An attempt by Palo Alto officials to get out of City Hall and engage residents in a two-year conversation about the future launched on a hopeful note Wednesday night, with a standing-room only crowd packing into the Downtown Library to hear a panel of experts take up the question: Who are we?
The city developed the effort, known as "Our Palo Alto," in response to growing anxieties in the community about growth and development, issues that were at the forefront of last year's polarizing election battle over a proposed housing complex on Maybell Avenue. It was also launched in conjunction with the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan, the land-use bible that will outline the city's vision until 2030.
"This is a very interesting time in our city and we are working to strike that right balance between a place to grow companies and a place to grow families," Mayor Nancy Shepherd said in her introductory remarks at the inaugural event.
So who are Palo Altans? According to the panel -- which included Steve Levy, an economist with the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy; David Evan Harris from The Institute for the Future; and Ann Dunkin, chief technology officer at the Palo Alto Unified School District local residents are by and large a smart, innovative and affluent bunch. The city boasts a larger percentage of residents 65 or older than most other area cities and, thanks to Baby Boomers, the ranks of seniors will continue to grow in the next decade. The city has also become more diverse, with immigrants responsible for much of recent population growth and the school district now enjoying a student population where the majority is minorities.
Here are four take-away lessons from the conversation, which was moderated by former Mayor Sid Espinosa:
1. Seniors are our future.
Palo Alto's population has been getting increasingly gray in recent years, with 17.1 percent of residents now aged 65 and older, said Steve Levy. That's well above the county average of 11.1 percent and the state average of 11.4 percent. Of cities in the area, only Los Altos has a higher proportion of seniors (20 percent). Levy called this probably "the starkest difference" between Palo Altans and residents of nearby communities. The number of seniors will continue to grow in the coming years, Levy said, as the large Baby Boomer generation joins this demographic.
2. School enrollment is high, unless you look at history.
Since 1990, the Palo Alto Unified School District has seen a steady growth in student enrollment. At its lowest point, in 1989, the district enrolled 7,452 students. Today, it has 12,481, said Ann Dunkin, who is preparing to leave her post in the Palo Alto Unified School District to accept an appointment in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not that anyone should panic. The figure only looks high until one zooms out further and realizes that enrollment was far higher throughout the 1960s. According to school data provided by Dunkin, the number was highest in 1967-68, when enrollment topped out at 15,575 students. Today, growth appears to be "flatting out," she said. In fact, in the north part of the city, there has been a decline in elementary school students, she said. "We have empty seats at all North cluster schools now," she said.
3. Tense times are coming.
Palo Alto is a city with at least two strong personalities -- a haven for newly arrived startups and a community of intellectuals with deep roots in the city. These two sides don't always complement each other, said David Harris. So while city officials talk about turning California Avenue into something like Mountain View's vibrant Castro Street, Harris thinks Palo Alto's future may look more like San Francisco's Mission Street, where a well-documented culture clash is taking place between newly minted tech millionaires and longtime residents who gave the neighborhood much of its eclectic character and who can no longer afford to live there. Harris, who was recently evicted from his own Mission apartment, said the colossal amount of wealth and conspicuous consumption in Palo Alto might make it hard for the city to sustain its intellectual, counter-cultural current. "If that (current) loses out to the conversation on the street about Teslas versus the new hybrid Porsche, the city is in trouble."
4. Palo Alto is not your typical suburb.
The idea of Palo Alto as a collection of quiet, suburban neighborhoods filled with single-family homes and bustling with happy children may be comforting in a Norman Rockwell way, but it's not very accurate, panelists said Wednesday. As Levy pointed out, 57 percent of Palo Alto homes are detached single-family homes, just below the state average of 58 percent. The rest are multi-family units, such as apartments and condominiums. Also, more than two thirds of Palo Alto households don't have school-age children at all. In fact, according to Levy, 31 percent of Palo Alto's 8,359 households have children under 18, compared to 34.3 percent in Santa Clara County and 33 percent statewide. "The image that we are -- or that any of our neighboring communities are -- single-family-dwelling-unit communities where everyone has kids in school is factually incorrect," Levy said.