Only a few years earlier, as a young reporter still in college but on a summer job in west Fresno County, I had been introduced to basic zoning laws, from residential to commercial and industrial.
But the planners believed the then-new PC zoning concept would liberate developers from cut-and-dried formulas that included rigid setbacks, heights and density standards. The theory was that it would allow developers to be more creative and expansive in their proposals.
And the PC zone would also benefit the communities at large by encouraging more creative and attractive projects, in addition to specific "public benefit" items offered by (or required of) the developer.
No one dreamed that the PC zone would morph into something big enough to swallow up traditional zoning and community planning, as it now seems to be threatening to do in Palo Alto. And, as outlined July 19 by the Weekly in a detailed analysis by Gennady Sheyner, three significant PC proposals may well trigger the next resident revolt against either overdevelopment or misplaced development.
The three projects that might ignite a broader political response are the proposed office/theater development by John Arrillaga at 27 University Ave., a 311,000-square foot high-rise development along Page Mill Road by Jay Paul Co., and a comparatively small, 60-unit low-income senior-housing-plus-12-houses project on Maybell Avenue in Barron Park.
The Maybell project already is being challenged by referendum petitions, while the first two are beginning the city assessment and approval process, so any referenda challenge is premature.
But something happened to the bright promise those long-retired planning officials outlined to me as a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times. Instead of an occasional PC zone for special circumstances or opportunities, the PC zone has become commonplace.
Simply put, the PC zone replaces any underlying zone in the city's zoning ordinance, a detailed document intended to reflect broader planning policies and goals outlined in what once was commonly called a General Plan. General was the operative word, as most such plans in my experience in various communities usually gathered more dust than attention following their adoption.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, teams of freelance professional planners traveled the state convincing local officials in smaller towns that every community needed one. Larger communities assigned their own planning staffs to develop such plans. The result was a document outlining what should go where, accompanied by a large map with different colors for different uses. The maps usually wound up on a wall behind or beside the city council dais.
Repeatedly, the key decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, often depending on the eloquence, or influence, of the developer or landowner and who was serving on the governing council or board.
Getting to specific decisions on specific properties or areas of town proved more complicated than the "general" plans could encompass.
In Palo Alto, the city's General Plan met pretty much the same fate as elsewhere in the state. The fast-growth 1950s and early 1960s were fueled by a serious need of both the city and Stanford University to increase revenues plus a huge demand for housing and a surging economy pushed by high-tech and the Cold War.
The growth of the Stanford Industrial Park — never proposed or studied as a whole plan, former longtime Planning Director Louis Fourcroy once told me — created a side effect that still haunts Palo Alto politics: traffic. What is now the Stanford Research Park grew on a project-by-project basis rather than as a planned overall land-use policy.
The debate over growth and impacts of growth tore apart the city, rising to a crescendo by the mid-1960s and resulting in a split City Council and a decade of see-saw policies and politics.
Then in the early 1970s a remarkable city planner arrived, fresh from land-use battles surrounding the University of Chicago relating to conflicts between university desires and needs and adjacent residential neighborhoods.
That planner, Naphtali Knox, still a consultant in the Palo Alto area, recognized the weakness of the General Plan, discernible one surmises through the layers of dust, and proposed a revolutionary change to the planning process.
Instead of creating a general document and multi-colored map that would run aground in the face of specific decisions, Knox proposed turning the process upside down. He would start with specific decisions, over a period of months and scores of meetings, and then based on those decisions the professional planners would draft a "Comprehensive Plan" that would reflect those real-world decisions.
That plan is sometimes referred to as the bible (lowercase b) of city development policies. Like the actual Bible, there seems to be something in it for everyone and anyone, but without the storytelling drama. And, like its namesake, it is often ignored in day-to-day practice.
Instead, since the 1980s in particular, the PC zone has grown in both usage and stature. It has survived repeated criticisms, and even a city auditor report, about providing far more benefit to the developer than it does to the community. It has been admitted that even most of the promised "public benefits" have been lost to memory or record, and there is little enforcement of the few that are known.
With each proposal being an independently negotiated deal for extra features in exchange for some kind of benefit, the question is being asked by a seemingly large number of residents: Why continue the Comprehensive Plan revision now underway at all?
That may be a fair question to which current city leaders and planners might pay more attention than they have in the past.