Uploaded: Tue, Aug 5, 2014, 12:44 am
New voices join Palo Alto's debate over growth
Comprehensive Plan update brings clashing visions to the forefront of debate
Palo Alto's aggressive push to get the public more involved in updating the city's official land-use vision appeared to finally pay off Monday night, with dozens of residents and downtown employees packing into City Hall and serving up an unusually wide spectrum of opinions about growth and development.
The council's first meeting in more than a month focused on the various alternatives for growth that will be studied in an environmental analysis the city is undertaking as part of the long-stalled update of its Comprehensive Plan.
The revision kicked off in 2006, when the City Council first directed staff to bring the city's land-use bible up to date and to pay particular attention to the rapidly changing areas around California Avenue and East Meadow Circle in south Palo Alto. After years of incremental progress and tireless wordsmithing by the Planning and Transportation Commission inside a virtually deserted Council Chambers, the council and planning staff decided last year to hit the reset button and get more people involved in the process.
Monday's meeting indicated the city has made some progress in that regard. The discussion ended without the council weighing in on, much less voting on, the four different alternatives on the table. Rather, after hearing nearly three hours of comments from the public, council members agreed to save their thoughts for a special meeting on Wednesday.
If Monday's meeting is any indication, the council will have much to debate. Unlike at past meetings, which typically featured a handful of familiar speakers lamenting the impacts of new developments, Monday's audience was roughly split between downtown employees, many from the tech giant Palantir, urging the city to accommodate growth and work toward a "great" Palo Alto and neighborhood residents asking the council to protect the greatness that already exists by keeping new development at a minimum.
The four alternatives on the table suggest that so far, the latter camp has had the upper hand. All four propose to protect residential single-family-home neighborhoods from growth and to limit new developments to areas with public transit stops. The first alternative, known as "do nothing" or "business as usual" would leave all existing land-use policies and zoning designations in place.
The second alternative would also leave preserve existing zoning designations but would include some policy changes to cap non-residential development and to restrict residential development to the bare minimum needed to meet state requirements. It would also encourage policies that enhance and preserve neighborhood retail space and increase the distance of buildings along El Camino from the road, to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience.
The third alternative would go a step further toward development and, while maintaining "slow growth" restrictions, make some allowances for housing near transit hubs. In downtown, the height limit on buildings would be raised from 50 feet to 55 or 60 feet to accommodate more residential units, while on El Camino, housing would be encouraged near future stops of the new Bus Rapid Transit system and prohibited in areas where transit services are scant.
The fourth alternative, known as "net zero," is radically different from the other three in that it would seek to turn Palo Alto into a state pioneer in various sustainability concepts. Projects would be approved based on their ability to meet "net zero" performance standards, which could apply to things like greenhouse-gas emissions, vehicle miles traveled and potable water use. According to a report describing the concept, this scenario "would concentrate growth into key areas of the city in order to create complete centers with a rich array of housing, job and cultural opportunities in proximity to transit."
Most of the roughly 30 speakers at Monday's meeting didn't get too deep into these specific alternatives but rather focused on the broad and hotly contested topics of growth and development. In the latest sign of Palo Alto's exorbitant property values, it wasn't teachers, firefighters or police officers but high-tech workers from Palantir who offered stories about being priced out of the city.
One employee, Andrew Ash, said he wishes he could live in downtown Palo Alto but that the lack of available housing makes it impossible, which forces him to drive to work.
"The message I have for you on the council is that growth is coming; it's inevitable," Ash said. "The question is, how do you react to it? Do you want to back up into something that ends up being bad for the community or get construction started so Palo Alto can remain the place that people want to move into in the next several decades?"
Others argued that policies such as the 50-foot height limit are a relic from a different era. Robert McGrew was among them. It's sad, he said, that "the Palo Alto skyline has two ugly buildings," including the one in which he was speaking.
"Let's have one or two more tall buildings downtown, but let's have them be tasteful and have them dedicated to housing, which is what Palo Alto desperately needs," McGrew said.
Kate Downing, also urging more housing, suggested that the city do more to address the needs of its less affluent residents. She lamented the transformation of Palo Alto into a city exclusively for millionaires.
"If we don't allow for growth, Silicon Valley as we know it today will cease to exist," Downing said. "We will have priced out all the young workers and all the new companies."
