News

Palo Alto planning department sees senior-level shake-up

City hires assistant director from Beverly Hills as two veterans step down

In the latest shake-up in Palo Alto's busy planning department, the city has hired a new assistant planning director and is saying goodbye to two department veterans, one of whom has been leading the city's Comprehensive Plan update.

City Manager James Keene announced Tuesday that Jonathan Lait will be the city's next assistant planning director, the second-highest position in the Department for Planning and Community Environment. The position has been vacant since April, when Aaron Aknin stepped down to take the top planning job in Redwood City. Lait is currently assistant director for community development in Beverly Hills, where he has worked since 2008.

Before that, Lait worked for the City of Santa Monica, where his responsibilities included managing the city's Architectural Review Board and updating strategic land-use documents, according to the city's announcement. He will start his new job in Palo Alto on Sept. 29.

At the same time, Palo Alto is preparing to bid farewell to Steven Turner, who currently holds the position of advance planning manager and whose responsibilities include updating the Comprehensive Plan. During his nearly 16 years in the department, Turner managed some of the city's most complex and controversial projects, including the Stanford University Medical Center expansion, the condominium complex at 800 High St. and the Arbor Real townhouse development on El Camino Real.

Turner is the latest Palo Alto planner to make the jump to Redwood City. Palo Alto's former Planning Director Curtis Williams stepped down in 2013 and took the job of interim planning manager at Redwood City. Aknin followed earlier this year, when he became director of Redwood City's Community Development Department. Turner will now serve as planning manager in Redwood City.

Turner's departure follows the recent retirement of Dennis Backlund, the city's historic preservation planner. Backlund concluded his 14-year tenure in Palo Alto on June 30. The city plans to fill both positions.

In addition to Lait, the city has recently hired two new planners to help the department deal with a growing workload that includes an upgraded Comprehensive Plan, revisions to the "planned community" design process and an aggressive push to solve downtown's parking shortage. In June, the City Council approved a budget that creates two new positions – a senior transportation planner and an analyst specializing in developing data for long-range planning.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2014 at 5:14 pm

"Before that, Lait worked for the City of Santa Monica, where his responsibilities included managing the city's Architectural Review Board and updating strategic land-use documents, according to the city's announcement. He will start his new job in Palo Alto on Sept. 29."

I did not realize that someone could manage a city's Architectural Review Board.

Could we have that job description brought to Palo Alto with Mr. Lait?

I hope that the 1st thing Mr. Lait can do is to share how he sees our differences with the southern CA destinations. How differently Beverly Hills and Santa Monica flow within the context of giant LA, whereas we are in a near claustrophobic situation, and it's to each his own in the 101 corridor.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Actually, both Beverly Hills' and Santa Monica's arcane Planning processes -- and their levels of citizen input -- are quite similar to the Palo Alto situation. Mr. Lait is a good "get."

Mr. Aknin and Mr. Turner: Palo Alto's loss is Redwood City's gain.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Stephen Turner and Aaron Aknin seemed like they were working very hard as civil servants. Not sure what it means that Palo Alto is a training ground for Redwood City.

What is going on at 250 Hamilton.

I'll be curious to read the report in response to Grand Jury of June 16, 2014 (by 9/16/14).

And Dennis Backlund: he is the guy who saved The Varsity, as a civilian, from the wrecking ball. He will be missed.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 10:15 am

> Stephen Turner and Aaron Aknin seemed like they were working
> very hard as civil servants.

[Portion removed.]

What metrics would you suggest that we should use to determine the work product value of a civil servant?

Rotation is a good thing--particularly where planning is concerned.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

There would be less workload on the Comp Plan revision if the City wasn't trying so hard to load it with goodies for developers and their vision of an urban-canyon City (a vision that frankly needs no protection like the residents' vision does).

I would like to know if Turner was the one who approved providing the erroneous information to the state during the Maybell debates, telling the funding agency that the rezoning had already taken place when it was never technically rezoned and the earliest it could have been was the election, plus saying all CEQA appeals had expired when there was an active suit, etc., in other words, proceeding as if the public process was irrelevant at maximum cost to the City? Providing erroneous information as an LRA was at the least unethical, and it's hard to imagine it didn't play into the Council choosing to hold an expensive election, the most expensive way. I feel both High Street and Maybell were handled unethically, and given the similarities in the ballot bias, probably with foresight in inserting the bias. But given what the City got away with at High Street, they probably thought they couldn't lose.

