The Palo Alto Weekly's Newsmakers of the Year have shaped and influenced Palo Alto's residents, and the city itself, in 2009.
They range from the most popular social-networking company in the history of the Internet to a high-school community that responded to tragedy with an outpouring of compassion.
Theirs are the actions that created the news. Some stepped up to a challenge that was thrust upon them. Others sought to put their stamp on the world and carved out their own niche.
They include Palo Alto's new chief of police, a coalition-building city councilwoman and a controversial high-school principal. There are residents who took aim at fixing perceived wrongs. The newsmakers include developers, city workers, companies large and small, a nonprofit organization and students.
Theirs are the impacts that are likely to last well into the future, from Bob Moss, whose private-streets initiative mandates future roads in Palo Alto be wide enough, to Yoriko Kishimoto, whose Peninsula Cities Coalition helped give local communities a voice on high-speed rail.
Many other citizens, businesses and organizations generated news of various kinds and made significant contributions to the community, region or nation in the past year. People are welcome to make their own nominations on the Town Square forum linked to this newsmakers' article.
Here, then, are the Weekly's nominations for the 13 Newsmakers of the Year.
Community of the year
After suicides, Gunn High School walks a delicate line
Gunn High School's wrestlers won a 32-team tournament last week. Some seniors got news of early college acceptances or rejections. The school earned a ranking on U.S. News & World Report's 2010 list of America's top 100 public high schools.
Life goes on for the 1,898 students at Gunn even as they mourn the numbing loss of four classmates who died by suicide this year at the Caltrain tracks.
For seven months, the Gunn staff has walked a fine line between maintaining the rigors and rich offerings of a top-ranked high school while making allowances for the deep personal grief felt by large numbers of students and staff members.
Following the first suicide May 5, a stunned and distraught community sought expert help on how to respond, offering students and staff an array of counseling and mental health resources.
Each subsequent Caltrain death (June 2, Aug. 21, Oct. 19) brought renewed grief, as well as mounting concerns about the documented phenomenon of "suicide contagion."
Parents, school leaders, medical experts, religious leaders and concerned citizens mobilized to offer what help they could.
A loosely organized "community task force" representing up to 20 groups began meeting over the summer to develop an action plan. Their work is described on the City of Palo Alto's website under "Project Safety Net".
Members of Project Safety Net are looking at various methods for student mental health screening, organizing free assistance for those unable to pay and educating media outlets on how to handle suicide coverage.
"We do have a list of students that we're watching and trying to support," Carol Zepecki, district student services director, said of the varied responses.
Numerous panel discussions on adolescent mental health and depression were held by PTAs, counseling services, religious organizations as people struggled to understand the deaths -- until the time to talk became a time to act.
"We might have had enough community panels," Zepecki said.
A subgroup of Project Safety Net is considering the pros and cons of performing "psychological autopsies," which Zepecki described as "reviewing the student deaths to try to find factors that suggest a pattern or inform in any way something the community might do differently."
Families of two of the students indicated they may be interested in pursuing this, she said.
When short-term police monitoring of the Meadow Drive Caltrain crossing failed to prevent subsequent suicides, parents and neighbors took matters into their own hands.
Following the fourth death, parents and neighbors initiated "Palo Alto Track Watch," which organizes volunteers to maintain a physical presence at the tracks during hours trains are running.
Security guards were hired in late November by the Palo Alto Police Department to bolster the citizen patrols, possibly through the end of the school year.
Police have supplied reflective vests and training to the volunteers. The volunteers have expanded the track-monitoring to other Caltrain crossings.
In early December, Caltrain approved new lighting to illuminate the Meadow Drive crossing in an effort to dissuade potential suicides.
Gunn students themselves have initiated some of the most touching responses to the deaths, trying to foster more open communication among their peers.
Seniors Miles Mathews and Sam Zeif seized on their T-shirt-making hobby to create artful shirts featuring colorful human profiles with the words: "Talk to me."
"Sometimes we just need someone to talk to, so lend your ears and open up," the students said. "Be the change you wish to see at Gunn." At $5 each, the shirts sold out immediately.
