News

Transformation proposed for Palo Alto's planning department

Proposed budget would create new Development Services Department; add funds for planners, transportation programs

The City Council's Finance Committee tentatively approved on Tuesday night a proposed budget for the Department of Planning and Community Environment, which will undergo a transformation when the new fiscal year kicks off on July 1. The budget proposed by City Manager James Keene would create a new Development Services Department, which would handle permitting, inspections and other construction-related services. These functions have traditionally fallen under the purview of the planning department.

At the same time, the city plans to invest more in what Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called a "mountain of work" in long-range planning. The city recently launched a broad community-engagement process called "Our Palo Alto" that aims to solicit citizen input on the update of its chief land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan. In addition, city planners are now drafting a new Housing Element, which is due to be submitted to the state in January, as well as working on a "downtown cap" study that aims to tally downtown's capacity for growth. Other items on the department's long agenda for 2015 include expanding the city's shuttle services and forming a new Transportation Management Authority that would help to coordinate the city's downtown traffic-reduction efforts.

The decision to spin out development services will make the city's planning department far leaner, with 24 full-time jobs shifting to the new department along with $9.1 million in projected revenues and $2.8 million in non-salary funding. The department's current budget of $13.6 million would drop by 48 percent in 2015, falling to about $7.1 million.

This does not, however, include separate proposals to create a $1 million fund for an expansion of the shuttle program and an investment of $150,000 for a consulting firm that will help the city establish the new Transportation Management Authority.

The shuttle proposal stirred the most controversy at Tuesday's discussion, with Councilman Pat Burt balking at Keene's proposal to create a $1 million "shuttle fund." Though the Finance Committee tentatively approved the budgets for both the new Development Services Department and the planning department, it deferred any shuttle decisions to a later date.

In opposing the proposed reserve, Burt argued that the shuttle routes proposed by staff have not been vetted by the council and the community and that the $1 million figure appears to promise more than the city can reasonably deliver in one fiscal year. The staff proposal, which was initially outlined in a February report from planning staff, includes new shuttle services between south Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center; along Embarcadero Road and between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto (the lattermost would include reimbursement from East Palo Alto).

Gitelman said Tuesday that the shuttle expansion will proceed in two phases, with the first phase focusing on renewing contracts for existing routes. In the second phase, staff would work with consultants to identify new routes that could be added to the shuttle network, Gitelman said. Keene characterized the reserve as little more than a placeholder that will be refined later, as staff gets more information about proposed routes and vets these options with the council.

"As we go through the process, we'll find out what $1 million will buy and what the performance is," Keene said. "The marketplace is going to start to let us know whether or not we're on the right track."

The fund would send a signal to the public, Keene said, that the city is serious about addressing downtown's traffic and parking issues, which have increasingly been stirring resident concern and dominating council agendas for the past two years.

"I think we should show the public that we are committed enough, knowing that we certainly may not spend as much," Keene said. "On the other hand, we may come up with routes and such that cost more than the estimates for this year."

Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who took part in the meeting so that the Finance Committee could have a quorum (regular members Karen Holman and Liz Kniss were both absent and city procedures empower the mayor to fill in on committees as needed), agreed with staff's position. Allocating $1 million for shuttles would make it easier for the city to budget for the new routes later in the year, when it receives proposals from service providers later in the year.

"I think it's wise to go ahead and put a shuttle fund in place at this time," Shepherd said. "I think that's what the purpose of this is now – so we don't have to revisit it when the (proposals) come back."

But Burt observed that a report from staff includes actual proposals for routes, with funds allocated for particular segments. He argued that the city has yet to establish clear goals for the proposed shuttle expansion and vet the routes. At the February council discussion, Burt criticized some of the routes proposed by planning staff. One of them, he said, would largely duplicate an existing bus route administered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

He also requested that staff return with more information about two new positions that the planning department proposes to add this year, a land-use analyst and a senior transportation planner. The three committee members -- Chair Marc Berman, Shepherd and Burt -- voted unanimously to leave these issues outstanding for now and approve the remainder of the planning budget.

In separate votes, the committee also unanimously approved on Tuesday the budgets for the new Development Services Department, as well as for the Community Services and Library departments.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the budget in June.

Comments

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 21, 2014 at 2:42 pm

> The budget proposed by City Manager James Keene would create a
> new Development Services Department, which would handle
> permitting, inspections and other construction-related services.
> These functions have traditionally fallen under the purview of
> the planning department.

This break-out seems like solid thinking. But the rest of what is being proposed seems pretty wishy-washy, with no clear vision in place to guide those in charge.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Things like traffic and shuttle services need to be coordinated with our neighbors. We probably need some type of shuttle/bus from Palo Alto residential areas to Google, to Facebook and from various south Palo Alto locations to Stanford - not just the shopping center but to the university and hospitals.

Assuming that the traffic can be solved by Palo Alto alone won't work. Much of the traffic is caused by school generated traffic and much of the remainder is either outward or inward from neighboring cities. Trying to solve traffic piecemeal isn't going to be comprehensive.


Posted by jerry99, a resident of Barron Park
on May 22, 2014 at 10:59 am

Just adds more bureaucracy. A planning dept? More planners? NONSENSE

"At the same time, the city plans to invest(WASTE) more in what Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called a "mountain of work" in long-range planning" MORE NONSENSE We don't need that or any more deadbeat city employees with gold plated benefits staring out the windows or at their computer screens for 30 years.

Just stop building apartments, condominiums, hotels and business space in Palo Alto. How many times do the residents have to tell you they don't want any more and the city is too crowded already.

Beg Fry's to stay, it is a good business and resource and does not need any apartments or retail space in that area. Leave California Street alone, you have already done enough damage to that.

Concentrate on what Palo Alto residents want, LESS CRIME downtown at night and MORE PARKING. Stop spending money.


Posted by StoryPlease, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 22, 2014 at 3:17 pm

As to development and growth and 'more housing' in Palo Alto, I would love to see the The Weekly / Palo Alto Online do an in depth piece on ABAG and state law as it applies to who gets to tell Palo Alto what it has to do, and what consequences there would or might be if we said "shove it" (as many folks who post here would like done). Let's try to put that issue in the light so that we can have an informed discussion, force something to be done, or else quit all the complaining.


Posted by Yes, time for reporting, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

StoryPlease,

"As to development and growth and 'more housing' in Palo Alto, I would love to see the The Weekly / Palo Alto Online do an in depth piece on ABAG and state law as it applies to who gets to tell Palo Alto what it has to do, and what consequences there would or might be if we said "shove it" (as many folks who post here would like done). Let's try to put that issue in the light so that we can have an informed discussion, force something to be done, or else quit all the complaining."

I agree that reporting on this is overdue, and almost suspicious that nobody can pin down all the issues with substantiation.

Stephen Levy's blog has ongoing props to suggest Palo Alto is on the hook for housing the world here, and the blogs don't get very far except for people asking Why?

There are no less than three cities in the Bay area which can handle the "world" better than a town which has traffic issues because of school traffic, and that is with thousands of school kids biking already.

For any future reporting, and to all the planners. Perspective please.



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