Redwood City is a different place that may be glad to have a built up urban-canyon-y downtown with little sunlight, so they may actually be happy with what they're going to get. I personally have serious ethics concerns, not just with Maybell and High Street, and am glad to see him go. I also have a lot of concerns for the high density gentrification Aknin and Turner will no doubt encourage, as RWC is one of the more affordable places on the Peninsula with decent housing.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Jul 30, 2014 at 11:03 am

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jim baer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 30, 2014 at 11:30 am

Aaron and Steven were both fine, dedicated planning managers for the City of Palo Alto. They worked with good focus to protect the community consistent with Zoning Codes and Comprehensive Plan directions and did so in a manner that was clear, with firm guidance. Some guidance has been helpful for developers to understand current policies as they change.Other guidance has been to precaution developers about the most important community issues that would make some types and sizes of developments impractical.

the Planning Department is mistakenly diagnosed as encouraging of and supporting inappropriate development. This is an uniformed and angry point of view that may become over the top during periods of internet and social networking methods of organizing. [Portion removed.] Thee are some self-promoting community leaders, none of whom would win support by making personal presentations because their anger and misinformation would be apparent to observers These same statements and positions distributed by 1000s of emails do not well filter the wild ones who presume their animus towards the development community is a highest form of leadership.

We will miss Steven and Aaron and the Planning Department under the leadership of Hillary Gitelman will find superbly qualified replacements planning leaders as has been well accomplished by the City with is staffing of the Planning Department for 25 years.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Jim Baer,

[Portion removed.]

The outgoing professionals could have been doing their job (as they apparently met your expectations), but the situation with City "Planning" is not ideal. What I hear about the Planning job sounds more like a dedicated team to respond to developer requests. Developer Customer Service. A "responsive" planning department with this job description would not be a good thing for the City which is much more than about developers.

As a regular resident, with no ties to any factions, and just my two eyes to see the direction of the City, I would say there is a City planning problem (CIty encompassing everyone, not just developers). If it was actually planned for Palo Alto to go in a direction inconsistent with what the town can sustain in terms of infrastructure, inconsistent with what the taxpayers can afford, and inconsistent with what the residents find appealing, in terms of quality of life - then planning should have much higher standards.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 12:04 pm

@jim baer,
Can you refute any if the statements I made above? Because PAHC was actually awarded $5 million dollars based on an application where it didn't meet the requirements, but the state overlooked it because our City planners said they did. Tim Wong signed the documents. (They had to give the money back, but the process was not revisited in that round, meaning another affordable housing project, or probably projects, elsewhere lost their funding.)

You on the other hand are making strange, sweeping statements about politics, as if neighbors talking to each other and exercising their democratic rights against an overreaching City Hall is partisan. Well, Barack Obama was elected that way, are you going to claim email is some kind of liberal conspiracy? You're making wild, unsupported claims, and I leave it to those who just read your post to decide to which (or all) of you assertions that applies.

All of that is a red herring, as the problem of City employees running the show and cherry-picking the Comprehensive Plan for whatever will support what they want is well known, the City manager admitted it and was quoted in the paper.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2014 at 12:44 pm

JIM BAER
It's SO nice to hear a rational voice on this thread. Thank you for your comments.

"CONCERNED RESIDENT"
Redwood City's downtown is hardly an "urban canyon." Those tall buildings you see are San Mateo County Courts, the Hall of Records and other County buildings and we like having them here. They bring busine$$ to our town. We don't fight rationally-designed change here.

Note that RWC has a mix of building types in our downtown and in our residential areas. The new, more dense, mid-rise housing is clustered adjacent to downtown and is very attractive. It is drawing techies and other young professionals as new residents to our city. These new buildings exist near, but are carefully separate from, some wonderful 100-year old buildings that are lovingly preserved.

ALSO...if RWC's downtown seems a little dark to you, it's because the mature shade trees were left intact on our downtown streets.

Our downtown is filled with people -- all ages, ethnicities, AND incomes -- almost every night of the week. There are weekly music and art festivals that draw people (even from Palo Alto) who usually stay in town to eat at our huge variety of restaurants or to see a movie. And we have LOTs of parking for them.

Some problems.issues:
---- We also have a vagrant/panhandling issue, but that's where we are similar to Palo Alto.
---- We also fight inappropriate development. When a dense project was proposed on the Bay salt flats, we turned it back for modification and subsequent proposals continue to be delayed as they are closely scrutinized.

We do not allow any/all development, but we do not try to stop any/all change. We encourage development.

RWC's planning is a huge success story, and we hope it will continue.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Jim Baer,

"Not unlike the Furthest Right Wing factions of well-finance conservative views in the United States Congress"

You make the case that the Comprehensive Plan is indeed up for grabs, and that there are factions vying for it.

