Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 28, 2007

Diana Diamond: City spending priorities don't seem fair

by Diana Diamond

It's funny how Palo Alto city officials can come up with money to spend on the things they want rather than what some residents would like.

For example, the nonprofit Palo Alto Art Center Foundation wants to renovate the Art Center building next to the Main Library at Newell and Embarcadero roads. But the city is telling foundation board members that they will need to raise the money themselves -- approximately $4.5 million for a remodel or $8.5 million for a remodel and expansion (new galleries, classrooms and storage space).

The city has approved $1.75 million for replacing the electrical, heat and air conditioning systems at the center, part of an estimated $2.5 million cost for those basics. The air conditioning was last upgraded in the early 1980s, according to Carolyn Tucher, one the foundation's supporters. All design plans to date have been paid up front by the foundation, according to its President Jean Duisenberg.

That started me thinking about some other city buildings in town, such as our libraries, the Junior Museum, a new police station -- even City Hall. I started wondering why this city can spend $139 million this year from its general fund plus millions on capital-improvement projects and yet one of the community "gems," the Art Center, has to have its foundation raise its own money.

Keep in mind that the Art Center is a public building, and first served in the 1950s as the City Hall. That building has never been renovated, according to Tucher.

In other words, the renovation is needed because the city neglected to maintain its own building for years.

Yet just last week the City Council decided to explore funding a proposed new $61 million police facility -- not with bonds approved by voters, as had been planned but with "certificates of participation," basically a loan against future city revenues. Last year the estimated police station cost was $50 million.

To its credit, the council finally is realizing that Palo Alto residents probably will not approve bonds next June for library renovations ($50 million), a new police station ($61 million) and an even greater amount of school district renovation bonds. Surveys show there is not the needed two-thirds voter approval for either the libraries or the police station, although the libraries are closer.

But if the council decides to bypass voters by going the pay-from-future revenues approach, residents will have absolutely no say if they want their tax dollars spent on a $61 million police station.

We've been talking about new public safety building for years. If city officials can suddenly come up with a new plan to finance the building council members so desperately want why didn't they use the same approach a couple of years ago to fund a new Mitchell Park library? Or why aren't they considering financing library renovations instead of a police station through this pay-as-you-go approach? Is it because council members know a lot of residents don't want to pay for a new police station? Or because council members really want it?

I scouted around for other things the council recently decided to spend money on and found a number on the council's consent agenda. The "consent calendar" is a list of items that is approved by the council each week without discussion. Here are some samples:* $2.5 million in replacement of city vehicles -- an annual expenditure; vehicles are replaced about every six years, according to Auditor Sharon Erickson (more often that I replace my car).

* $6 million on City Hall upgrades -- so far $2.8 million has been spent for studies and elevator upgrades.

* On July 23, $3.8 million for gas main replacement; an additional $93,000 for Cambridge parking structure improvements; $238,322 for the Cambridge structure maintenance improvement program; $250,000 for a stump removal project; $65,000 for design for the Animal Services Center.

* On Aug. 6, there was $944,800 for a wastewater-collection system; $243,000 for construction of John Boulware Park landscape improvements; $370,000 for the Palo Alto Senior Housing Project; $552,798 for Hoover Park improvements; $228,850 for the electric substructures project at Quarry Road. On the regular agenda, of the council approved $2.9 million for storm-water pump station, and a $3 million loan to buy the Ole's Automotive Repair Shop parcel.

* On Oct. 29, on consent, council approved a $6.3 million upgrade at City Hall for employees; $4 million annually for electric capacity projects; $316,000 for Web-based permitting applications; $20,000 toward the College Terrace library seismic upgrade.

* On Nov. 13, on the regular agenda, council authorized purchase the Los Altos Treatment Plant site for $6 million, with a $2.7 million appropriation.

* On Nov. 19, on the regular agenda the council authorized purchasing a 1.3-acre, $10.9 million site on Park Boulevard for, yes, the new police station.

Some of these items are capital improvements and the city needs to maintain its infrastructure. Some are not. But my point is a lot is spent each week, much without discussion. Granted, the council's Finance Committee annually reviews the capital-improvement budget, but this comes in a 200-plus-page binder filled with projects for the next five years. This budget is tedious and gets little analysis or prioritization from the council.

