Updated: Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 8:42 am
Uploaded: Sun, Dec 29, 2013, 8:59 am
Palo Alto's accomplishments, civic trends in 2013
Healthy economy, ongoing infrastructure problems characterize busy year
"At the end of 2013, I want us all to be able to look back and say, 'Wow, we accomplished a lot,'" Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff said at the beginning of the year.
And surely, by many measures it's been a productive and prosperous year. Even with Palo Alto's recent growing pains, residents continue to give the city glowing reviews when it comes to quality-of-life issues. In the 2012 National Citizen Survey, 94 percent of respondents rated the city overall as "excellent" or "good" and 95 percent gave Palo Alto top ratings as a "place to live." These numbers have been strong for many years and are unlikely to change significantly this year.
Outsiders have also taken notice. In November, the website Livability.com ranked Palo Alto as the nation's top city to live in. At around the same time, the think-tank Center for Digital Government designated Palo Alto the nation's top digital city in its population category. The year was as kind to the Palo Alto brand as it was to the local economy and to property values.
The council didn't exactly rest on its laurels in 2013. In a year full of political speed-bumps and setbacks, the City Council came away with a long list of accomplishments.
It succeeded in greatly expanding the city's public-art program, requiring for the first time that private developers contribute to Palo Alto's art scene. It extended a ban on smoking to every local park and began exploring new smoking restrictions downtown; mandated that every new home be pre-wired for electric-vehicle chargers; created new penalties for residents whose languishing "mystery projects" (that is, stalled home renovations) bring blight to city blocks; banned vehicle habitation in response to complaints from neighborhoods, especially adjacent to Cubberley Community Center (though it also agreed Dec. 16 to freeze enforcement of the ban for a year); shut down community centers at night; and approved new master plans to create citywide wireless and fiber-optic systems.
The local economy continued to blossom, with tax revenues in just about every category climbing steadily and the budget picture looking sunnier than it did even before the 2008 recession. Hotel-tax revenues jumped by an astonishing 57 percent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2014 (July through September), when compared to the same period a year ago. Sales taxes showed a 48 percent jump, prompting city staff to revise their budget projections. All of this was great news.
Yet when it comes to preserving the quality of life of city residents and making progress on the most urgent priorities, 2013 brought its fair share of disappointments. Library patrons are still waiting for the city's new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center to open its doors. The project has seen so many construction mishaps, missed deadlines and failed inspections that Public Works officials have given up on predicting the opening date.
In November, when it became clear that the city's hapless and embattled contractor, Flintco, will miss another deadline, officials sent the company a "notice of default." In mid-December, the city began discussions with Flintco's surety company about supplementing Flintco's undermanned crews or terminating the contractor entirely, which could further delay the long-deferred grand opening of the city's largest library.
Bookworms and library volunteers aren't the only Palo Altans whose patience was tested this year. Residents eager for the long-awaited "fiber to the premise" system, which would bring ultra-high-speed Internet to every home, will also have to continue waiting (thankfully, by now they have about two decades of practice). The only major action on this council priority was approval of master plans for the possible fiber-optic system and for a wireless plan.
When it comes to the city's faltering infrastructure, the council remains uncertain about funding repairs with a 2014 bond measure. Polls of voters showed that a new police headquarters, the city's top infrastructure priority, is unlikely to garner the two-thirds voter support needed for a bond to pass, and Jay Paul Company's withdrawal of its development proposal eliminated one avenue for getting the police headquarters built.
The council's Infrastructure Committee held extensive debates about different funding sources and possible bond packages. As the curtain closes on 2013, a hotel-tax increase stands out as the most promising source for funding infrastructure, but the city remains without a concrete plan for a 2014 election.
The biggest infrastructure accomplishment came this year in the form of street repairs, an area where the city had more than doubled its budget two years ago. This year, the city resurfaced more than 36 lane miles, an accomplishment Scharff said will allow the city to reach its 10-year goal of excellent street-condition scores "much sooner than we anticipated."