Other students organized to become "The ROCK," staffing a "Rock" table in the library during their free periods for any student wishing to stop and talk about anything. ROCK stands for "reach out, care and know."
In late October senior Joyce Liu created the website "Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope," modeled after a website called "Gives Me Hope." It invites people to post stories about the good things, large and small, that transpire daily at the school.
Last week a student posted the following:
"A few weeks ago I finally told my friends that last year I battled depression and thoughts of suicide. I was halfway through thanking them for befriending me when they all tackled me at the same time. They all refused to stop hugging me for the next ten minutes. Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope."
The student signed off with the screen name, "Happy."
-- Chris Kenrick
Stabilizer of the year
Police Chief Dennis Burns focuses on restoring community relations
It's been a long, hectic year for the Palo Alto Police Department. When Police Chief Lynne Johnson resigned in December 2008 under a storm of racial-profiling allegations, the job of repairing community relations fell to Assistant Chief Dennis Burns, a 27-year veteran of the Police Department.
Burns, a college track star who made headlines in 2007 when he chased down a purse-snatcher in downtown Palo Alto, hit the ground running by holding workshops on racially impartial policing. As "interim chief," he sought advice from racial-profiling expert Lorie Fridell, held monthly "Meet the Chief" meetings with the community and set up a citizen advisory board to advise the department on public outreach.
Burns also had to deal with the equally daunting task of steering the 170-member department through a period of budget cuts and service reductions.
In July, City Manager James Keene gave Burns his vote of confidence and named him the city's ninth police chief, following a nationwide search that attracted more than 40 candidates.
At his swearing-in ceremony in November, Burns pledged to provide the community with the highest level of service and to give his officers all the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.
Now, Burns is looking ahead to another challenging year. The department has a leaner staff and a smaller budget. Community Outreach Coordinator Susie Ord retired at the end of the year and Burns said she may not be replaced. Popular programs such as Citizen's Academy may also be cut.
With more cuts on the way, Burns said the department would have to look for creative ways to maintain its scope of services.
"Going forward, we will have to look at ourselves, be introspective and find ways to operate in an efficient manner," Burns said.
-- Gennady Sheyner
Coalition builder of the year
Yoriko Kishimoto unites cities on high-speed rail
Palo Alto officials scrambled throughout 2009 to keep up with the California's controversial high-speed rail project.
By the time the City Council became fully engaged in the project the California High-Speed Rail Authority had already decided that the rail line would stretch through the middle of the city, with elevated tracks listed as one possibility. Rumors circulated about a 20-foot-high wall dividing the city. Residents along the Caltrain tracks were unnerved to learn that the rail authority wields eminent-domain powers.
With tempers flaring, Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto brought some level-headedness to the debate by reaching out to the rail authority and by forming a coalition with four other Peninsula cities. In her final year on the council, the political veteran founded and served as chair of the Peninsula Cities Consortium -- a group that includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame. Kishimoto soaked up information, made connections with rail officials, organized community meetings on the project and used the combined political weight of the five member cities to wring concessions from the rail authority.
Kishimoto was also a leading proponent of applying the inclusive, collaborative "context-sensitive solutions" approach to rail design. After extensive lobbying by the coalition, the rail authority agreed to the context-sensitive approach on the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment and mentioned the design approach in its newly released business plan.
At a study session on high-speed rail Nov. 16, Kishimoto referred to the project as "transformative" and said the goal of the Peninsula coalition is make sure the project transforms the region in a positive way.
"We always say, 'We hang together or we hang separately,'" Kishimoto said. "I'm glad at least enough of our Peninsula cities came together to share information and so that we have greater political leverage."
In 2010, Kishimoto may find herself better positioned to influence the state project, now estimated at $42.6 billion. After concluding her eighth year on the Palo Alto council, Kishimoto is now eyeing a new elective office -- Ira Ruskin's seat in the 21st Assembly District when he is termed out of office in January 2011.
-- Gennady Sheyner
Neighborhood activist of the year
Fred Balin wins on trees, loses on College Terrace Centre (JJ&F)
College Terrace resident Fred Balin took on two battles this year, one successfully, the other not.