And that's why I feel sorry for the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation: No city money apparently is available to renovate a city building. That's why foundation board members will have to raise $4.5 million on their own, and only dream of expanding the art center for another (mere) $4 million.

It just doesn't seem fair.

Diana Diamond is a long-time resident of Palo Alto. Her e-mail is


Posted by Carolyn Tucher, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Nov 30, 2007 at 1:41 pm

It's wonderful to have Diana champion our renovation project! The art center is really a gem, as she calls it. The art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle uses the very same word himself. Art lovers come from across the street and from across the Bay to explore the exhibits that our talented curator Signe Mayfield mounts. Children and adults love our art classes. School teachers praise Project Look! Savy holiday shoppers find treasures at the center's shop. The art center is a wonderful community resource.

The Art Center Foundation has always been grateful for the support of the city council and the city staff. It would be a dream come true, I must admit, if the city council were to assist with the much needed renovation of the center as well as paying most of the costs of new HVAC and electrical systems and ADA upgrades to the bathrooms. It is a city building after all. Think what a difference some of those millions would make at the art center.

Thanks for your support.

Posted by Carole, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2007 at 1:54 pm


No mention of the cost of the ABAG BMR costs?

"It also states that the city would need to provide a $375 million to $500 million subsidy to pay for the 1,875 affordable units. "

Web Link

These costs overwhelm anything that you are talking about.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2007 at 1:43 pm

"It also states that the city would need to provide a $375 million to $500 million subsidy to pay for the 1,875 affordable units. "

What will be the total cost to public health and the environment if we continue to permit - or refuse to reduce - our contribution to fouling the environment with commuter emissions?
This will be one of the results of our refusal to accommodate ABAG numbers.

PLease factor that into your spreadsheet.

Posted by Heidi, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2007 at 2:15 pm

I watched "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore. I was quite impressed, and worried about our future. I have three small children, and I want a real future for them.

As I began to listen and read about global warming, though, I became less convinced about Mr. Gore's arguments, on the one hand, and more convinced that, if global warming is a major threat to us, then we need to look at all possible solutions, not just conservation and sun energy. As a mother, I would like to think that soft approaches will work, but my mind says otherwise.

I have been following some of the posts on this site about nuclear energy. I have always opposed it, but I am coming around to another look at it. It has problems, but it is very clean, and abundant. Maybe it is time to rethink this issue.

The costs of below market housing in Palo Alto is huge, $300-500 million! We cannot afford this, Mike. I think we are better off with nuclear energy. From what I have read, nuclear will reduce greenhouse emmisions much better than dense housing in Palo Alto. It will also allow us to achieve this goal without overcrowding our schools, something I am very concerned about.

I don't have the answers, but I am starting to look at alternative approaches. Perhaps we all should be looking at the realities that confront us, and our future.

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Heidi, "Perhaps we all should be looking at the realities that confront us, and our future. "

Agreed. Nuclear is an old-tech solution. I've been lobbying for alternatives. btw, Gore's arguments are supported by an order-of-magnitude greater number of scientists, than any opposing opinions. You might want to consider that.

Also, you would get a good laugh no the Daily Show for proposing nuke tech as a way to rationalize suburban sprawl.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2007 at 3:27 pm

Scientists go where the grant money is. The money is in gotterdamurungen [sp?] The numbers are fudged, and even NASA's Hansen admits it. Gore is getting rich off of "Global Warming". Before they can show Gore's foolishness in England they are required to inform the audience of a list of lies in that movie.

Posted by Stanford Graduate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 1, 2007 at 3:53 pm

Graduate education is nothing more than higher form of welfare when students and professors receive grant money from the State or Federal Government.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2007 at 6:25 pm

"Before they can show Gore's foolishness in England they are required to inform the audience of a list of lies in that movie."

And that's why they start the showings with 3 minutes of silence.

Posted by Mike is wrong, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 1, 2007 at 8:42 pm

Higher density in an area like Palo Alto (an area with too much traffic already) brings more traffic, not less.

