Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 4, 2013

2013: The Year of the Future

Palo Alto looks decades ahead as it tackles problems of today

by Gennady Sheyner

A Palo Alto "year" rarely follows the standard calendar. When then-Mayor Sid Espinosa proclaimed 2011 to be the "Year of the Bicycle" and when outgoing Mayor Yiaway Yeh called 2012 the "Year of Infrastructure Investment and Renewal," each was looking well beyond 12 months. So as the council continues its work this year, biking improvements and infrastructure repairs will again show up on the agenda.

These projects, however, will vie for attention with a variety of broader, more abstract discussions that could have dramatic implications for local parks, downtown residents, street trees and the city's housing. With the post-recession triage now in the past and local sales-tax revenues climbing, 2013 promises to be a year of regrouping, soul-searching and looking far into the future in Palo Alto.

It will be the year during which the city is expected to approve a new Comprehensive Plan (its official land-use bible) and plow ahead with ambitious studies and master plans that seek to answer complex questions near and dear the hearts of residents. These include: Does downtown have room for more buildings and workers? What should be done to improve recreational opportunities throughout the city? How can the city's infamously poor cell reception be balanced with residents' distaste for cell antennas? What should be done with the decrepit but heavily used Cubberley Community Center? And how can the city enhance its stock of street trees?

Unfinished business

Master plans in Palo Alto come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like the city's previous plan for bike improvements and the early 1990s' proposal by a "Dream Team" of architects and planners to reconfigure downtown's public-transit hub, lingered in planning purgatory for years, stuck in limbo by a lack of funding and insufficient community interest.

Palo Alto officials have plenty of reason to think that current plans will avoid a similar fate. The new Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Master Plan, which the City Council approved in July and which the city will proceed to implement in 2013, has been a particular source of hope for local officials and the city's robust biking community. In November, the city received a $4 million grant for one of its most expensive and dramatic items a bike bridge spanning U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek. The grant from Santa Clara County also gave the city $1.5 million for a trail along Matadero Creek.

A comprehensive 2010 study of the city's infrastructure by the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee (which analyzed the needs and proposed ways to pay for needed fixes) is also set to play a pivotal role in 2013. Over the course of the year, the council will narrow the list of items that could be placed on the 2014 ballot for voter approval of funding.

In the final month of 2012, the council approved a contract with a polling firm to start gauging the public sentiment about an infrastructure bond and to see which items on the long list are likely to win favor with the voters. The list includes replacement of two obsolete fire stations, improvements to Byxbee Park and police building to replace the city's existing one, which is undersized and seismically unsafe.

When the City Council meets for its priority-setting retreat on Feb. 2 to figure out what it should focus on in 2013, infrastructure is almost certain to play a leading role, despite the fact that it wasn't an official council priority in 2012. Incumbent council members Larry Klein, Greg Scharff, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd and newcomer Marc Berman all placed the item on their proposed priority lists for the new year.

In with the new

While the council tackles the politically and financially thorny issue of infrastructure, City Hall staff will be tackling other long-term vision documents, including a soon-to-be-commenced master plan looking at city parks and recreational opportunities.

With the city's significant demographic shift over the past decade towards more seniors, more children and a housing boom in the southern part of the city officials are trying to figure out whether Palo Alto's parks, open space preserves and recreation offerings still suffice.

In 2013, the city will hire consultants to conduct an in-depth demographic study and analyze the city's recreational programs and facilities. The "Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan" will also seek to identify "opportunities and deficiencies for future recreation programs and services," according to the proposal that the Parks and Recreation Commission reviewed in November.

That view of the future is expected to be a long one. At the council's Dec. 17 meeting, City Manager James Keene said the plan will help the city "strategically determine how our parks and recreation facilities are to be enhanced, expanded or replaced over the next 10- , 20- , 30-year period."

The study will evaluate the condition of community gardens, gymnasiums, exercise rooms, basketball courts, pools and other recreational facilities, according to a report from Peter Jensen, the city's landscape architect. It will also assess Lucie Stern Community Center and "leased and contracted public facilities such as the Cubberley Community Center and Palo Alto Unified School District fields and courts."

