Citing a climate of rapid growth that leaves many residents feeling like change is happening "too much, too fast," Mayor Nancy Shepherd used her "State of the City" address on Tuesday to lay out the city's efforts for addressing the lingering frustrations that come with Palo Alto's economic prosperity.
Speaking in the ballroom at Lucie Stern Community Center, the city's first community center, Shepherd delivered a speech that zeroed in on the topic that has dominated City Council agendas in 2013 and that promises to do so again in the coming year -- the impacts of new developments on the city's quality of life. At about 20 minutes, it was one of the most concise and focused addresses in recent years.
Unlike the speech delivered by then-Mayor Greg Scharff last year at the Tesla Motors headquarters, Shepherd's address didn't include any new initiatives or proposed laws. There were no announcements of new public WiFi hotspots or anti-smoking laws. Rather, Shepherd's address largely limited itself to the continually dominant theme of the city's growing pains. In discussing the council's work plan for the year, Shepherd tallied off a list of long-discussed projects dealing with land use and transportation, including the reconstruction of California Avenue, another iteration of the just-updated Housing Element and an increase in the city's parking supply.
Shepherd, who was introduced by her daughters, Rachel Kaci and Becca Shepherd, pointed to Palo Alto's long legacy of wrestling with change, from the late 19th century when Stanford University opened its doors and the city's grain fields gave way to orchards to the 1930s when Stanford Professor Fredrick Terman began setting the stage for Silicon Valley's technological revolution.
To underscore her point that growth anxieties are far from new, Shepherd played a short clip from an interview Terman gave in 1969. When asked whether the charm of the city was getting lost due to of growth and industrialization, Terman responded that Palo Altans have a tendency to always like the city the way it was when they arrived here, no matter when their arrival took place.
"If they came 20 years ago, they complain about the changes and increased traffic and more land being built on and so on," Terman said. "If they came five, eight or 10 years ago, they like it that way and they're perfectly content."
The fact that people seem to like Palo Alto no matter when they came suggests that it "can't be all bad," Terman said.
Shepherd likewise tallied off a list of reasons for why Palo Alto, despite the widespread concerns over traffic congestion, parking shortages and new developments, is having "the best of times." Recent surveys show 91 percent of respondents rating the city's quality of life as "good" or "excellent" and 99 percent consider the city a "good place to work." The local economy has been booming, with commercial vacancies at all time lows and home values increasing by 46 percent in the last five years. The city has also won national awards over the past year in categories ranging from an Open Data initiative to its environmental stewardship.
Yet she also highlighted some of the ways in which this success has hurt Palo Alto, prompting some residents to view the current period as "the worst of times." This list included traffic increases, parking shortages and "disappearing opportunities to live in Palo Alto." Shepherd said the pace of the city's "vibrant economy" has caused many residents to worry about the future, much as has been the case throughout Palo Alto's history.
"Like those before us, we must strike the right balance between evolving as a city while maintaining those things that make our Palo Alto livable," she said.
Shepherd also urged listeners, about 100 of whom attended the event, to get involved in the city's new "Our Palo Alto" initiative, which aims to get feedback from a broad range of residents about the city's future. The initiative will include numerous idea-gathering meetings "beyond City Hall," whether in local parks or during bike rides; an effort to update the city's Comprehensive Plan and numerous "actions" actual near-term changes that address the impacts neighborhoods have long complained about.
Over the past month, the council has embarked on the "action" component with renewed gusto, approving a framework for a "residential parking permit program" that would set time limits on commuters' cars in residential neighborhoods; directing staff to explore new garage sites; and considering a new "transportation demand management" program that would offer incentives for drivers to switch to other modes.
All these efforts are expected to stretch through 2014. Palo Alto, Shepherd said, "is in a continuing conversation about growth, development and change." This, she said, is "the setting and the attitude which brought most of us here and which continues to shape our community and drive our future." The city's "dynamic environment," has brought with it "inevitable problems and challenges" that the council will be grappling with in the coming year.
She gave as an example her own arrival to Palo Alto in 1984 and her realization several years after the move that the city is a place for her. She said she was at first "overwhelmed by how groomed many yards were, and how well educated other parents were."
"At parent gatherings, I would ask others what they did and often got a response like 'study smashed atoms' or 'the liquidity of matter' or 'the property of bacteria when light first hits it,'" Shepherd recalled, adding that she ultimately stopped asking the question and "just enjoyed how family-oriented the community was."
She said the city's new outreach effort will help the council ask the community questions that will "lay the foundation of how we move ahead as a community."
"While the University or tech sector jobs may have brought many of us here for a great adventure, it is our neighborhoods, open space, and the quality of our schools that have been at the heart of what defines Palo Alto," Shepherd said. "And we want to protect and maintain all of these things."
Read Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd's State of the City speech.