BMR and high density housing does not in fact reduce damage caused by commuter emission. It increases it. Despite the beauty of the theory that higher density allows for better mass transit etc., the improvement that mass transit etc. brings is a drop in the bucket of the harm of increased density.

Anyone pushing this must have another agenda as well. It just doesn't make sense.

All the attacks on the integrity of people who want to keep density under control, all the distracting topics regarding "nay-sayers" etc. do tend to hide the basic problem that there is just no argument for increasing density in Palo Alto. Our share of the responsibility to house the poor? Too many people in the world without access to Palo Alto jobs? No stopping the road to high density? Why would anyone in Palo Alto want more density here?

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2007 at 9:00 pm

"BMR and high density housing does not in fact reduce damage caused by commuter emission. It increases it"

Numbers, please.

"Despite the beauty of the theory that higher density allows for better mass transit etc., the improvement that mass transit etc. brings is a drop in the bucket of the harm of increased density."

Numbers, please.

What continues to astound is the partial analysis that anti-housing proponents bring to the table. They NEVER talk about comprehensive housing AND mass transport efforts - and they assume that these things won't reduce pollution. How do they know that to be true, other than uttering it over and over again, in the hope that it will be taken for granted, like a cheap ad for detergent.

Density can be scaled, managed and controlled in ways that maintain neighborhood integrity. There are many ways to bring forward development that actually *profits* the capital and social profile of our city.

My bet is that "Mike is wrong" takes pride in a number of pro-environmentalist stances. With that as an assumed given, how does s/he reconcile these two contradicting opinions?

One immediate answer to that is to say that infill housing and mass transport won't work - without any evidence to support that contention.

Yes, in theory - assuming that we have comprehensive housing, mass transport, and other solutions that are properly coordinated - increasing density in *strategic* ways will reduce our carbon load.

I haven't even seen a credible _theory_ from the other side, to support their contentions about housing. All they have is a manta - it's the word "no", repeated over and over again.

Hopefully, our city will awake from this sleepy meditation, and look at innovative ways to bring more residents here, fulfill our responsibility to the environment, lead our region in doing the same, and make our city sustainable into the future with a thriving, dynamic, and somewhat larger population.

byw, does anyone think that 2030's projected 80,000+ residents is the end? It's not; this means we have to plan for ways to Scale growth, well into the future.

I hear a lot of talk about planning for "seven generations"; it's about time we really took those words to heart, based on the growth that we know is coming, instead of burying our heads in the sand and hoping that potential home buyers and developers are going to altruistically overlook wanting to move/develop here.

Our Planning Commission can do far better than it has, recently - and so can the rest of our city's policy makers. We want to build forward sustainability, not artificial development moats that will doom us to relative mediocrity in 30 years.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2007 at 5:39 am

So, Mike, where do you propose those people go?
I once proposed that anyone who came to California after 1936 go home - when asked why I chose 1936 I responded that was when I came here. The drawbridge mentality is srong hereabouts. The cult of Malthus and Ehrlich is, too.

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2007 at 11:36 am

One item Diana missed is the money being spent to refurbish Jesus Ramos Park. A park that was otherwise in pretty good shape.

So, why spend the money on this park? The money is coming in to the City from developer's impact fees which are supposed to be used for parks and libraries.

The City doesn't want to spend this money on libraries because they want you, the residents of PA, to pass a bond measure for libraries. Now the City has a problem, lots of money coming in from developer's impact fees; so why not spend it on a park that really doesn't need it.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Neighbor, "why not spend it on a park that really doesn't need it."

How do you know that the park doesn't need repair? Are you a recreation facilities specialist?

Walter, Yes, I wonder where the anti-housing crowd want all of our good future citizens to go? I wonder this about all the communities on our peninsula, who have been shirking their responsibility to ease carbon load into the environment.

I know the latter is not a rationale that would float with you, because uou and I disagree on the enormity of the global warming problem - so be it. That said, I know we're agreed on the disgust in delay of process - and thus the negative economic impacts to our city - simply to serve a minority (in this case, anti-growth residents) that have had their way too long.

