Brian Steen hasn't ventured into local politics before, but he figures he'd fit right in on a City Council where the word "green" gets uttered at least a dozen times every meeting.
An avowed conservationist, Steen was born in Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University, where he earned a degree in forestry. Since then, he has spent his professional career preserving forests and sensitive watersheds, first at the U.S. Forest Service and later as a leader of two different land trusts.
"I've spent the whole decade of the '70s climbing mountains and working with the public," said Steen, 59, referring to his tenure as a public information officer at the Forest Service.
Given his passion for land use, Steen says he has more than a passing interest in California's ambitious high-speed rail project. As presently configured, the rail line would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and pass through Palo Alto, along the Caltrain tracks.
In recent months, Steen has been volunteering with a group of city officials, finance experts and architects to study the possibility of building a deep tunnel for the high-speed rail, which would travel through the city at the speed of 125 mph. The tunnel project would theoretically be financed by selling air rights above the Caltrain corridor, chiefly in the downtown area at present.
Steen will be hosting a high-speed rail workshop in October that will address the feasibility of building the tunnel.
"I'm taking the assumption that the high-speed rail is coming one way or another into the community," Steen said. "It is my interest, my responsibility, to try to bring it here in the most environmental way possible."
"I do believe (tunneling) does present the least environmental impact versus the other alternatives," he said. "But it has to be worked on -- that's what I've been trying to figure out."
But the controversial rail system is just one of many land-use issues the City Council will have to grapple with in coming months and years. There's also the proposed expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center, the final approval of the College Terrace Centre commercial development on the "JJ&F block," and the usual list of dense and controversial mixed-use projects.
Steen said the city should be focusing on developments that generate revenue. He points to the Rickey's Hyatt Hotel, which was recently converted to the Arbor Real housing development. The hotel, he said, generated about $1.3 million in annual revenues, while the new development (which he called a "poor decision") generates around $100,000 in taxes.
Steen said he supports Measure A, the business-license tax that will be on the November ballot. He also supports the council's tough stance in negotiations with the Service Employees International Union over a new contract. He initially considered seeking the union's endorsement but later backed away.
Steen rides his bike to campaign events, sings with the Bay Choral Guild and serves on the Board of Directors of the Palo Alto Rotary Club. He said he was encouraged to run for office by Mayor Peter Drekmeier, and he considers a seat on the council as the natural next step after decades of protecting public land.
Steen said his work with the land trusts -- the Big Sur Land Trust, where he served as executive director from 1980 to 1998 and the Sempervirens Fund -- taught him about land transactions, conservation, negotiations and environmental reviews. These skills, he said, would serve him well on the council.
"Palo Alto has many different land-use projects coming up that need land-use expertise," he said.