science and history then earned a master's degree in history from UC Riverside. "I actually really do enjoy it. It is very satisfying work for me. It scratches a completely different itch than the city work I am doing."

This Sunday he plans to march for the first time as an out elected leader in the Silicon Valley Pride parade. Mehlinger told the B.A.R. he'll be joining the contingent of Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee, whose District 3 seat includes Sunnyvale.

It will be his second LGBTQ celebration he has participated in since joining the council, having attended and spoken at a Pride event held in June in downtown Sunnyvale.

"I am really looking forward to Silicon Valley Pride. I haven't thought too much beyond hopefully walking in the parade," said Mehlinger. "I haven't thought too much about what to do there. I am not going to set up a booth there, but I will show up and mingle."

Earlier this spring he spoke with gay former Santa Clara County supervisor Ken Yeager for a profile (https://www.queersiliconvalley.org/richard-mehlinger/) about him posted to the Queer Silicon Valley website. It is a virtual LGBTQ historical archive that Yeager launched in 2020 and, as the B.A.R. reported last week, is now hoping to turn into a brick-and-mortar museum in downtown San Jose.

"I love what he has been trying to do, capturing these queer oral histories. In another life I did a master's in history," said Mehlinger. "I have become more and more aware of how local politics and how much local history is just forgotten. It most often is never written down and lives in someone's head somewhere. When they die, it is gone."

Thus, what Yeager has been doing to preserve the South Bay's LGBTQ history and share it with the public, said Mehlinger, is ensuring it doesn't become lost.

"It is a cool project he has been doing," said Mehlinger. "I am very proud to even be a part of that."

Next up on his own agenda is further addressing Sunnyvale's transportation needs and implementing a Vision Zero plan to eliminate pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in the city. Having bought his own e-bike, Mehlinger has been biking more himself and getting a better sense of the various issues on his city's streets.

"One of the biggest issues is traffic safety, actually. We had a six-week period last year in which four people were killed on our streets in traffic accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists," said Mehlinger. "Some of my biggest issues in the campaign were housing and transportation."

He acknowledged addressing the city's street infrastructure won't be easy.

"We are going to run into challenges inevitably. People don't like losing their street parking, I get it," Mehlinger said. "If we are going to meet our climate goals, and if we want it to be safe for kids to bike and walk to school, if that is going to be a reality in the city, things have to change."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the outcome of a San Diego supervisor race.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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