Posted by Sharron, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Mike: Where is it proven that increasing the number of people will act to decrease carbon output? It doesn't make sense to me. The more people, the more energy use, and the more traffic, and the more students in our schools, and the more overuse of our sports fields. I, Truly, cannot understand this approach.

If one of the goals is to reduce carbon, then why don't we just aim at using more electricity, instead of fossil fuels? Hybrid cars? I have even heard of hybrid cars that can be plugged into the socket at our homes, making them even more pollution free.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Sharron: Our population is going to increase. Start with that as a given - it's not a point for discussion in debate.

With that as a given, we have to find ways to limit the constant sprawl that has been responsible for spewing most of the carbon emissions into our environment.

To date, we have done almost NOTHING about altering the housing pattern development that is a part of America's DNA. We have to change that.

Every city planner worth her salt will tell you that the pattern of outward housing development - from city center to exurbia - has done more to negatively impact our environment (and our personal health) than any other single variable.

Building infill, combined with *aggressive* construction of (and lobbying for) efficient mass transit WILL reduce carbon emissions. For instance, many incentives and disincentives can be put in place by housing, and other, agencies that reward individuals for staying our of their cars, or permit dense housing to be built only near mass transport.

There are a hundred ways to shift our current housing and transportation patterns. Some of this will be painful, but it must be done. We have to learn how to break old habits, because those old habits are causing problems that grow exponentially.

Hybrid cars? They're part of the solution, but the fastest way to change our carbon load problems is to build more housing, closer to work - not the opposite.

Posted by Sharron, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2007 at 1:17 pm

Mike: My sister lives in Tracy and commutes over here (Mt. View, actually) every day in a commuter van with seven other workers, who also commute here). She likes it. She and her husband have three kids, and they like their home. Personally, I would not want to commute so far, but she says she is used to it, and it gives her personal time to read books. I am sure that she would not like to live in very small housing in Palo Alto or Mt. View. She has three boys, so they need room to roam.

I understand your point that population will continue to grow, but why do we need to crowd ourselves in like rats to accomodate that growth? You say that it is about stopping carbon production, but I think that can be done by other means, like electricity.

If people crowd in together, that doesn't mean that they will not drive around town. They do! How many kids do you have, Mike? If you have more than one, you must know that it is impossible to get them to various activities using public transportation. I have two girls, and one plays soccer, and the other like dance, so I am always using my car to make tings work. My husband works in Redwood City. We have two cars, and both are necessary, and one of them is a Prius. When we can afford it, we will buy another hybrid, and I hope we can plug it in.

I think it is much better to use electrcity to lower our carbon output, compared to living like sardines, with too much traffic and overcrowded schools.

I appreciate your concerns, Mike, but I don't think I can agree with your solutions.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2007 at 1:26 pm

"but why do we need to crowd ourselves in like rats to accomodate that growth?"

Why is that scenario your assumption. There's plenty of room here for new residents. What about other dramatic increases to our population over the last 50 years? We adapted, just fine.

Your sister is welcome to her home in Tracy, but I don't want to see more people commuting than we have now.

btw, getting people to various venues without private transportation IS rather How does Amsterdam (Europe) manage? There are many other cities that do not have to depend on cars, as we do. We need to change some things.

My sense is that you're looking at our current condition, and are not willing to consider that citizens can make, and adapt, to change. That's what growth is all about, if it's done right (which it hasn't been - we are going to have to change that, because the reality of water and other environmental factors in our state (including the state of our health) demands that we begin to alter dysfunctional patterns of housing and transport behavior.

This will happen. We are at the genesis.

Tell me, how much of your home do you actually use, a lot? I have spoken to contractors of large homes, who have asked some of their clients to take a piece of string with them and measure out their daily activities (in their large home). These contractors tell me that those in small homes live very comfortably, doing the same activities as those in larger homes, using less "string".

We're spoiled re: housing size; that's something that cost and forward conditions will change, within a generation. Smaller homes are in our future, and we're going to love them.

Posted by Sharron, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2007 at 1:53 pm

Mike: Please tell me how many kids you have. Please.

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