Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 6, 2012

On Deadline: Palo Alto's frenetic year, with more to come in 2012

by Jay Thorwaldson

For a city oft criticized for its "Palo Alto Process" delays, the past year has been wildly busy in terms of things getting done, started or approved.

And there promises to be more to come in 2012: big things that will leave a mark on the community for years, even decades in some cases.

Look for summaries of the specifics of 2011 in the Dec. 30 edition, and they are outlined online at www.cityofpaloalto.org (search for mayor's message). The sheer number of items is worth noting, especially as some spill over into 2012 and beyond.

One of the biggest accomplishments was approval of rebuilding the Stanford University Medical Center, the largest single land-use decision in the city's history, after eight years of negotiations. Construction will take years, and the complex will serve medicine, Stanford and Peninsula communities for much of the next century.

Other so-called bricks-and-mortar accomplishments include opening of the refurbished Downtown Library and completing a major storm-drain project along Channing Avenue. There were important launches, notably the highly visible Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and the low-visibility 2.5 million gallon emergency-water-supply reservoir beneath El Camino Park.

"Softer" accomplishments include completing negotiations with the city's unions and tackling the retirement-benefits challenge; overhauling the city's Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan to make it easier for people to leave their cars at home; and strengthening the emergency-preparedness collaboration between the city and neighborhood groups, including a "Quakeville" campout exercise and educational videos; improving renewal-energy and street-light efficiency programs; and implementing a Project Safety Net program aimed to promote well-being of young persons.

Perhaps the most important achievements were re-energizing the city's "economic development" efforts and pushing for more efficient approvals of construction and remodeling projects — long the source of "Palo Alto Process" complaints.

Outgoing Mayor Sid Espinosa, who has energized the usually low-profile one-term mayorship, says the year is a source of pride to him personally, while crediting city staff and mayors and City Council members who served before him for the scope of accomplishments.

But there have been frustrations as well, primarily not enough time to get everything done, inefficient City Council meetings and an "appalling" failure to capitalize on technology in conducting city business.

These don't show up on the city accomplishments list.

But Espinosa elaborated on his own approach and the frustrations, which echo complaints of prior mayors, who are elected by fellow council members, not by voters.

First is to work hard, he said: "Put our head down, work very hard, and let the work/accomplishment speak for itself.

"I also try to create a fun environment where people's hard work is praised." City staff members have told him "they have worked harder this year, but that they've also enjoyed working with the mayor's office more than they can remember."

The city's "outreach" efforts also have expanded greatly under Espinosa's encouragement. One good-natured comment was that there was never a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Espinosa didn't love. There have been numerous positive responses from citizens and nonprofit organizations, as well as from businesses and large companies that were quietly visited by Espinosa, City Manager James Keene and the city's new economic-development Director Tommy Fehrenbach "to engage them in a conversation about their future in the city."

There has also been a greater emphasis on working with nonprofit groups, from bike groups, the "urban forest" advocacy group Canopy, the Arts Center Foundation, theater groups, environmental organizations and senior groups.

Frustrations include a "top three:"

1) "There are not enough hours in the day, week, month, year. I wish that I had gotten more done this year. It is frustrating. It takes a year to learn the job. I could definitely be much more productive in a second year. That said, let me be very clear that I am not gunning for another year. Period."

2) "The city's use of technology is embarrassing. Appalling even. We are so far from operating like a technology center. There are developing countries that do a better job of e-government than we do."

3) We are not running efficient meetings, and this is not fair to the public, staff or council. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I don't see council members being willing to take the steps necessary to fix this. If everyone speaks for 20 to 30 minutes per meeting, we're there all night. And council members don't act with any sense of urgency or wanting to get out of the room. Many of them are happy to stay there all night — and then of course, in the end, we often just approve staff's recommendation!! ARGH."

So much for 2011.

Looking forward to 2012 there will be little respite as a new Mayor Yiaway Yeh, along with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, take over.

Upcoming projects include the Edgewood Plaza major remodeling and building 10 new homes; construction of 37 new homes at Alma Plaza; and construction of 45 new homes at 200 San Antonio Road.

A report on long-term "infrastructure" needs and priorities is due for completion, encompassing hundreds of millions of dollars of mostly unfunded projects.

The refurbished Art Center will be reopened with what is expected to be some artistic flair in an arts-conscious community.

The Mitchell Park Library and Community Center should be completed, or nearly so.

And rebuilding of the California Avenue commercial strip between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks may be implemented — unless it is derailed by challenges to the idea of reducing its four lanes to two to improve the "streetscape."

There will be effort to expand "emergency preparedness" to a regional or subregional level — watch for another Quakeville campout exercise.

There will be a focus on improving the management of parking in commercial areas, an echo of periodic efforts over the past 60 years or so.

Technology and innovation, a "technology test bed" project and environmental sustainability projects (perhaps including planning for a composting and electricity-production plant adjacent to the city's wastewater-treatment plant) will round out the agenda.

Not listed is the issue of whether Palo Alto should have a directly-elected mayor or stay with the council-elected mayor, who mostly chairs meetings and attends civic ceremonies in addition to whatever "bully pulpit" abilities he or she has. That question has been around for two decades, and was reopened by former City Councilman and Mayor Gary Fazzino in a guest opinion in the Dec. 16 Weekly.

That's something about which almost everyone will have an opinion.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with cc: to jaythor@well.com.

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