In his final written message of the year, Scharff called 2013 a year "of action and progress" and said that the city has "accomplished or laid the ground work to complete almost everything I called for in my State of the City address."
Whether or not other city leaders share this view depends on many factors, not the least of which is their definition of "almost." The council may credibly claim that it "accomplished a lot" in the politically charged atmosphere of 2013. But with so much business left undone and a council election looming, it has set itself up for an even busier 2014.
Posted by Chuck Jagoda
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2014 at 5:06 pm
Hi Crescent Park Dad,
Thank you for your response. It's nice to know people's thoughts in response to one's statements. And thank you for calling me a "good citizen."
I agree--facts are very important. And what exactly are the facts differs a lot from person to person. I can't say that I know all the facts, but here are some of my observations and some observations of others.
1. I never heard about break-ins to rooms or buildings at Cubberley.
2. The uses of Cubberley are many and the people served by it are many. It may not have been intended as a "de facto" homeless shelter, but it evolved into a place where homeless people could shelter--in cars and on the ground. This is actually to the credit of Palo Alto, a city like others in the area woefully deficient in building/allowing/encouraging the low cost/affordable/below-market-rate housing that we elders, we homeless, and various other members of the community need. That evolution is/was a good thing and accidentally made up for the neglect of the housing needs of those who can't afford million dollar homes and the repeated rent increases of 30%.
3. I DON'T know that many of the people who camped at Cubberley were from elsewhere. I DO know that one guy who lived in his truck's mother had taught in Oakland. Another woman who lived in her car to escape an abusive relationship grew up in Palo Alto. Another lady had been a substitute teacher in Palo Alto. I'm sure at least some of the people there came from someone else. So did I. Where were you born? So, do you recommend walls around the city and checkpoints? I really think the idea of all the cities trying out-compete each other to see who can be least hospitable to homeless pretty sad.
4. WHY should the City have stopped the camping when it started? WHEN did it start? One elderly man has been camping there for over 15 years. WHY limit this COMMUNITY resource to just to just some people?
5. Here's a fact for you: Liz Kniss (and she is NOT the only one) complained about sanitation and health and cleanliness of Cubberley campers--yet defended the closing of the bathrooms and showers. The members of the Greenmeadow Association who objected to cleanliness were unwilling to meet and discuss working together to make it better by keeping the showers open.
6. One night when I was sleeping at Cubberley I happened on an open men's room! My surprise was further fueled when I noticed a sign on the inside of the men's room door saying, "This bathroom is open on weekend nights." I asked around and was told (by long-standing car campers) that the weekend custodian didn't like homeless people so he locked those doors on the weekends he worked. The custodian who worked on the alternate weekend WAS a Cubberley car camper--a truck driver who lived a long distance away and stayed in his car when he had routes that started in Palo Alto area--and when he worked left the bathroom doors unlocked on weekend nights.
7. There are a number of people involved in this issue (campers and home-having activists) who believe the City purposely did nothing about the RVs, generators, and other quality of life issues--in an effort to gin up resistance, complaints, and justification for the oncoming assault and expulsion of homeless people.
8. What are your suggestions for the women who lived in cars there and were not about to go into any shelters--one claimed she was more afraid of shelters than the relationship she was fleeing? Where would you have them go? "Back where they came from?" It's AWFULLY tempting to believe that all or a majority of these scruffy, unwashed folks are "from somewhere else"--as if they really helped excuse the cruelty, the discrimination, the willful blindness to one's brothers and sisters. It's just not so. It's not so that we are from somewhere else. And, even if it WERE true, it would excuse nothing. You don't find any version of the Bible that has Christ saying, "As you do unto the least of your brethren, so you do unto Me unless your brethren come from another city." He didn't make that exception that is so popular with some folks. As former Palo Alto mayor Sid Espinosa so wisely, humanely, Christianly said: "Wherever people came from, they're here now." There is no such category in the law for "residents who have been here long enough to deserve care" NOR "residents who HAVEN'T been here long enough to deserve services.
9. American law doesn't provide for discriminating against only SOME members of a community. It's supposed to be behavior-based, not life style-, or class-, or degree-of-poverty-based.