Perhaps the Weekly could report on how the City is financed, who the stakeholders are, what our fiscal future looks like, and more in depth information for residents about what is informing the dealing on the Comprehensive Plan.

My point which was removed was basically that City Planning issues need not be personal, and we need more umbers, more facts, and more reporting about what is behind the debates.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Jim Baer
Got into my long post above -- and I forgot to say that I hope we'll hear your rational unedited voice more often


 +   Like this comment
Posted by No great loss exc. to developers
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm

The Planning Dept. describes Steve Turner's accomplishments:

>Steven was the project planner for some of the City's most visible and controversial projects, such as the 800 High Street multi-family development, Arbor Real, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life etc.<

In other words, the biggest most zone-breaking projects. These are examples people use to describe the most oversized and the most unattractive in town. He was the best friend a big developer could have.
Jim Baer worked on at least 2 (maybe more) of these.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 1:56 pm

[Portion removed.]

Jim Baer certainly seems to want to inject a lot of opinion into this discussion—but not verifiable fact.

Perhaps he will miss these two planners, but it's not likely that those of us who don't want to see Palo Alto overdeveloped like the developer community seems to want will miss them.

It will be interesting to see how many tens of thousands of dollars Mr. Baer "invests" in pro-development, "the building is the benefit" candidates come November.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 30, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

To the extent that I posted about this and then developer Jim Baer criticizes the role of dissent in our community, and disparages the tactics and themes of such, I would wonder, naturally whether he is taking a swipe at me.

I've never met Jim Baer and he's never met me, so he would have no idea about my abilities.

By the way, I am a consistent supporter of one Jim Baer project, the Oshman Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto; I happen to attend a pitch by Alan Sataloff and his development person, and I argued at the time that the center should have a place for community cultural events, like the type that I was bringing to Cubberley at the time.

Also, I happened to cut my teeth, so to speak, at Bay Area Action, where Peter Drekmeier future mayor was a leader, in a site downtown that Jim Baer arranged to have donated.

I'm arguing that the developers need to be regulated not relegated (and I'm obviously not going after the dyslexic vote: workers untie!)

One thing about Steven Turner that is hard to replace: he is Homestead of Cupertino High class of 1985 or so; his ideas about Palo Alto are shaped by local knowledge, local culture. I am worried when we cast nets so far flung to find civil servants: Canada and Los Angeles? Aren't there any Stanford, SJSU or Santa Clara grads who want to work in civil service? (Note that Amy French and Tim Wong are Gunn contemporaries of mine, but they are exceptional in that regard).

If I am "wild" I am only wild in a sense of free like Tom Paine or Henry David Thoreau and not in the sense of a Sean Penn movie or Brando in 1959 or a Barry Gifford slash David Lynch movie. I'm more obviously a book-worm than a rabble-rouser. I'm of the age that was very influenced by Woodward and Bernstein, and the movie about them: that's why I call Our Palo Alto a slush fund.

I'd like to see a graph comparing "Arts and Culture" division or Community Service (i.e. areas currently directed by Greg Betts) relative to Development Center (i.e of Hilary Gitelman) historically and plotted versus overall budget, over last five, ten, twenty years. It seems like good people are moved from Community Service to Development (like Kash A_).

[Portion removed.]






 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 30, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Jim Baer is the founder of Premier Properties, and according to a resolution introduced by then-supervisor Liz Kniss in March, 2011, has developed more than 100 properties in Palo Alto and spoken publicly on these issues, it says, and I link to it below, and you can click thru to the archived government document, 750 times.

(That's what was deleted above, my statement that he is, besides Resident of Downtown North, the developer)

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Mr. Baer's name sounded familiar, shows how disconnected I am.

But I think it's a GOOD thing for a developer to speak up publicly.

My suspicion is that developers rather prefer to have City staff represent their interests, so it's much better to hear a developer's voice directly and publicly.

So far, it sounds like there is a pining for better times, but nothing about a vision for Palo Alto which is somewhat consistent with resident values. Residents who do not buy the "vitality" thing, or live with the fear of becoming Detroit, and who are not exactly looking for a downtown monument to increase the value of their home. Or like me, residents who cannot understand what I call the Regionalist view - ABAG, and the growth lectures.

It will help to see more numbers to these discussions for the Comprehensive Plan, and even better to hear the developer view.

In terms of the original thread, I think it's a good thing to bring outside views. The idea that you need to be a Gunn graduate or that your ability is correlated to years in Palo Alto doesn't make any sense.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

@neighbor from another community,

You seem not to have understood what I said. I was not making any comment about Redwood City as it is. I said,

"Redwood City is a different place that may be glad to have a built up urban-canyon-y downtown with little sunlight, so they may actually be happy with what they're going to get."