Balin mounted unsuccessful opposition to the College Terrace Centre development, a controversial office-and-retail project, more widely known as the JJ&F development. The plan will build nearly 40,000 square feet of office space, 5,580 square feet of additional retail and eight units of affordable housing in exchange for keeping the beloved JJ&F market by way of a rent subsidy.
Balin opposed the zoning change from neighborhood commercial to planned community, which allows for denser development.
But he and wife Ann led a successful citizen response to the California Avenue trees fiasco, when the city prematurely ordered 63 holly oaks cut down. The citizen response resulted in a more varied tree-planting plan and greater citizen involvement in future tree-replacement projects.
The city had the trees cut down to make way for a more uniform look to California Avenue, as part of a "streetscape improvement" plan. Residents and some business owners were outraged, while citizens and arborists were concerned about planting only red maples.
Balin organized two public meetings on California Avenue, including one with tree expert Barrie Coate, to come up with alternatives to the monochromatic tree-replacement plan favored by the California Avenue Area Development Association.
The city took the citizens/arborists suggestions to heart, calling a meeting for community input. The City Council unanimously approved a proposal Nov. 16 to plant all the new trees before the end of February.
In both cases, city departments and the council failed to lay out elements of each project "in relation to rules we have," Balin said.
That failure results in citizen action through "the blunt and imperfect instruments" available, such as lawsuits, referendums, initiatives -- and elections -- to express dissatisfaction, he said.
"How many people voted against the business license tax because they just didn't trust the city with any more money?" he asked.
The response becomes, "You know, let's starve the beast," he said.
-- Sue Dremann
School newsmaker of the year
Palo Alto High School Principal Jacquie McEvoy, parents, students declared war over 'egg wars'
The consequences of an Oct. 27 egg fight among Palo Alto High School students continue to ripple through the community more than two months later.
The "egg wars" between members of Paly's junior and senior classes, an unauthorized tradition of the school's annual Spirit Week, occurred this year on the Gunn High School campus rather than at its usual location in a Stanford eucalyptus grove.
When Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy learned of the gooey damage thousands of broken eggs wreaked on Gunn sports facilities, she began issuing five-day suspensions and threatened to cancel the remainder of Spirit Week activities.
McEvoy quickly reduced the suspensions to one day and reinstated Spirit Week after she said she learned the egg fight had been less serious than she originally thought -- but not before triggering a revolt by some Paly parents.
Frustrated by what they saw as McEvoy's hair-trigger discipline in the egg wars and an overall "punitive" style, some parents called for a probe of the school's investigative procedures in the egg-wars incident.
The investigation amounted to "nothing short of a terror campaign against the students to seek out and punish" those involved, parent and lawyer Megan Carroll said.
McEvoy said she was drafting an explanation of her philosophy concerning student discipline.
Meanwhile, she agreed to drop the suspensions from students' permanent records if they stay on good behavior for the rest of the year.
Overall, anywhere from 50 to 150 students participated in the egg fight. Twelve students received suspensions and community-service assignments, and another six got just community service, the school said.
Gunn Principal Noreen Likins said the school was grateful that Paly students had accompanied McEvoy on an apology mission to Gunn, where they told Gunn students their prank had in no way been aimed at Gunn but occurred there after Stanford police shooed them away from the eucalyptus grove.
Likins called in professional help to clean the eggs from Gunn's new track, scoreboards and pool deck at a cost of $3,200, to be covered by Paly.
"Eggs are a substance that really damage a lot of surfaces," she said, explaining why she preferred professional cleaners to student volunteers.
In the end, everyone seemed to agree that they wished they could turn back the clock to the day before the scheduled egg wars and try a re-run, a kind of mutual-regret truce -- sort of like the proverbial walking on eggs.
-- Chris Kenrick
Underestimators of the year
Palo Alto Public Works, California Avenue Area Development Association misstep on clearcutting trees
One day in mid-September, 63 mature holly oaks along California Avenue mysteriously disappeared. Mysteriously because, as it turned out, no one except for a small group of business leaders from California Avenue Area Development Association got the memo that the city's most dramatic clearcutting operation of the year would be taking place in the three-block-long business district.