On a separate but related note, the city plans to take a broader look at its robust collection of street trees. Last year, the city hired its first urban forester, Walter Passmore. This year the city will proceed with its "Urban Forest Management Master Plan," a broad analysis of trees in local parks, public streets and private properties. Keene said he expects this plan to be completed by June 2013.

Going up?

But if there is one master plan that has galvanized the community and will continue to stir passions in 2013, it's the city's proposal for 27 University Ave. an ambitious concept that was pitched by billionaire developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga.

After a heated Dec. 3 meeting, during which dozens of residents panned the idea of building four office towers and a theater at the prominent location between downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University, the council opted to take a step back and broaden its menu of options for the site.

As a result, the master plan for what the city has branded the "arts and innovation district" will now include at least three alternatives: Arrillaga's plan and two alternatives featuring buildings less massive than those in the initial proposal. Councilman Pat Burt, who proposed development of a master plan beyond the single Arrillaga option, said he is "interested in this site for a visionary outcome but one that is driven by community values and consistent with our downtown urban fabric."

The council's decision means people will have the opportunity to weigh in on the subject good news for some of the leading critics of the Arrillaga proposal, who have charged that the council and staff have not been transparent.

"I think we are in the Palo Alto process right now, and that process always particularly in a project as complex as this will have many, many, many layers and public meetings around it," Keene assured the council and the community on Dec. 3.

The Arrillaga proposal is one of many downtown issues that the council and staff will juggle in 2013. Downtown's parking shortage a pressing issue in 2012 will continue to drive conversations as the city proceeds with a comprehensive study of local garages, parking lots and parking demand and considers ways to ease the parking congestion.

Zooming out even further, the city plans to consider whether downtown can even absorb more development. In 1985, the city decided to cap new downtown development at 350,000 square feet. Officials also decided back then to take a fresh look at development and parking when new development reaches 235,000 square feet.

Recent applications for dense office complexes downtown including the approved Lytton Gateway building and proposed office complexes at 135 Hamilton Ave. and 636 Waverley St. have pushed the city past that 235,000-square-foot trigger point. As a result, the city now plans a "downtown cap" study, which will cover parking policies, downtown's capacity for accommodating even more offices and protection for downtown merchants, many of whom are struggling to keep up with rapidly rising rent.

"It's an exciting time because there is a time where we can solve a lot of existing issues and stop a lot of issues that could happen in the future from happening," Assistant Planning Director Aaron Aknin, who will oversee the study, told the Planning and Transportation Commission on Dec. 12.

Set in stone

In addition to this plethora of studies and master plans, Palo Alto residents should see plenty of concrete accomplishments in the coming year all over the city, from the spring opening of the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center in the south to the summer re-opening of El Camino Park in the north, following construction of an underground reservoir.

Those in the east can look forward to design work accelerating on a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, while those in the west can anticipate improvements to trails around Stanford University.

Those closer to the center of the city can expect to see the city launch its renovation of Main Library, the final component funded by the city's 2008 library bond. They will also see the city finally break ground on the ambitious and controversial effort to turn California Avenue into a boulevard akin to Mountain View's Castro Street. After years of debate, construction is set to begin in the fall.

The sheer number and scale of these projects point to the strides Palo Alto has made in the past four years to recover from the economic shockwaves of late 2008. Now, as the council convenes after holiday break and welcomes two new members, former Mayor Liz Kniss and attorney Marc Berman, it will find itself knee-deep in problems of prosperity. There is no fiscal cliff on University Avenue, and foreclosures are largely unheard of within city borders. The city is ushering in 2013 with a rosy financial forecast (a projected General Fund surplus for a change) and a Rose Bowl victory for Stanford University.

The year will inevitably feature its share of unwelcome surprises and neighborhood controversies. But it also promises to be a time of finally tackling lingering problems, celebrating accomplishments and looking deeper into the future.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2013 at 9:03 am

2013 should be the year of less talk and more action.

We need to stop giving the years labels and just get things done.


Posted by Boring, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

If Greg Schmit is nominated as vice-mayor in 2013, then mayor in 2014; the next two years will be all talk and no action. All council meetings will go on and on to 1:00 AM, with no decisions made.


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