Gathered in a cold room with metal folding chairs, a mere handful of electric outlets and no wireless Internet, Palo Alto officials acknowledged that their annual priority-setting "retreat" doesn't fit the typical definition of the word.
For Mayor Nancy Shepherd and City Manager James Keene, the setting had everything to do with the point of the exercise. Shepherd opened Saturday morning's meeting by noting the difference between the posh and faddy amenities often associated with retreats -- a five-star hotel, some team-training exercises -- and the City Council's strategic gathering at the Ventura Community Center. Keene observed that "it's really not the best space for meetings." It was partly chosen, he said, "to be representative of some of the kinds of challenges and issues we have in our city."
These challenges, including the outdated infrastructure the center represents, were the main focus of the strategic retreat, a session in which the council sets annual priorities and discusses possible reforms, considers staff's annual work plan and ponders procedure revisions. This year, the process didn't bring forward any new burning topics. Rather, it afforded the council the opportunity to renew its vows of yesteryear.
For the second year in a row, the simmering issues of parking shortages and an infrastructure backlog were chosen by the council as the primary focus areas. Fittingly, the council did what it said it would do last year and effectively carried both of these priorities from 2013 to 2014. Members also agreed unanimously to keep "technology and the connected city" as a priority for another year, largely as a way to underscore the city's commitment to building a citywide ultra-high-speed Internet system.
The council agreed, however, to change the wording on the land-use priority to "Comprehensive land use and transportation planning and action: the built environment, transportation, mobility, parking and livability." The wording, proposed by Councilman Pat Burt, replaces and broadens the 2013 priority, which specifically referred to the "future of downtown and California Avenue."
"We've expanded our concern beyond downtown and California Avenue," Burt said. "That priority doesn't talk about any south Palo Alto land-use and transportation issues, which are a big part of the discussion."
The council voted unanimously to adopt this as a priority. The only disagreement was over the inclusion of the word "mobility," which was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff and approved by a 6-3 vote, with Burt, Marc Berman and Greg Schmid dissenting.
The newly adopted planning priority acknowledges that the lingering issues of traffic congestion and parking shortages remain at least as bad as they were last year. In the coming 12 months, the city will be bringing forward a "transportation demand management" program aimed at getting people out of cars and into other modes of transportation; consider construction of new garages and pursue a slew of bike improvements.
A new citizens survey confirms what council members have long acknowledged: in the eyes of the citizenry, parking and traffic problems are getting worse. The National Citizens Survey, which ranks Palo Alto's services and amenities against those of other communities, showed scores for parking and new developments plummeting between 2012 and 2013. When asked about the "amount of public parking" in the city, the percentage of respondents who ranked the city as "good" or "excellent" dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent (in 2010, the percentage was 60 percent).
The overall quality of new development was rated as "excellent" by just 12 percent of respondents, while another 32 percent ranked it as "good." At the same time, citizens continued to give the city failing grades when it comes to availability of affordable housing, with only 13 percent giving Palo Alto the two highest grades in this category.
Councilman Greg Schmid alluded to this report on Saturday and urged his colleagues to pay attention to the survey results.
"Those are numbers that just leap out of the page and this is citizens talking to us," Schmid said.
For most council members, the numbers have confirmed what they have been hearing from residents throughout the year. Even before the citizens overwhelmingly shot down last November a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue, new developments and their impacts on existing quality of life had been a subject of heated and divisive debate.
"That's probably the prime conversation we've been having during the last year," Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said, referring to the land-use priority.
One action that the council plans to take in the near term is to reform the "planned community" zoning process, a controversial procedure in which a developer gets zoning exemptions in exchange for benefits negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The council plans to discuss these reforms Monday night.
Bob Moss, a persistent critic of local land-use policies, referred to the "planned community" on Saturday as "wildcard zoning" that typically benefits developers far more than the public. The result, he said, has been a "disaster" for the city.
"You have to go back and completely redo the PC process because it hasn't worked and it isn't working," Moss said.
While dealing with these reforms, the council will also continue to wrestle with an infrastructure picture that has somewhat brightened over the past year. Though the council is still considering a November ballot measure to pay for infrastructure projects, members have also acknowledged in recent weeks that the city has enough existing funds to pay for the most important item on the list: a new public-safety building. At the same time, the city has invested heavily in street and sidewalk repair over the past few years, making substantial progress on one of the issues highlighted in 2010 by a specially appointed citizen committee.
"The list of what is unfunded has shrunk and shrunk," Burt said, adding that the city's is "on the cusp of largely solving" the problem that has been facing the council for the past decade: an infrastructure backlog totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
The council voted 8-1, with Gail Price dissenting, to keep the infrastructure priority for another year. Price acknowledged the importance of the subject, but argued that the process will unfold whether or not the priority is carried over.
Price also advocated adding a priority relating to climate change and sustainability, an issue that she said has become more critical during a drought period.
"Considering the sense of urgency and the governor's statement and many other individuals' (statements) including our staff, I feel this in an opportunity for us to add this second focus area and really examine our adaptation policies," Price said.
In addition to setting its annual priorities, the council agreed to scrap two of its recently formed committees -- the Technology and the Connected City Committee and the Rail Committee. Members agreed that while the subjects remain important, it would be appropriate for the full council to grapple with them.
The council agreed by a 7-2 vote, with Kniss and Scharff dissenting, not to seat these committees. By the same vote, the council agreed to try an approach that Keene described as "committee as a whole." The concept would allow council members to hold meetings in informal locations outside City Hall focusing on particular topics.