10. Do you not recognize your relatives, friends' children, even YOUR children among the ragged hordes? Do you really think the same things that we are afflicted with COULDN'T happen to these people that you care about? Do you think all of us were living like this all our lives? Don't you know that some of us had the same jobs and lived in the same dwellings you all did? Do you really think there's some entitlement that will you allow to bring up your kids in the same ways you are now FOREVER? If you do, all I ca tell you is so did we. The truth, the hard truth, as we have found out is that the American dream is dying. The former working poor are now the homeless, the former middle class is facing becoming homeless. Plenty of your neighbors who used to feel secure are now facing homelessness because they have absorbed all the 30% rent increases their fixed incomes can absorb. The next rent increase will mean the end of medicine, food, or paying rent. When those who will inevitably (this greatest ever transfer of wealth from poor to rich that has been going on for the past 40 years has only increased in the last 8 years of this Recession. As Palo Alto home values have increased over that time, the resources of many people have disappeared. Those who used to donate to food banks, now go to food banks) need to camp at Cubberley or sleep in their cars or get food stamps--they (you? your kids?) will find those resources have been taken away in an effort to avoid the very circumstances they (you?) are now (then) facing. Karma can be a real drag like that.
10. Yes, Palo Alto is not the only city with a camping ban. It USED to have that loftier moral status, but it's bargained it away in an attempt to not have to see the moral cost of the benefits we have in this country. And to make believe that what's happening to the poor will never happen to them. Palo Alto USED to be a model that other cities looked up to--and deservedly so. Now, worried about being a magnet, it has jumped down in the dirt with others and competes to be the least hospitable to homeless people. By so doing--cutting out bathrooms in parks, sit/lie ordinances, making it illegal to sleep in a park, a car, or on the ground, restricting access to PUBLIC resources--Palo Alto hasn't bought itself one iota of safety, security, or protection from the ravages of poverty. Some of the people living on the streets are literally the sons and daughters of some of the most prestigious parents in Palo Alto: Yes,Stanford docs' and Silicon Valley tech geniuses'kids sleep in the dirt in Palo Alto. I can introduce you to them.
11. You what DOES work? You what does help make the problems better? And even lessens the fear that no one talks about--that it could happen to ME!--you what will do that? The exact opposite of attempts to distance oneself from the poverty. I cite the behavior of the parents at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. They sign up six months in advance to sit and visit with homeless people when the Hotel de Zink is hosting homeless people there. (As you may or may not know the HdZ is a rotating shelter that puts up 15 people at various churches for a month. Those kids come in their jammies and bring card tricks and hang out with homeless people. They are not growing up with the fears and potential traumas that Greenmeadow parents are so concerned about. The MPPC kids grow up knowing homeless people and don't fear them. The kids whose parents impart so much fear to them are not doing anyone any favors.
12. Action is the answer, My Friend, not banishment. You can't banish your fears by hiding from them. You must face and encounter them. That's when you find out that what you were SO afraid of is not so scary after all. And you can't do ANYthing about homelessness by telling homeless people to "go back where you came from." Very attractive for scared folks. But it's just not any kind of a solution.
13. The Palo Alto City Council--SOME of the more scared members--point their fingers at the clergy, the advocates, and the homeless ourselves for "not doing enough." I find it very depressing for City leaders to act so badly. What REAL problem solvers do is first of all accept responsibility. Then they roll up their sleeves and look for solutions. They--the people who really SOLVE problems--don't try to blame everyone else. Who would solve the problems if everybody spends all their energy blaming others? That's for children and very frightened, and benighted, adults. We all can choose whether we will leaven the darkness with light (Channukah and Kwanzaa are both Festivals of Light) or whether we will pull the covers over our heads, the walls up around our gated communities, and the limited resources they have away from under homeless people.
14. If the City of Palo Alto REALLY wanted to help solve the situation--and had half a clue--it would be finding ways to GIVE vehicles to homeless people. There surely can be no cheaper way to Gimme Shelter.