Then the city announced that Public Works staff violated city policy by clearcutting the trees without going through a mandated waiting period. After a massive community protest, the city halted the streetscape project, hired new landscape consultants, held a series of community meetings, talked to a panel of arborists and offered a series of apologies for the "tree debacle."
Now, city officials say they are determined to right the wrongs of 2009 by adopting a more transparent process for replacing the felled trees and making other streetscape improvements on California Avenue. Replanting is scheduled to begin the end of January and stretch through February.
"It's new trees for a new year," said Mike Sartor, assistant director of the Public Works Department.
New process, as well. Streetscape improvements will now be thoroughly reviewed by city commissions and publicized beyond the immediate neighborhood. September's mistakes notwithstanding, Sartor said the department is pleased with the way the community came together for the tree-replacement plan.
"The good news that came out of this was the process conducted to select the replanting," Sartor said. "The planning commission and the public came up with a collaborative effort to select the new trees."
-- Gennady Sheyner
Naysayers of the year
Palo Alto's small business community relieved over business-tax failure
In January, Councilman John Barton predicted that Palo Alto voters would see the city's proposed business-license tax as a "slam dunk" and pass it with ease, thereby generating about $3 million in badly needed revenue for the city budget.
Ten months later, city officials learned that it's been a dismal decade for the term "slam dunk."
Small businesses rose up against the tax, voters rejected Measure A, and city officials found themselves staring at a swelling budget deficit with no end in sight.
For small-business owners, the defeat of Measure A was a speck of good news in a bleak year. With downtown vacancies spiking and sales revenues plummeting, many business owners said a new business tax is the last thing the city needs.
Harold "Skip" Justman, an attorney who led the campaign against Measure A, argued in the months before the November election that the measure was too vague, too intrusive and too onerous to win compliance from small businesseses. The voters, he said, recognized the burden Measure A would place on businesses and rejected the measure.
Paula Sandas, chief executive officer of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, said the vote proved that residents are committed to protecting and supporting Palo Alto's small-business community.
Sandas said the organization is open-minded about the city's next business-tax proposal. The Chamber plans to work with the city and hopes to have a hand in shaping whatever tax proposal emerges from the next City Council.
"We are trying to be proactive and looking for ways to be part of the process," Sandas said.
-- Gennady Sheyner
Activist of the year
Bob Moss fights City Hall -- and wins
Barron Park resident Bob Moss couldn't believe his ears: two more years before the City of Palo Alto could address a private-streets ordinance.
Meanwhile, higher and denser building developments with too-narrow streets were being approved that would impact the city's neighborhoods, existing and new.
Many residents of new developments and their neighbors had complained that the narrow streets posed hazards. Inadequate parking forced residents and visitors to spill into other neighborhoods, they said.
Moss became concerned in February when he learned that private streets were being counted a part of an overall size of the property -- which meant the buildings could be larger than if the streets were dedicated public streets. This constitutes a boon to developers at the expense of residents and the community, he said.
Planning Director Curtis Williams told Moss that the city planning staff "can't do anything about it for a couple of years," Moss recalled.
"I said, 'This is ridiculous. We don't have time to do it? I'll do it.'"
Moss formed a citizen's group with a website for a name, "2narrow4safety.org," and developed the Private Streets Initiative, which specifies that private streets should have uniform widths -- 32 feet, with some exceptions.
More than 2,303 Palo Alto voters signed the petition, which was filed July 13. The City Council adopted the ordinance Sept. 21. The ordinance will take effect after the city approves a technical definition of private streets.
Moss's approach sounds simple.
"You understand the problem, you look for real solutions and you work on them.
"If you are doing the job right, you listen to other people. You pick their brains and you come up with a project better than you started with in the first place," he said, citing his work with city officials and citizens.
-- Sue Dremann
Developers of the year
Ellis Partners brings Town & Country Village back to life
When the family-run Ellis Partners of San Francisco bought the ailing Town & Country Village five years ago, all options -- including scraping the 55-year-old community icon -- were on the table.
"We took a very broad look at its potential future use," Ellis Partners founder and Managing Principal Jim Ellis said.
