When Mayor Greg Scharff chaired his first City Council meeting in January, he referred to 2013 as the "year of the future," a year when the city would take giant strides in tackling long-term problems and make big decisions that would shape it for decades to come.
The city was to come up with ways to pay for fixes of its flagging infrastructure, give the city's masses ultra-high-speed access to the Internet, figure out what to do about the lease of Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto, and provide relief to downtown residents whose streets have become de facto parking lots for commuters.
It would be the year when the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, the crown jewel of the $76 million bond voters approved in 2008 and the city's largest infrastructure projects in decades, would finally open.
But things didn't go as planned, and by the time December came around, the council's focus was no longer on chasing dreams. Instead, it was on fixing a political system that many in the city have come to see as broken, highlighted by a citizen revolt that in many ways defined 2013 in Palo Alto.
To be sure, the year that Scharff dubbed "Lucky '13" in January brought its fair share of proud achievements, national plaudits and successful initiatives, from the hugely successful National Day of Civic Hacking, which turned downtown Palo Alto into a festival of gizmos, gadgets and TED-style talks, to the council's adoption of a carbon-neutral electricity portfolio, a Holy Grail of energy sustainability that very few cities have been able to reach. (See sidebar.)
Despite these accomplishments, 2013 was largely a year of disruptions. Time and again, Palo Alto citizens rose up to demand change and challenge their leaders' decisions, with varying degrees of success.
This was the year of citizen engagement and enragement, of sweeping proposals, widespread frustrations and clipped ambitions. The uproar over parking shortages downtown spread to other sections of the city. The public tide swelled and turned against massive office developments that exceed the city's zoning code and affect quality of life. Residents, with support from a minority of council members, took a stand against the latest architecture trends. Economic tranquility was overshadowed by political turbulence. And time and time again, things didn't go as city officials expected -- or at least hoped.
The orchard revolution
The year's biggest surprise, and the clearest case of citizen-led disruption, was the battle over a planned development of low-income apartments and market-rate homes on Maybell Avenue.
What began in the spring as a disagreement over road safety along the crowded school route morphed over the summer into a citywide revolt against oversized developments intruding on residential neighborhoods. It culminated in a fall referendum election, known as Measure D, that shook up the city's development process and prompted a winter soul-searching for city officials about the future of local development.
Opponents of the proposed housing project, which was to include 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes (the council later reduced the number to 12), in the spring asked the City Council to retain the land's existing lower-density zoning. Many criticized the council for loaning $5.8 million to the nonprofit developer, Palo Alto Housing Corporation, in 2012 for the purchase of the 2.4-acre site. Others pointed to the city's inclusion of the 60 proposed apartments in its state-mandated inventory of affordable-housing, which created an impression that the project's approval was predetermined. The council's unanimous vote in June to approve the higher-density zone change did little to dent that impression.
That's when the Green Acres neighborhood skirmish became a citywide issue. Sympathetic residents from Downtown North and land-use watchdogs from College Terrace joined the opposition, as did critics of the city's controversial "planned community" zoning, which allows developers to exceed the city code in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." Residents who worried about new buildings throughout town and the traffic and parking problems they could trigger also opposed the Maybell development.
By July, opponents had secured nearly 4,000 votes for a referendum on the council's approval, far more than was needed to send the issue to a vote. On Nov. 5, an Election Day few had seen coming just four months prior, voters struck down the council's vote by about 2,000 votes, with nearly 8,500 residents opposing the measure and 6,500 supporting it. The Maybell development was halted.
For people like Cheryl Lilienstein and Joe Hirsch, leaders of the "Vote Against D" campaign, the Election Day message was evident: Residents want city leaders to listen to them and respect the zoning code.
"Voters sent a very clear message that Palo Altans don't like what is routinely being approved by City Hall and all of its various bodies," Hirsch told the council on Dec. 2, at a meeting on the "Future of Palo Alto" that Scharff and City Manager James Keene arranged, largely in response to the Measure D vote.
For the City Council, the residents' message was at best mixed. Councilwoman Karen Holman saw the election as a sign that residents are dissatisfied with the quality of new developments. Councilman Larry Klein, who has spent 18 years on the council, wasn't so sure. He listed the various referendums he has lived through, including the ones by which the voters upheld the creation of Oregon Expressway, approved the extension of Sand Hill Road to El Camino Real and shot down a downtown "superblock" consisting of two 10-story office buildings. In some cases, Klein said, the vote supported growth and in others it opposed it.
The goal of the council, he said on Dec. 2, isn't to halt development or try to preserve a small college-town feel that the city hasn't had for decades but to adjust to growth and strike a balance between development and neighborhood preservation.
