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On Deadline blog: Planning Director: searching for someone who walks on … hot coals?

Uploaded: Jun 26, 2013
The imminent departure (June 30) of Planning Director Curtis Williams leaves Palo Alto city officials searching for a replacement for the lightning-rod position.

Williams received high praise for his ability to listen to people during his four years as director, after several years involved with Palo Alto planning issues and projects. Among his more challenging assignments was streamlining the city's development office -- where people go who want to build or remodel something.

The planning and building processes in Palo Alto have for decades been the target of criticism and even ridicule, the brunt of disdainful "Palo Alto Process" comments about delays and bureaucracy that date back more than two decades.

But Williams' calm, respectful manner -- reminiscent of that of his predecessor Steve Emslie, who retired earlier this year as assistant city manager -- and Williams' deliberate, thoughtful approach to planning and development issues have won praise from even some of the harshest critics of the city's planning and development policies.

And yes, he truly does plan to retire, he said in a brief telephone interview. No plans to move to another community to continue in planning, although some consulting assignments might come along, he has said.

Finding a replacement will be a daunting task, and people with Williams range of knowledge and personal communications skills don't come along terribly often in the field of planning and development. For now, Williams assistant, Aaron Aknin, will fill in as interim planning director. It is not known whether Aknin, a 30s-something, will actively seek the full position.

The challenges facing a new director are complex, varied and a bit staggering in terms of sheer volume. In addition to a fast-paced daily workload of incoming or in-the-works development/remodeling projects (some truly large), there are numerous specific assignments and area-plan studies underway, and a Comprehensive Plan revision that is moving forward, ostensibly.

And the issue of parking spillover from commercial areas into residential neighborhoods appears to be gaining steam -- some of it hissing from the ears of residents inundated by cars parked in their neighborhoods.

At the minimum, an organizational wizard is needed to keep everything moving, a bit like a circus juggler balancing spinning plates on sticks -- someone who can keep an eye on the overall picture while attending to specific details and frequent brushfires during a dry year.

It's no wonder there has been a record of burnout among a few directors.

But the challenges ahead are not new to Palo Alto, and in some ways a new planning director will have it somewhat easier than some in the past.

As a longtime reporter covering Palo Alto in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, and an involved observer later, I have been acquainted with every planning director who served since the early 1950s, when the city shifted to a council/manager form of government.

Lou Fourcroy served many years in the planning hotspot, including in the harsh 1950s when the battle was to establish basic zoning law that divided communities into residential, apartment (multifamily), commercial, industrial and other zones. There was a vigorously expressed tradition of "It's my property and I can do anything I want with it."

In 1960s Palo Alto a major "residentialist" revolt took place against a pro-development City Council, being cut back from 15 members to 13 and ultimately to nine as at present -- with some sentiment floating around that seven would be an even better number.

By the 1970s, Fourcroy was clearly showing the wear-and-tear of the often thankless job, and was moved to special projects in City Manager George Morgan's office. He played a role (working with then City Attorney Peter Stone, later named a judge) in creating the 1972 foothills rezoning, a significant downzoning of lot size. The rezoning generated a flurry of landowner lawsuits and resulted in the city settling a big one by buying what is now the vast Pearson-Arastradero Preserve for $9.5 million (considered one of the great buys in city history, along with Foothills Park).

He was replaced by two short-termers. The first was Jeffrey Holland, a native of Australia, who landed in Palo Alto with both feet and a Crocodile Dundee tongue. His penchant for making derisive comments about other city officials cut his tenure to a period of months. Palo Alto still has a small-town flavor in the sense that what you say about someone is almost certain to get back to them.

Then came a planner named Charles Boyd, who had been in charge of the well-done redesign of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, among other achievements. But Boyd walked into a department filled with senior planners who were used to a professional working environment and a relaxed (even if busy) demeanor. One, in fact, was stopped at the Mexican border where officials informed him his long hair pegged him as a hippie, an unwelcome species there at the time. They let him through after he protested, "But I'm not a hippie; I'm a senior planner."

There was an exodus of senior planners after Boyd had a time-clock punch-in device installed. And Boyd clocked out soon after.

Then came the arrival of a planner, fresh from the University of Chicago's expansion battles, who quite literally turned the planning process of the time on its head. Naphtali Knox, still a consultant in the Palo Alto area, took a look at the mostly moribund General Plan of Palo Alto and decided things had to change.

In the 1950s, teams of consultants drifted up and down California selling "General Plan" studies to local communities. The result was multi-colored community maps, with green for residential, red for commercial, something else for industrial. For the most part, the maps were hung on the wall above the city councils while the documents and policies gathered dust.

Knox's analysis was that the plans were ineffective because they started out with over-arching policies, broad statements of direction and goals. But when it came time to make specific decisions, the political and community processes kicked in and the "issues" of the moment overwhelmed the lofty generalities of the plans.

So he convinced Palo Alto to start with the issues first, make basic decisions over a six-month (give or take) period and based on those decisions to let the planning professionals sum up the broader directions and policies into a document. Thus the "Comprehensive Plan" was born.

When Knox stepped down as director, pretty much intact psychologically, his place was taken by his longtime assistant, Ken Schreiber. Schreiber was solid on process and details, and focused on getting the day-to-day things done in the face of strong community opinion that favored slow (or even no) growth. It was at this time that "Palo Alto Process" surfaced as a community catch-term. I once jokingly asked Schreiber over lunch whether "planning director school" had a course in how to slow down development in a sea of Process, with a capital P.