"We started a dialogue with the community and the City of Palo Alto. We realized this was a valuable kind of community gem, if you will, and we're not interested in building projects that don't have community and city support."
In the end it cost his firm more to revive Town & Country as a "community gathering spot" than to demolish and rebuild it as a retail-residential project, Ellis said.
Ellis dispatched clipboard-clutching interviewers to the site, asking shoppers what they'd like to see happen at Town & Country.
"We knew we needed to do some high-quality restaurants that were unique to Palo Alto -- no chain restaurants, nothing like that," Ellis said. Ellis Partners' other projects include redeveloping Oakland's Jack London Square, office-retail buildings at 114 Sansome and 111 Sutter streets in San Francisco and EmeryTech, an office project in Emeryville.
"We also knew we needed specialty retail and everyday service retail -- dry cleaners and cobblers. And we did not want to see certain institutions, like the Village Cheese House, leave," he said.
Surveyors found that the most-requested tenant was Trader Joe's, "which in part was why we decided to chase them down and get them into the center," Ellis said.
"We took great pains to make that building look like the other ones. It was not an easy task. I hope it blends in well."
Ultimately the developer spent $30 million -- triple the initial budget -- for roofing, seismic and electrical retrofits and rebuilding the common areas and parking lots.
Ellis admitted the renovations, temporary scarcity of parking -- and unpopular decisions such as terminating the Cookbook restaurant -- have "tried people's nerves."
But the end result, culminating with the Dec. 4 opening of Trader Joe's, is the community gathering spot he envisioned, he said.
-- Chris Kenrick
Legal eagles of the year
Architectural Control Committee sues Edgewood Plaza developer, wins compromise
Facing yet another dense mixed-use development of a neighborhood retail center, three residents sued the developer and won a compromise on Edgewood Plaza redevelopment.
Calling themselves the Architectural Control Committee for Tract 1641, Diane Sekimura, Marin Yonke, Kim Fletcher and attorney Brandon Baum sued developer Sand Hill Property in August 2008, regarding plans to modify the historic Eichler retail center and build 24 two-story townhomes on the site.
Edgewood Plaza is bounded by Embarcadero Road, St. Francis Drive, Channing Avenue and West Bayshore Road.
Legendary developer Joseph Eichler build the original Edgewood Plaza (on four commercial properties) and 86 homes in Tract 1641 in 1956. They are bound by a "Declaration of Restrictions, Conditions, Covenants, Changes and Agreements" (CC&Rs).
Such declarations can restrict changes or uses of properties. The CC&Rs limit residences to one-story detached homes and restrict two Edgewood Plaza lots for retail, restaurant, office and similar commercial uses. The declaration requires that construction plans must be approved by a three-person Architectural Control Committee, plaintiffs said.
Committee members and Sand Hill reached a settlement Oct. 29. The settlement could clear the way for redevelopment of the dilapidated, 53-year-old shopping plaza, whose future has long been under contention.
The agreement includes reducing the number of new homes to 10, adding a 10,400-square-foot (0.25 acre) public space and preservation of two original Eichler retail buildings and a grocery-store building.
Neighborhood leaders and most residents have expressed satisfaction with the outcome at public meetings.
"We were really fortunate to have the legal backup of the CC&Rs to help level the playing field. In negotiations with a powerful developer, you have to have some place to stand," Sekimura said.
-- Sue Dremann
Fiscal crisis of the year
Page Mill Properties' EPA operation raises rents, gets sued, implodes
The war between Page Mill Properties and its tenants in East Palo Alto hit two key turning points in September. First, a San Mateo County judge barred the Palo Alto-based property management firm from raising rents at its apartment complexes in East Palo Alto. Then, a week later, the company briefly abandoned the East Palo Alto apartments, leaving trash cans overflowing, fire alarms malfunctioning and residents wondering what to do with their rent checks.
When the dust settled, the situation looked bleak for the largest landlord in East Palo Alto. After months of raising rents (in some cases by more than 50 percent), suing East Palo Alto and lobbying San Mateo County officials to break off the Woodland Park neighborhood from the city's sphere of influence, the company found itself on the defensive and struggling to pay its bills.