Though council members talked about reforming the planned-community (PC) zoning process, no one proposed abolishing it. Scharff said that what the city needs is for the community to "buy into the PC process," acknowledging its potential benefits, rather than fear it.
In considering the significance of Measure D, former Mayor Dick Rosenbaum pointed to two enormous development projects whose presence, and the city's handling of them, primed this year's citizen unrest: an office-and-theater complex that billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga proposed last year for 27 University Ave. and two office buildings that developer Jay Paul proposed for 395 Page Mill Road, a project that also included a new police station for the city.
"It was the presence of these projects in the pipeline that made the Maybell referendum a subject of citywide interest," Rosenbaum said. "The results sent a message to the City Council. You are not going to demonstrate that you have received the message until you direct staff to notify the two applicants that the development climate has changed from what it was when they were encouraged to submit their applications, and they are no longer likely to be approved."
While the council's Dec. 2 discussion was broad-ranging, it ended with little consensus other than that the conversation should continue in 2014.
Developers, for their part, appear to have gotten the message. Arrillaga's 27 University Ave. has been conspicuously absent from the City Hall agenda in 2013. After a public outcry a year ago about city officials' secrecy and apparent promotion of this proposal, the council agreed in June to seek community involvement in the creation of a vision for the site near the downtown Caltrain station. At the Dec. 2 meeting, Scharff described Arrillaga's proposal as "dead." City officials still talk about creating an "arts and innovation district" at 27 University, but no one seems to know exactly what that means.
Jay Paul's proposal for Page Mill Road met a more sudden end. After nearly two years of plan revisions and public meetings, the developer decided on Dec. 16 to pull the plug. Residents had been criticizing the proposal for its density, a new traffic study pointed to "significant and unavoidable" delays at key intersections, and embattled council members are heading into an election year in 2014. Then there was that Maybell vote.
In its letter withdrawing the application, Jay Paul cited the "current political climate" and pledged to evaluate its options for the site "at some future date."
Until recently, Paul Machado didn't know what a Comprehensive Plan was or what "concept plans" are supposed to do. This year, the resident of the leafy Evergreen Park neighborhood near California Avenue was one of many Palo Altans to get a crash course in land use and planning issues.
For Machado, much like for Downtown North's Neilson Buchanan, Professorville's Ken Alsman and Ventura's Chris Donlay, the civic engagement was spurred by frustration and anxiety over new developments and their implications for parking and traffic.
Frustration over these issues is nothing new in Palo Alto, but 2013 was the year in which citizens supplemented their complaints with concrete actions.
On Dec. 2, Machado told the council that coming to City Hall and learning about housing mandates and zoning laws made him feel frustrated, "like an air-hockey puck." Yet like many other Palo Altans who became familiar this year with the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible, he is doing his part to lessen the potential problems that the new developments could bring.
In early fall, he joined the growing citizen movement aimed at measuring the city's parking problem. Buchanan, a retired El Camino Hospital CEO, led the charge when he developed and put to use a method for measuring parking problems near his Bryant Street home. Using the you-can't-manage-what-you-can't-measure logic, he began cruising around the neighborhood at 6 a.m. and counting the parked cars on each side of the block. He would then repeat the process at lunch time, after downtown workers had arrived. In the end, he had a map showing both the intensity of the parking problem on each block and the boundaries of the areas that were affected. Not surprisingly, most of the blocks were dark red (signifying more than 90 percent occupancy), what Buchanan called "the real color of Palo Alto."
He didn't stop there. In July, he and his neighbor Eric Filseth unveiled a computer model that shows the parking problem spreading to other neighborhoods, including Crescent Park and Old Palo Alto, as recently approved developments come online and further exacerbate downtown's parking deficit. Filseth and Buchanan used the city's recent estimate that downtown had a shortage of about 901 spaces and added up all the new spaces that would become necessary once large and parking-deficient developments such as Epiphany Hotel and Lytton Gateway are built. By 2015, they estimated that the daily parking shortage would rise to 2,500 spaces.
Their model, they noted, allows users to adjust methodological assumptions (including the percentage of office workers who would drive and the impacts of local initiatives like the new valet-parking program at the High Street garage) and is applicable to other neighborhoods.
Buchanan's low-tech method for surveying the neighborhood was also eminently exportable. By fall, he had taught the technique to Machado and to Donlay, whose neighborhood just south of California Avenue was inundated by plans for large new developments this year. By the end of the year, Palo Alto's parking watchdogs had maps detailing the day-time parking troubles in all three neighborhoods.
Donlay, who gathered parking data for the Ventura neighborhood, became a regular critic of the plans targeting his neighborhood. In November and December, he attended numerous public hearings on the Jay Paul Company plans for 395 Page Mill Road, and he challenged the developer's parking estimates.
