If there is one trend that has shaped Palo Alto's most fervent debates of 2012 it's the city's push to encourage dense development near major transit stations — namely, downtown and near California Avenue. This year has seen no shortage of mega-proposals near transit hubs, including the approved Lytton Gateway building on Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, the proposed mixed-use building at 135 Hamilton Ave., the sky-busting 27 University Ave. office complex, and the new three-story building slated to replace Club Illusions at 260 California Ave. In the Architectural Review Board's final meeting of the year, board member Lee Lippert noted the project's proximity to the Caltrain station as the major reason for why the lattermost building's size and height aren't a problem in his mind. Lippert cited the city's push for transit-oriented developments and predicted that Palo Alto will likely see many more buildings in the area that are "taller, bigger and bulkier than this." For residents in adjoining neighborhoods, where parking spots are gradually becoming a delicacy, this is hardly reassuring. Stay tuned.
"One word: Plastics," Mr. McGuire famously advises young Benjamin in "The Graduate." Now, the past's word of the future is set to become the near future's word of the past in Palo Alto. Following a popular regional trend, the city is preparing to charge ahead in its crusade against plastic bags in the coming year. Plastic bags have already been banned from local supermarkets. In 2013, the city will look to extend the prohibition to all food establishments and to require stores to charge for paper bags.
"Hackers" aren't what they used to be. The word once had a sinister ring, connoting downed websites and stolen credit-card numbers. In Palo Alto, they have become the city's willing partner. On March 31, the city teamed up with several downtown firms to co-sponsor the Super Happy Block Party," a "hackathon" and digital street party that saw herds of designers, programmers and venture capitalists take over a block of High Street for a day of programming, networking and bobbing heads to "silent disco." The city also held a smaller, more formal "hackathon" event with a group of Stanford University students, who over a night of programming, pizza and Red Bull came up with an index of city streets and their conditions. The information is available on the city's new "Open Data" website, which officials hope will continue to entice local programmers — the brainy and benign new-age hackers — to make data publicly available and easily accessible to local residents.
Palo Alto's large and enthusiastic bicycling community has much to celebrate these days. From the recent lane configurations on Arastradero Road to the upcoming streetscape project on the commercial strip of California Avenue, the city is undergoing a Renaissance of biking improvements. The City Council approved in July a new master plan for biking improvements and has wasted no time in pursuing many of the big-ticket items on the list, including a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek. The project received a major boost in November when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a multimillion dollar grant that would fund most of the design work for the new bridge as well as pay for improvements to Matadero Creek and to perimeter trails around Stanford University — projects intended to create one giant biking network spanning much of the city. As Vice Mayor Greg Scharff phrased it in the final council meeting of the year, "I think Portland needs to watch out. We're going to be the No. 1 bike city."
Friends with benefits
Palo Alto's finance officials had a banner year, with the city's major revenue sources all experienced larger-than-expected bounces, ending 2012 on a fiscal high note. But with employee expenditures continuing to rise even faster than revenues, reforms to pension and health care plans were high on the City Council's agenda in 2012 and will remain there in 2013. The unsustainable costs have also prompted the council to consider ways to reduce costs, including a deeply unpopular proposal to close the city's animal shelter. This move was averted by the formation of the Friends of Palo Alto Animal Shelter, which vowed to raise money to keep the operation running. The council was swayed to keep the shelter going and various councilmembers pointed to public-private-partnerships (as epitomized by the city's many "Friends" groups) as the city's model for the future.