By the second half of the year, the company that East Palo Alto officials had long accused of "predatory" tactics now found itself prey to the Great Recession. In August, Page Mill missed a $50 million payment to Wells Fargo Bank. A judge then upheld an injunction by tenants against Page Mill, barring the company from "collecting or enforcing any rent increases" at its properties.
The Palo Alto Police Department even got involved: It hired a private investigator to look into Page Mill's hiring of a Palo Alto officer to moonlight as its security consultant. That investigation is ongoing.
Page Mill's financial woes hit their climax in September, when the company was forced to cede control of its 1,700-plus units to a court-appointed receiver, Wald Realty Advisors.
Now, as the company's apartments slog toward foreclosure, tenants are anxiously waiting to see what will happen to the properties. Meanwhile, East Palo Alto officials and Wald Realty are contemplating a deal that would settle the ongoing lawsuits between Page Mill and the city and conclude the city's long and bitter battle over rent control.
-- Gennady Sheyner
Company of the year
Numbers say it all for Palo Alto-based Facebook
Palo Alto social networking giant Facebook's leadership in 2009 perhaps can be best quantified in lay terms by its move to Stanford Research Park from its 10 downtown Palo Alto offices.
The exponentially growing company moved most of its then-800 employees to the research park in May. The company moved into the former 132,780-square-foot Agilent facility at 1601 S. California Ave., which can hold a maximum 1,446 employees.
Facebook says it now has about 1,000 employees.
The company's phenomenal growth led it to rent an additional 265,000 square feet in December in the research park, at 1050 Page Mill Road.
Spokesman Larry Yu said Facebook went from 150 million users in January to 350 million by early December. And officials expect even more explosive growth in the near future.
The company implemented Facebook Connect in December 2008, a viral sharing loop that allows 60 million users every month to visit, comment, rate and share websites with others. So far about 80,000 websites have used the tool, including many businesses, he said.
Facebook scored $200 million in investment funds in May from Digital Sky Technologies, its first big financial injection since 2007.
In October, Facebook was awarded a $711 million judgment against a prolific spammer, a coup that would keep others from abusing the site, Yu said.
The company "didn't expect the level of consternation" to changes in its terms-of-service agreement in February, which granted Facebook irrevocable and perpetual license on any and all content, even after a user quits the site.
Facebook backtracked days later after a storm of protest, instituting a Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, to give users input in how terms are changed.
The company announced positive cash flow for the first time in September, ahead of 2010 projections, he said.
-- Sue Dremann
Nonprofit of the year
New Jewish community center embraces whole community
"It was almost beyond my wildest dreams," Carol Saal said about the grand opening of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in south Palo Alto in October.
"That's the point of the campus, bringing people into Jewish life, who have no other connections, but feel they need to be part of something in the Jewish community.
"It was much bigger than I ever imagined," said Saal, as she spotted both familiar and unrecognized faces in the crowd that day.
Saal was instrumental in raising more than $140 million over eight years for the center, which is open to the whole community. About half of the fitness club membership is estimated to be not Jewish, according to Alan Sataloff, chief executive officer.
The center, which replaced Sun Microsystems at the corner of Charleston and San Antonio roads, promises to transform life in that section of the city.
It includes a state-of-the-art fitness center with indoor and outdoor pools, a preschool, classrooms and lounges, rooms for nonprofit group meetings, a 350-seat theater, a cafe and a gift shop.
The center replaces the old Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, which was located at the then-closed Terman Middle School and later temporarily moved to the Cubberley Community Center. In addition, the larger campus includes the Moldaw Family Residences and a branch of the Stanford Health Library.
With a goal of attracting 12,000 annual members, the center is designed as an urban village, where one can drop kids off at preschool, work out, visit grandparents, have a cup of coffee, go to a meeting -- all without moving the car.
Built out to the edges of the 8.5-acre property, outdoor spaces are visible -- and usable -- from inside the complex, rather than from the street. Buildings form the backdrop for "outdoor rooms," including a town square that can be used for big events, such as concerts.
-- Carol Blitzer
Let's discuss: Who would you name a Palo Alto Newsmaker of the Year?