Even though Jay Paul Company withdrew its proposal in mid-December, Donlay's neighborhoood will soon welcome a nearly block-long mixed-use building around Equinox Gym, thanks to the council's approval of the project in November. Two other proposed developments include a four-story "planned community" office building on the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road and a mixed-use building that would replace four dilapidated homes on the 400 block of Page Mill.
The citizen outcry over parking shortages, both in years past and this year, has spurred action by the City Council, though by the time 2013 ended solutions remained far beyond the horizon.
But the grassroots effort to gather data on parking have lent force to the residents' arguments. At the Dec. 2 meeting about the city's future, Scharff lauded Buchanan's work and acknowledged that parking "is a real problem and it is definitely degrading the quality of life." The city, he said, is moving in the right direction, though "slower than I'd like."
This year, Palo Alto hired a parking manager, closed numerous parking loopholes for new developments, discussed ways to fund new garages and began holding outreach meetings on a newly designed "residential parking permit program," which would extend color zones to downtown neighborhoods and allocate some permits on the residential streets to downtown workers.
Yet the year saw no real breakthrough. Though the council was scheduled to get its first look at the long-awaited residential parking-permit program on Dec. 16, its final meeting of the year, the discussion never happened because most of the meeting was taken up by citizens appealing the designs of recently approved downtown buildings.
It was a fittingly underwhelming conclusion to a year when many felt not enough was done to solve the parking crisis. Buchanan, for one, wasn't too enthused about the proposed parking-permit program, which he and several residents from Professorville and Crescent Park criticized in a white paper as too complex and "destined to fail."
"We thought we were getting a Tesla, but we ended up with an Edsel," Buchanan said as he was heading for the exits during the council's final meeting of the year.
Clash of the beholders
If parking was one area of civic dissent, local architecture was another. After years of grumbling about the look and feel of new developments -- the tightly packed Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino Real; the fortress-like housing development at 801 Alma St.; the supermarket at Alma Village that greets drivers on Alma with its rear end; and the glass, modern four-story office buildings springing up downtown -- critics took their disapproval to the next level this year.
Douglas Smith, a self-avowed traditionalist when it comes to architecture, led the charge. Over the summer, the downtown resident launched a campaign in defense of arches, columns, stucco facades and other flourishes associated with downtown's prominent Spanish Revival style. First, he put together an online survey asking respondents to choose their preference among dozens of pairings, each featuring a modern and a traditional building. The admittedly non-scientific survey, which drew more than 900 responses, showed a clear majority favoring tradition over modernity and agreeing with his assessment that the boxy, glassy new developments are incompatible with the traditional buildings designed by Birge Clarke and others. Then he began filing appeals over new downtown projects that he argued are incompatible with the scale and look of surrounding buildings.
At the Dec. 9 council meeting, Smith emphasized that his appeal of 240 Hamilton Ave. goes beyond the project and pertains to bigger questions over future development.
"Will the city develop its unique Palo Alto identity or will it soon be transformed into an anonymous face, like so many others?" Smith asked.
The council in both cases upheld the Architectural Review Board's earlier approval of the developments. During the long discussion of 240 Hamilton Ave., the council majority agreed with Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who celebrated the variety of architectural styles downtown. The council, Kniss said, has made "concerted decisions" over the years to encourage architectural diversity.
"We have diversity in our population, we have diversity in what we offer in our stores and our restaurants, and I think we offer diversity in our buildings," Kniss said on Dec. 9.
Councilman Larry Klein and Councilwoman Gail Price also spoke in favor of encouraging a wide variety of styles, both traditional and modern.
"We are known for our innovation, our creativity, our pride in the history of Palo Alto," Price said. "But we are also a city of diverse architectural styles, reflecting different periods."
But the effort of Smith and others to disrupt the recent architectural trend toward massive facades and buildings located seemingly at the street's edge have already had an effect. Dozens of residents attended Smith's December appeal hearings to voice their frustrations to the council. Others who had long railed about the in-your-face designs of new buildings united earlier in the year with the Vote Against D campaign to oppose the Maybell development.
In April, responding to years of residents' criticism of development, the council embarked on an effort to change the design guidelines for new buildings on El Camino and Alma streets. In discussing this effort, Councilwoman Karen Holman borrowed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's famous description of architecture as "frozen music" and declared that Palo Alto's recent developments are "out of tune."
Holman was one of four council members -- with Scharff, Price and Greg Schmid -- who signed a colleague's memo calling for a "course correction." The council members acknowledged that several new developments are inconsistent with design guidelines and that this has "generated consternation in the community" and a "strong negative reaction by members of the public."
Progress in this area has been painfully slow and, just like with parking, plenty of consternation remained as the year came to a close. But thanks to local disrupters, residents have plenty of reasons to hope for a better 2014.