Their voices were countered by speakers who maintained that the city should focus on solving the existing problems of too much traffic, inadequate parking and a faulty planning process before talking about future growth. That was the dominant sentiment during a series of public meetings that the city sponsored on the subject between late May and July. That also remains the general view of local "residentialists" who oppose the upzoning of sites (allowing for denser building) and who led the referendum last November that overturned a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue.
Tom DuBois, who was part of that effort and who is now seeking a seat on the council, expressed skepticism about the process that the city is now following on the Comprehensive Plan update. He suggested that rather than doing a full environmental analysis on the four different alternatives, the city should just "clean up" the existing Comprehensive Plan by removing policies that are outdated or that have already achieved their goals. Once that's done, the city can work with the community to consider a preferred growth scenario and revise the various chapters, also known as "elements," of the Comprehensive Plan.
DuBois also said that the scenarios under consideration "seem to be focused on mitigations and assumed growth."
"How about a scenario that improves quality of life for residents and has plans to make things better?" DuBois asked rhetorically.
College Terrace resident Doria Summa also said she believes the city's new approach to updating the Comprehensive Plan is flawed and suggested a less dramatic revision to the existing document, which has a planning horizon of 1998 to 2010.
"I don't believe the scenarios fully represent what the residents of Palo Alto want," Summa said. "I worry that moving forward with the Environmental Impact Report and wasting resources when scenarios are vague and not a lot of data is provided is, I think, premature."
The council will discuss the scenarios and the city's next steps in updating the Comprehensive Plan starting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 6. The document, which will cover the time period between 2015 and 2030, is currently on pace to be completed at the end of 2015.
Palo Alto to weigh different visions for growth
Editorial: Skeptical about 'net zero
Posted by le plus ca change
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2014 at 3:51 pm
Are you even listening to yourself? In order to defend your selfish "I want, I want's" you are now claiming you want to allow developers to exploit Palo Alto and change it to what you want - oh no, not for you - for OTHER PEOPLE who MIGHT want the same things as you want later? (And what of all the people who want what we have now? e.g. schools and yards and a natural environment? Remember the schools? They've driven prices here historically and protected them from tanking like everywhere else during bust cycles.) And then you mention other cities that you like so much better than Palo Alto, but inexplicably want to destroy what exists here rather than go there. (Personally, I would never want to live in Paris, and if I wanted to live in SF or SJ, I would be living there now.)
Palo Alto has a population of residents who don't want your vision of Palo Alto, most of whom worked very hard and often sacrificed to be here for what was here and what they built here over decades. And yes, we are saying it's not okay for you to march in here and demand that be destroyed or be given away for the short-term profits of a few developers and your selfish wants, especially since you can find your selfish wants so close by if Palo Alto is so awful for you. And especially since this is such an old story - the only thing new is the entitlement of the new people and their willingness to carry water for development interest.
You are even selfish in your revisionist history of this area. I knew a centenarian Palo Altan who came out to Mayfield in a covered wagon and used to tell anyone who would listen, "And people told me I was CRAZY to spend FIVE THOUSAND dollars on a house!!" of his beautiful home off of University. Real estate here has ALWAYS been crazy expensive except when there was a brief post-war expansion, veterans housing funds (and all those things you legitimately bring up like GI bill money for college, etc). Those conditions are long gone. Most of the 50-somethings in this area were also of the era that took on huge student loan debt , and it was at much higher interest rates and fees than yours, and we faced identical boom cycles here. Except without the benefit of it being easy for both wage earners to have good high-tech jobs, it was still very difficult for women even in the '80s. (I'll bet you've never had an older male engineer ask you to type a letter for him.)
You say, "Empirically, this is the first time that Palo Alto has been the most expensive place in the country." Again, this place has always been expensive and difficult to afford; If your claim is correct that it's a little more expensive than that now, you're not making your point since it happens to coincide with the giant boom in overdevelopment and giving away zoning protections. That drew in developers who saw the properties as yet more exploitable. Again, making Manhattan and Hong Kong more dense did not make them affordable.
And now that we have a global economy, there is no way to create affordability through a supply and demand equation in any reasonable way, because this is an extremely small, desirable space. Others have pointed out places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Manhattan -- you can't build your way to affordability in a small space, and that's not the future the existing residents want for this space. And yes, we have a number of state-granted rights to enforce what WE want, even if it's not what YOU want.
Again, luckily for you, rather than continuing to harangue others that life doesn't give you what YOU want on a platter (including Palo Alto), you have many options an easy commute from here to get what you want. If you destroy what existing residents worked so hard for through your selfish justifications, then you have destroyed something unique that will be gone forever.
