Palo Alto's new planning director, Hillary Gitelman, got her first dose of the Palo Alto process Monday night, as the city staff attempted to get direction from the City Council on how to proceed in response to last month's Measure D election results overturning the Council's unanimous approval of the Maybell senior housing project.
On board for little more than a month, new planning director Hillary Gitelman has a big task in front of her: getting up to speed on both the angst in the community over the queue of development projects in the pipeline and the credibility problems facing the staff and City Council from the way prior projects have been handled.
To their credit, City Manager Jim Keene and Gitelman pivoted quickly after the election to bring to the Council a proposal for a broad community dialogue on development and transportation issues. They propose using the update to the city's Comprehensive Plan, which has been quietly underway for two years, as a vehicle for getting more community involvement and input.
Whether a process for this, which will be developed by the staff and brought back to the Council in January, will actually accomplish the desired diverse public engagement will be a test for both Keene and Gitelman, as well as the Council.
As several Council members stated Monday night, one big piece of necessary work is to attempt to reestablish trust within the community on the impartiality of city staff and the Council's genuine interest in listening to and understanding its constituents.
Those goals were not helped by the staff's presentation of historic traffic data that had absolutely zero credibility. In attempting to make the point that what the public is perceiving to be unprecedented traffic congestion today may not in reality be any worse than it was during the tech boom in the late 1990s, the staff created a completely unnecessary controversy. Worse, it demonstrated a continuation of previous troubling habits of selectively citing data that supports a certain point of view, in this case that our perceptions may not be valid.
The data presented showed that while there has been a 20 percent increase in jobs and an 8 percent increase in the city's population over the last decade, there has been a 20 percent and steady decline in average daily traffic volume on key city arterials since 1999.
Several Council members, especially Greg Schmid, Pat Burt and Karen Holman, pointed out that those numbers made so little sense that they never should have been presented and that doing so only reinforces community skepticism about the staff's credibility. Besides, how bad traffic congestion was or was not in 1999 should not be the baseline for what we desire for our community today or in the future.
But the eruption of controversy over traffic data and some needlessly defensive statements by Council members notwithstanding, it appears that the City Council and staff are ready to tackle the right issues: down-zoning of commercial properties, tougher parking requirements for new development, new parking garages, a residential parking permit system, implementing a transportation demand-management system for employers, reform of the so-called PC zone and collecting reliable data to guide future policy-making.
The Council now also seems to have completely soured, appropriately, on the two massive development proposals that helped fuel community concerns, the Arrillaga proposal for 27 University and the Jay Paul office project behind the current AOL building on Page Mill Road.
What some Council members now need is to get over their indignation that the voters used Measure D to send them a message. Council member Marc Berman went out of his way Monday night to state repeatedly that the election results in no way changed his mind about his support for the Maybell zoning change, and that he would approve it all over again if he had the chance. Nancy Shepherd blamed the public for not doing its homework on the legal constraints that tie the city's hands. Liz Kniss contrasted the "vibrancy" of Palo Alto today to the 1980s when she couldn't find an open restaurant downtown after 10 p.m.
These are not the comments to make when trying to start a constructive "community conversation" that invites new and diverse participants, including those citizens who are feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.
The staff and the majority of the City Council at least talk as if they truly want a dialogue about the future of the city. We hope they can assert the leadership to actually make it happen.