Palo Alto on Monday gave an emotional sendoff to Planning Director Curtis Williams, whose mild-mannered leadership, passion for community engagement and encyclopedic knowledge of local zoning laws won praise from even some of the city's most vehement land-use critics.
Williams, who is retiring later this month from one of the city's toughest, most visible and most critical jobs, earned a standing ovation and a spirited farewell from every council member and from several members of the public, including Bob Moss and Winter Dellenbach, land-use watchdogs and vehement critics of recent development proposals.
Williams, who served as planning director for the past four years, as assistant director for three years before that, and a zoning consultant for about six years before that, has been a key player in a planning process that has been under a hot spotlight during the economic boom of the last four years.
Even before the recent wave of major commercial-development applications, Williams has been the chief planner on a wide range of major community projects, including construction of the Eden Family housing development on Alma Street, the new Alma Plaza, renovation of Lytton Plaza and Heritage Park, expansion of Elks Lodge and creation of the city's first Green Building Ordinance.
Williams was also heavily involved in dozens of other developments and planning projects, including the city's response to California's proposed high-speed rail system, the composition of the Housing Element and the approval of AT&T's antenna system.
These projects, along with many others, were listed in a resolution that the council unanimously and enthusiastically approved Monday. But in their comments, council members focused on the other part of the resolution, the one that cites his "calm, diplomatic and approachable manner" and his habit of "always seeking consensus and ensuring the greater good was always at the forefront of each discussion."
Palo Alto's leading land-use watchdogs testified to the lattermost quality. Dellenbach said half of those projects listed in Williams' resolution "kind of take my breath away." Some, she said, she "worked hard to defeat." Dellenbach called Williams "the best thing about some of those projects" and called him a "gentleman" who always makes time to speak to residents and who is able to explain concisely and cogently the complex zoning issues that underpin some of the city's loudest debates.
"We were lucky as a city," Dellenbach said.
Moss, who often criticizes the city's "planned community" process (which grants developers zoning concessions in exchange for "public benefits") and major developments, was even more effusive in his praise for Williams, despite the fact that they found themselves on opposite sides of the issue more often than not.
"He was always polite and he'd explain why his position was what it was and why our position isn't what it should be," said Moss, who's been involved in the development process for about four decades. "He wasn't being arbitrary in his positions. He's been very, very competent, very capable, very good to work with. I dealt with an awful lot of planning directors Curtis has been at the very top of the list."
In accepting the resolution, Williams said he can think of no better job than being Palo Alto's planning director, even with the long hours, the late nights and the fervent debates the job entails. Fittingly, his resolution came before the city's discussion of a proposed senior-housing project on Maybell Ave., a proposal that brought more than 100 residents to City Hall.
"It is just an exciting place to be," Williams said. "It's a challenging place -- you know that. The workload is fast-paced and the engagement process is substantial."
Williams also recalled being interviewed for the planning director job and fielding a question from Councilman Pat Burt about the engagement processes in some of the other cities he worked in, including Woodside and Austin. Engagement, Williams said, is what makes those cities "great communities."
"They are engaged. They are communities where everybody is involved and you have a lot of contentiousness but in the end the process is the best," Williams said.
Burt also recalled the conversation he and Williams had about community engagement.
"Anyone can say it, but you walked the walk throughout all the time you've been here," said Burt, who read Williams' resolution.
Burt's colleagues joined him in feting Williams, with Larry Klein lauding his communication skills and "encyclopedic knowledge" of Palo Alto, which manifested itself in his ability to "know the answers to virtually any question the council members can come up with." Councilwoman Karen Holman praised his intelligence, Vice Chair Nancy Shepherd thanked him for his patience and Councilwoman Gail Price marked her appreciation by quoting Ernest Hemingway's definition of "courage" as "grace under pressure."
"Thank you for all the courage you displayed here in the City of Palo Alto," Price said.