Few Palo Alto residents have the time and appetite to come to City Hall for discussions about the future, unless that future includes new buildings going up on their blocks, traffic lanes being reduced on their streets or parking spaces disappearing from their neighborhoods.
With that in mind, City Hall will kindly come to them.
Starting Thursday and continuing throughout this year and much of the next, city officials are preparing to host a wave of community hearings, social events, online forums, expert panels and coffee meet-ups as part of an ambitious effort to get residents buzzing about the Comprehensive Plan. The city is now in the midst of updating the plan, which is often referred to as the city's "land-use bible," and will outline the city's official vision on everything from land-use and transportation to housing and community services.
On Monday, the City Council discussed and tacitly approved staff's broad plan to engage the populace, a strategy that seeks to inject some vitality into a process that has been quietly simmering behind the scenes for the past eight years. Since the council decided in 2006 to update the Comprehensive Plan, the revision process has been outpaced by the facts on the ground. With the economy now booming, the council's former focus on sustaining commercial development in town has been upended by angst about protecting local neighborhoods from too much growth. Recent trends and events (including proposals for dense new development, downtown's worsening parking shortage and the public's rejection of a housing development on Maybell Avenue in a vote last November) have added urgency to the effort and prompted the council to hit the reset button on the entire process.
Now, the city is on a new path to complete the update by the end of 2015. To that effect, the council Monday night discussed an engagement plan that includes (among many other efforts) in-person and virtual meetings, coffee sit-downs with city planners and street stalls in neighborhoods throughout the city. A new citizens-advisory panel will also be formed to aid the city in getting feedback from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented at City Hall, including ethnic minorities, renters and residents between 20 and 40 years old. The city will also continue to hold its Our Palo Alto panel series, which kicked off on April 23 with a discussion titled "Who Are We?"
The Comprehensive Plan update strategy is a far departure from the prior approach, which generally deferred the bulk of the work to the Planning and Transportation Commission. The commission has been reviewing and editing each chapter (or "element") of the plan over the past four years and has recently completed a draft revision. The council on Monday began its meeting with a three-hour discussion of the commission draft and ended it with a conversation about public engagement in the update.
Though the Comprehensive Plan includes eight chapters with subjects ranging from business to nature, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss spoke for many on the council when she argued that the community conversation will basically revolve around one portion.
"When you buy a house, they say its about location, location, location," Kniss said. "I think this plan is about density, density, density."
Others agreed. Councilman Greg Schmid noted that the city's population growth in the last 13 years (about 1 percent per year) has far outpaced growth in prior decades (around 0.2 percent per year). In the last eight years, he said, the city has added about 2 million square feet of commercial space. He highlighted the need to obtain solid data about density and growth before adopting a new vision.
Council members Pat Burt and Karen Holman both said the revision process should clarify the regulations that allow developers to construct denser-than-normal buildings.
Developers often request to build at a density at the upper limit of what's allowed under the zoning code. In some cases, they receive approval for density that even goes beyond the "maximum floor area ratio," a calculation that determines allowable size.
Some developers get exceptions because they offer to include affordable housing, which by state law allows them to claim density bonuses. Others offer the city money, amenities and various other "public benefits" for permission to exceed zoning regulations. This trend, which Burt called a "very big problem" has led to a situation in which "maximum-plus is the new minimum."
"Maximum doesn't even mean maximum anymore," Burt said.
The city should determine in the Comprehensive Plan whether a developer should really be entitled to the "maximum" density even if the new project isn't consistent with the principles of the vision document, Burt said.
Holman agreed and said it's important for the city to balance "private-property rights with public expectations of development projects." It's critical, she said, for the city's developments to follow a "coherent design" and to be consistent with established design standards.
"I think it's a hugely important issue in this community," Holman said. "I think our community physically is being eroded because we don't have a coherent design vision."
Though members briefly discussed the planning commission's draft, they agreed that much in the document will have to be further changed as the update process proceeds and both residents and council members offer more feedback. Even with all the community-outreach tools in staff's proposal, council members acknowledged Monday that engaging people who don't normally come to City Hall will be a challenge. Councilman Larry Klein said staff members have a "daunting" task in front of them but stressed the importance of getting the feedback of residents who are not "the usual suspects."
"I'd be disappointed if I can recognize half the names on the (advisory) committee," Klein said. "I really want to see new people participate -- people who can reach out to areas of our community who don't come down to City Hall."
Mayor Nancy Shepherd agreed and said she hopes she won't know anyone one the roster of the advisory group. This is the time, she said, to build and attract fresh civic engagement.
She also noted that the process, while daunting, has gotten off to a promising start. The city's first Our Palo Alto panel discussion brought a standing-room-only crowd to the city's Downtown Library. The second event, which focused on affordable housing, brought more than 20 people to Lucie Stern Community Center for a round-table discussion about the city's housing challenges and ways to encourage more affordable housing.
Another event is planned for Thursday, May 8, when the city hosts a reunion of residents who worked on the existing Comprehensive Plan. The event will take place at 6 p.m. at Avenidas, 450 Bryant St.
"It's bringing back the type of Palo Alto I've always been able to work in," Shepherd said of the recent discussions. "Rigorous debates about issues and ideas but not tearing each other down. I really think that's the kind of conversation we need to have in order to vision our future."