After a meandering eight-year slog, Palo Alto on Monday night hit the reset button and endorsed a new approach for upgrading the city's stale but venerable land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
City Council launched the revision effort in 2006 and the city's Planning and Transportation Commission has been analyzing and revising each chapter over the past four years. At the same time, planners and consultants have been forming "area concept plans" (separate vision documents) for two specific portions of the city -- an area that includes the California Avenue Business District and the sprawling Fry's Electronics site on Portage Avenue; and the south Palo Alto neighborhood around East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way. The plan for the rapidly changing California Avenue area, which is preparing for a host of dense new developments, has been in the works since 2009 and has yet to get to the council for a review -- a pace that can reasonably be deemed sluggish even by Palo Alto's famously thorough standards.
The new approach, which Planning Director Hillary Gitelman and Advance Planning Manager Steven Turner unveiled Monday, would inject a hefty dose of community outreach and civic participation into the process. It would send city officials to neighborhoods, churches, clubs and other gatherings to ask residents who don't usually visit City Hall about their visions for the city. It would create a new "community leadership group" of 12 to 15 citizens to work with the city on the update process. It also includes plans to launch an updated website for the process, featuring reams of released data about traffic, development, parking and other issues of intense local concern.
Perhaps most crucially, it would have a deadline: 24 months. If all goes as planned, it would be completed by the end of 2015 or early 2016.
At Monday's meeting, Turner called the Comprehensive Plan the "blueprint for the future" and the "planning constitution for the city." He characterized the new approach as "an opportunity to forge a collective vision as a city." And given the recent period of growth and community anxieties about this trend, he said he feels this is a good time to take the outreach effort a step further and consider different alternatives about the city's future. The new process will include analysis of various possible visions.
"Staff thinks this is a good time to question our growth management strategies and wonder if there are any alternatives to the way we think about growth in Palo Alto," Turner said.
After a fittingly long, wide-ranging and occasionally tense discussion, the council approved the new approach, though some of the endorsements were tepid and laden with caveats. Councilwoman Karen Holman was one of several council members displeased with the pace of the process.
"I'm really happy to have the schedule and a plan, but it's also very frustrating that we've been at it since 2006 and now we have a schedule and a plan," Holman said.
She said she was particularly frustrated by the city's failure to get the California Avenue concept plan done (the city last year approved the plan for East Meadow Circle). Councilman Larry Klein and Councilman Greg Scharff both voiced concern about the Fry's Electronics site, the only component of the California Avenue concept plan area that would see a change in its land-use designation. The city hopes to retain a mixed-use development in the area, with retail on the ground floor and housing above it. Holman, Scharff and Klein all worried that Fry's will leave before the plan will be completed and site will be taken over completely by housing, as is allowed under current zoning.
"I have grave concerns about what we may end up with there, which either does or doesn't match up with what the Comprehensive Plan currently envisions," Holman said.
Even with these concerns, she called the update of the Comprehensive Plan "some of the most important work we'll do as a council," an assessment Gitelman shared.
Members also expressed concern about the community leadership group and its proposed membership. Under the staff proposal, members would include a few local commissioners and representatives from the downtown business community, a senior organization, a youth organization, Stanford University, the California Avenue business community, several neighborhood groups and the citizen watchdog group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. Klein proposed adding other members, including a representative from Stanford Research Park and an environmental organization. He also stressed, as he has in the past, the need to go beyond "the usual suspects" and reach groups that normally don't attend council meetings. This includes renters, young people and Palo Alto's Asian population, which now makes up nearly a quarter of the city.
City Manager James Keene concurred that reaching these populations is critical, but also acknowledged that the it might not be easy getting people to remain involved in a long process.
"I do think that unfortunately in a democracy we always run into this problem: We can do the best outreach; we can connect (with residents), but whether or not people want to engage or stay engaged is another matter," Keene said.
In approving the staff approach by a 7-1 vote, with Gail Price absent and Greg Schmid dissenting, the council authorized an additional expenditure of $597,206 for consulting services to assist with the effort. Members also agreed to hold a study session in the coming months to go over the work that has taken place with the Comprehensive Plan update so far. Councilman Pat Burt also recommended that staff go back and review the city's previous update of the Comprehensive Plan and its creation of SOFA and SOFA II plans (land-use visions for two sections of downtown's "South of Forest Avenue" area) for "lessons learned."
Schmid argued that the city's process is broken and that the council's stated policies about development have been largely ignored in recent projects. The Comprehensive Plan, he said, isn't working. He cited decisions by the city to put development projects "on a fast track" rather than honoring the land-use bible and pointed to the 2013 National Citizens Survey, which showed residents giving the city lower scores in a host of land use and planning categories than they had in prior years.
"If we're going to listen to people, there's a message out there: People are upset," Schmid said. "We promise things; the Comprehensive Plan promised things; the council in their actions has promised things. And we're not doing them."
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