You point to the jobs imbalance as a reason to destroy our city's character. Why would you have any more right to do that than we would to tell the companies they can't have employees? Most of us didn't want the overbuilding of office space anyway. (I do think it's time the City did have a business tax.)
If it's jobs you want, look up the 10 best cities for job seekers on Forbes Magazine, Palo Alto is not one of them. All of them will give you that thrilled urban experience if that is what you so desperately desire.
You say we should have all these lovely things, like open space, and you ignore that your vision that is essentially carrying water for the developers would fast make that aspect of your "vision" impossible, if isn't already. You ignore that your vision would push out any remaining economic diversity we have, and cost people in existing low-income housing their place in this community that they worked so hard for. This is a small space. Take a road trip Kate. This is a vast and once thriving nation, falling into disrepair. I can remember going to Europe as a child and seeing a place in decay where the US was beautiful and shiny and new, from sea to shining sea. Back then, there was a sense that we were thriving because we had the best social mobility, and stale old Europe was suffering from the economic and social stagnation of concentrations of wealth and power. Now (since Reagan), that equation has flipped.
Instead of holing up here and demanding of everyone else that they need to destroy what they sacrificed for in order for you to get what you want on this small space, why don't you work to revive some of the rest of this great nation? Your generation doesn't have jobs? This is the first generation with the kind of tools and easy opportunities that come from access to computer-based knowledge environments. Create them. When you're young and have nothing to lose, that's the best time to take the risks. And create the liveable space you want through urban renewal of places where all of that would be so welcome, in 50 years they'll be arguing over whether to allow upzoning of New Kateville. (For the record, I'm not arguing that we don't need better transportation and transportation systems here, I agree with you there, I'm arguing that this exponentially intense land use in the stupid -- I think we can agree on that -- way it's been proceeding here is NOT the way to achieve it.)
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 6, 2014 at 11:50 pm
So, since when is it up to 'I want to live THERE (choose one)' and the world bends over backwards to make that feasible, affordable, accessible? I want to know, because I'd like to live on the shores of Lake Tahoe, in Manhattan, in the Hamptons... I'd like a lot of things. I don't get them unless I pay for them, and if I can't afford them then I don't get them, but if its REAL important, I make a LONG term plan, and sacrifice, a lot.
My 18 year old daughter, home on summer break after her first year in college, working the several part time jobs she's patched together, and having racked up already $25K in debt for her first year in college, announced to me that her and her friends are going on a vacation -3 day pass to Disneyland. That's well over a $600 trip. That's almost her entire summer earnings, the spending money she needs for this coming year. And big crocodile tears.. - I work so hard, I deserve a vacation, its not fair that other people (her friends) have means, have parents that indulge them, have better job, have access, and its so hard for her...
Its called life dear. Its called Life. Ain't. Fair. Get a better job. Then get a better paying job. Repeat relentlessly. Pay your dues. Save your money. Set goals, work on a 10 year plan. The world doesn't owe you a living.
And its absolutely ludicrous that we're actually trashing a great place to live, a historically great place to live, a place that has been methodically protected for 150 years, for this;
"For young people, it's less about money and more about the lifestyle we want."
I grew up in Palo Alto - entitled right? Well when I grew up, got a job, went to Foothill at night, finished at SJ State at night, worked my way through an MBA at night, got a better job, saved my money, got a better job, and finally bought a CHEAP house IN SAN JOSE. Turned the appreciation 10 years later into a down payment on the cheapest property in Palo Alto - literally. A tiny little run down dump. And lived in a hole, paying more than I did in San Jose, for way less house, for 14 years before I could afford a remodel. It was 20 years after I graduated from Gunn before I was able to move back to Palo Alto, and continually sacrifice STILL to pay house payments and real estate taxes WAY more than I would elsewhere, sacrificing to get my kids in to Palo Alto schools.
Its a long term plan, and its not looking around for life to remodel itself to accommodate your preferences.
And these companies in and around Palo Alto - they KNEW what they were getting in to when they located here, In my opinion, they either buy real estate at market prices and hand their employees housing freebies, or give them housing allowances as a benefit, relocate a town or two over, or get over it.
The only thing more ludicrous than the entitled new crop of silicon valley workforce, are the scamming real estate developers (their union buddies, and their politician buddies) who are creating this real estate TOD/Affordable Housing/ABAG scam designed to rip off and cash in on prime real estate markets by forcing access to prime real estate locations, through forced changes building ordinances and market rates, which were locking them out of their get-rich-quick development scams.