Schreiber was followed by Ed Gawf, who shifted some directions and worked on residential zoning issues, such as second-story overlay bans in single-story Eichler (and Eichler-like) neighborhoods.

Each director over the years had strengths and weaknesses, but the job itself is almost one that is too big for one person to encompass. And it needs to be done in public, enduring the often harsh criticism from a vocal community now armed with an anonymous Town Square to vent their more negative sentiments, whether well- or ill-informed.

Williams passed the test, and has set a high standard and example for his successor in the job.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joseph Kott, a resident of ,
on Jun 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Curtis Williams was a well-respected pro's pro as Director of Palo Alto's Planning and Community Environment Department. He had great integrity, as well as first-rate credentials as an urban planner. As Jay points out in this column, Curtis is thoughtful and intelligent too. He was a calm, capable, thoroughly professional leader in a city in which urban planning controversy is often rough-and-tumble.

Aaron Aknin is in the same mold as Curtis. Palo Alto would be fortunate indeed should Aaron wish to apply for the position vacated by Curtis.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of ,
on Jun 28, 2013 at 7:01 am

Not knowing Mr. Curtis on a personal basis, I can't comment about his "being a great guy". Having grown up in large organizations, I can to see people in terms of "the organization". When they moved on, the question becomes: "is the organization better because so-and-so had held his/her particular job?" So, for me—the question is: "Is the Palo Alto Planning Department (and the services rendered to the community) better off because of Mr. Williams?

Given the general lack of transparency in the Palo Alto government entity, it's very difficult, generally, to answer these sorts of questions in a meaningful way. We could ask:

1) What were Mr. Williams yearly objectives? Did he meet these objectives in a satisfactory way, or a way that exceeded expectations?
2) Did the services offered the community meet the community's expectations, or were there problems?
3) If there were problems, were these problems handled in a expeditious, and open, fashion?
4) Did the Planning Department respond in an appropriate fashion to all of its Public Records Requests?
5) Did Mr. Williams review his employees in a timely, and appropriate, fashion?
6) Did Mr. Williams perform internal reviews of his organization, and direct timely reconfigurations to make the Department more responsive to its direct customers, and the community, at large?
7) Were all of the Planning Department projects delivered on-time, and at/under budget?

This is the sort of information that a well-managed organization would be using to determine the effectiveness of a Department-level manager, or above. I don't believe that Palo Alto is managed (from the top down) like an organization that spends over $1.5B per decade should be managed. I doubt that the kinds of information/data that would be needed to review Mr. Williams as a professional in the private sector is available in the messy, public-sector management schemes of Palo Alto.

In this article Mr. Williams is given credit for revamping the so-called "Development Center". However, the articles at the time seemed focus on City Manager Keene as the person behind this "improvement". So—which was it, Williams or Keene? And once the "improvements" were in place, we never were provided basic information about the performance of this department, so as the cost/hour to operate, or the total-time-in-process for permits of similar type. By-and-large, the cost and effectiveness of this department is still as much a mystery to the general public, as before—other than there are now more managers on the payroll and is probably more expensive to operate.

The Charleston/Arastradero lane reductions created much dissatisfaction in South Palo Alto. Requests for information, and data, about traffic volumes and other matters have been ignored. I can attest to that personally—even though Curtis Williams as "cc-ed" when these requests were made to the Transportation engineers. Other of my Public Records Requests about California Avenue have also been ignored.

And then there is the Arrillaga project—conducted in secret, it would seem. One can only wonder what Mr. William's views are about the public's right to know what its government is doing?

While the author of this blog may be glowing about Mr. Williams as another of the "good ole boys" that make up Palo Alto's "inner circle", I suspect that his tenure in Palo Alto will be seen by the rank-and-file resident differently.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by observer, a resident of ,
on Jun 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I agree with Wayne Martin. Running the Planning Department has got to be a horrendous job. But recent developments have not cast a good light on Planning: traffic is a disaster all over the city, the CAL Ave. lane narrowing and streetscaping was handled poorly, the Arastradero lane narrowing made Maybell a traffic a nightmare, the Arrillaga project was developed behind closed doors…

Mr. Williams may be "a great guy," but that's not the critical factor in measuring success.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by observer II, a resident of ,
on Jun 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Mr. Thorwaldson's blog requires a response from the residents.
There is no "planning" in Palo Alto. There is "development".
Therefore Planning Director is a misnomer- it should be "Development
Director". The City of Palo Alto has become an aesthetic and traffic
mess with destruction of once beautiful neighborhoods from massive
and continuing over-development of office space and gridlock a common sight on our streets.Nobody in the City Hall, the Council or staff, articulates an over-all vision as to where we are going as a community and what values we are trying to protect and promote. The historic role of Palo Alto is already established. The unique balance here between academic/business/residential values is what we needed to protect. We don't need to reestablish our identity with office towers.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Jun 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

The gist of my comments about Curtis Williams was that he was a good listener, calm, intelligent and is considered a fair person even by some usual critics of city government. I also commented that the job is a tough one involving many factors and variables among the spinning plates above the person's head. If I were to list the policy-level "problems" that would face a new director I would list transparency high up, along with reforming (or shelving) the "Planned Community" zone -- which has done much to undermine real community planning with its negotiable "public benefit" provision for higher density or height or parking exceptions to zoning. Policies derive from many levels. Part of the dilemma of planning directors in my experience over the years is sorting out the decisions of planning commissioners, City Council members, top city administrators in a context of Comprehensive Plan policies, and pressure from developers and from citizens and neighborhood groups -- all highly and unashamedly vocal in a highly critical community. Tough job, underscored by the comments above.



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