I wasn't commenting on what you have, I was commenting on the direction of what you are GOING TO GET now that you have people who were responsible for all the urban-canyon-y cr@p going up around Palo Alto in charge in your town. I welcome you to drive El Camino in Palo Alto from Arastradero to San Antonio, and take note of the new trend in out-of-scale blocks of ugly apartments on an already overcrowded strip of road with no public transit.

Good luck retaining your diversity as your planning departments let people build whatever they want anywhere, driving up prices and pushing out much of that diversity. Like I said, it's a pity, as RWC is one of the more affordable places on the Peninsula currently, but that will change if planners start selling of your zoning like they did in Palo Alto. (Read about "Buena Vista Mobile Home Park")

Good luck to you. Based on what you said you value about your town, you're gonna need it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Just wondering How Jim Baer reconciles his views with the Grand Jury
report relating to 27 University Ave and the staff role in that?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Redwood City's development is proceeding according to a plan, and the results are great. Urban canyons are not in that future. We have preserved, and will continue to preserve, much of our interesting past.

We're not so stupid that we haven't ensured that this will continue with our newly hired Planning staff.

Redwood city doesn't fight rational development, we welcome it. Your loss is our gain.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Neighbor,

"Redwood city doesn't fight rational development, we welcome it. Your loss is our gain."

There may be a difference of opinion about what's rational. I wouldn't consider 27 University a rational development. Or developments which require zoning gifts to private interests rational. Or turning most of the small downtown into office space, rational. At any rate, the judgement is not supposed to be about being rational. It is either legal, or not. It's done with a proper public process, or not. It complements the attributes of the town, or not. It has parking, or not.
Rationalizing too much is what happens when you deviate from a plan. Or when you actually don't have a plan and need to rationalize everything.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2014 at 9:41 pm

neighbor@another community,

There is a lot of building going on near downtown Redwood city. At least 4 - 5 new apartment buildings, all targeting high end renters - where are the BMR (Below Market Rate) units? And did you know that some are way under parked? The theory is that people won't have cars because they are so close to the train station....

Good luck with that.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 30, 2014 at 9:50 pm

@ concerned resident

>Redwood City is a different place that may be glad to have a built up urban-canyon-y downtown with little sunlight, so they may actually be happy with what they're going to get.

Really?

Dude, You obviously have not been to downtown Redwood City on Friday night for 'Music on the square', . I got sun burned!

Palo Altans are uptite, always have been, always will be!

Redwood City is doing something right. We want their Mayor for Palo Alto.

No wonder our top planning department officials jumped ship.




 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neghbor 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 30, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Stop deleting Mark Weiss' comments! Hear him out!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Neighbor 2

"Dude, You obviously have not been to downtown Redwood City on Friday night for 'Music on the square', . I got sun burned!"

Concerned resident has explained, the comment was not that RWC has built a downtown with little sunlight, but that they "may" be glad to have (in the future) a downtown with little sunlight, IF they like the direction in which Palo Alto has been going.

RWC downtown has a long way to go before it's built out, and lucky them, they actually have some streets wide enough to call it a city. We have a town, sucks, but Palo Alto is not a city.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 30, 2014 at 10:31 pm

My bad, I see your point.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm

and then again, I guess Palo Alto is a city per About.com

"What is the difference between a city and a town?

In the United States, an incorporated city is a legally defined government entity, with powers delegated by the state and county and created and approved by the voters of the city. It can provide local government services to its citizens.
In most places in the U.S. a town, village, community, or neighborhood is simply an unincorporated community with no governmental powers. Usually, county governments provide services to these unincorporated communities. Some states do have official designations of "towns" that include limited powers.

Generally in the urban heirarchy, villages are smaller than towns and towns are smaller than cities but each country has its own definition of a city and an urban area."

Well, I'd say we're a scrawny city, and we'd do better pulling it off as a town.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:56 am

To Mr./Ms. Relevance

---- "Redwood city" is the town's incorporated name from 1868 -- It's not a title relating to its size.

---- Population density in Redwood City is LOWER than it is in Palo Alto, despite the fact that RWC is the County seat. Density is 2218/sq.mi. in Redwood City and 2803/sq.mi. in Palo Alto. So, on average, there are 600 MORE people per square mile in Palo Alto.

But that difference really only makes RWC a little less urban than Palo Alto. Neither is a rural town anymore, and haven't been for a couple of generations.

Redwood City and Palo Alto both function in exactly the same way --- as small cities within a huge metropolitan area.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:57 am

Should have said "County seat in San Mateo County" -- Of course I realize we're in difference counties.


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