Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Politics in the boom years

Big growth of the '5Os led right into the residential uprising of the '60s

by Don Kazak

As Palo Alto and its environs changed radically in the 1950s, the decade also began to foreshadow what would later be a full-scale political revolution on the home front. A new constituency came to town as a result of all those new houses built south of Oregon Avenue for all those young engineers needed for all those new buildings in the industrial park. And it didn't take the newcomers long to learn that no one was listening to them.

Enid Pearson and her family arrived in town in 1953, and a year later she and her husband were amazed to hear that the city wanted to extend downtown through Professorville, where the Pearsons lived, all the way to Embarcadero Road, turning Bryant and Waverley into one-way streets.

"It got a lot of people stirred up," said Pearson, who went on to serve several terms on the City Council in the 1960s and '70s. She became the official Council watcher for her neighborhood, charged with making sure the city government didn't pull any fast ones.

It didn't, but not for lack of trying. Pearson said that in the two years she spent as a Council watcher, the proposal to turn Bryant and Waverley into one-way streets came up no fewer than 18 times, although it never appeared on any meeting agendas.

Politics in the city was a different animal in the 1950s. "There was a lot of abuse of the public" by the Council, Pearson said. "It was a horrendous experience. People were treated very rudely."

Noel Porter, a vice president at Hewlett-Packard Co., served as mayor from 1955-60, and was one of three men who literally ran the town. The others were Jerry Keithley, who was hired as Palo Alto's first city manager in 1950 and is credited with creating a strong set of city policies, and Alf Brandin, vice president for business affairs at Stanford University.

Stanford and the city had much in common in the 1950s. Both needed money, and both had a lot of land to develop. Development of the Stanford Industrial Park and its annexation to the city meant a lot of money in ground leases for the university and a lot of money in taxes for the growing city.

Such tremendous growth in a relatively short time created its own problems. The city, Brandin said, didn't do a very good job communicating with its residents, many of them newcomers who highly valued the area's beauty and "wanted to close it down" by stopping development.

The Keithley-Porter-Brandin triumvirate was "really incredible to watch," Pearson remembered.

In the many meetings between university and city officials to deal with issues such as expansion of city utilities and other matters relating to the development of the industrial park, Keithley protected the city's interests while Brandin tried to watch out for the university's interests. And Porter, Brandin said, "showed no quarter to the university."

Some people suggested that Porter's public statements in favor of an expanded Oregon Avenue raised questions about the conflict of interest between his job at Hewlett-Packard and his role as mayor. However, Porter, apparently had no qualms. According to Pearson, Porter, now deceased, admitted publicly that his job was to get an improved road between the Bayshore Freeway and Hewlett-Packard.

The growing conflict between the pro-growth Council and the more neighborhood-oriented newcomers resulted in a decades-long political fight, which the residentialists eventually won.

In the 1950s, the Palo Alto Residents Association was the first group formed to defend the residential character of the city. In the 1960s, that led to the pitched battle over Oregon Expressway and the formation of a new group, United Palo Altans. That, in turn, led to the formation of still another group, Association for a Balanced Community, or ABC, which finally took control of the City Council in the early 1970s.

But back in the 1950s, high-rises were still in vogue. Pearson said Stanford wanted to build 27-story high-rise buildings next to El Camino Park near the train tracks, and Keithley wanted to build high-rises in the foothills. Today, of course, the thought of building anything in the foothills, even single-family homes, brings a chorus of complaints.

While the 1950s set the stage for the big political battles of the 1960s--Oregon Expressway, a downtown hospital and a massive downtown office building known as "superblock"--the decade had a few important skirmishes of its own. These included a tiff over building a new City Hall, which the voters rejected but the City Council went ahead and built anyway. Several of the Council members lost re-election bids in the mid-195Os as a result. The building is now the Cultural Center at Embarcadero and Newell roads.

There also was a lot of controversy, surprisingly enough, over the city buying what would become Foothills Park in the late '50s from Dr. Russel Lee, one of the founders of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. Many people back then thought it wasn't wise to spend so much money--the price was $1.29 million. But the 1,399-acre park today is considered one of the city's jewels, and despite some attempts in the early '90s to change the policy, admission is still restricted to Palo Alto residents.

Early in the 1960s, Noel Porter got his road to the industrial park in the form of Oregon Expressway. Maybe that's why the city named a street after him in the park--Porter Drive.