Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 8, 2014

Seeking vision for city's growth, council rejects staff's ideas

Council says progress on Comprehensive Plan update can only be made with more data

by Gennady Sheyner

Faced with four different visions for future growth of the city, Palo Alto's City Council members quibbled and agonized Wednesday night before settling for a fifth option: none of the above.

After four hours of deliberation, the council rejected by a 7-1 vote a recommendation from planning staff to analyze four different growth scenarios as part of an update of the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding land-use document, citing a lack of adequate information and focus.

The council's vote, coming two days after a meeting at which about 30 residents and Palo Alto employees offered their own diverse visions for the city's future, represents yet another twist in a tortuous update process that started in 2006.

With only Gail Price dissenting and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss absent, the council ultimately agreed to continue the discussion at a later meeting and asked city planners to provide a range of additional data, including a menu of all studies currently under way relating to traffic and parking; more information about existing conditions for development; and suggestions for changing the scope of the Comprehensive Plan revision.

The existing Comprehensive Plan was intended to guide the city's planning from 1998 to 2010. The updated version would extend to 2030.

The four alternatives that the planning staff recommended were to be included in the update's Environmental Impact Report. One option would leave all land-use policies and zoning designations in place; two would promote "slow growth" and cap commercial development; and a fourth alternative, known as "net zero," would evaluate projects based on their ability to avoid contributing to problems in areas such as traffic or water consumption.

The scenarios had been developed by city staff based on feedback they'd received over several community meetings held between late May and July. Yet rather than evaluate these alternatives, council members spent the bulk of Wednesday evening criticizing the process that planners used in creating the options.

Councilman Greg Schmid argued that the staff hasn't collected or released enough credible data on the city's traffic and parking conditions to facilitate a real discussion on growth.

"We have a wonderful opportunity in our Comprehensive Plan to look at alternatives upfront (and) to explore the consequences of those alternatives," Schmid said. "In order to do that, you need to focus attention on the numbers, set measures for the goals you want to achieve and then identify the measures that can be tracked over time."

Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman both argued that the proposed growth alternatives "aren't ready for prime time" and urged staff to pay more attention to the immediate problems of parking shortages and traffic congestion. Scharff also rejected the "net zero" alternative, saying that it "doesn't feel vetted" and would lead to uncertain consequences.

"It feels scary. It feels like we don't know what we're doing," he said.

"It frankly feels like the PC process on steroids," he added, referring to the city's controversial "planned community" zoning, by which the city grants zoning exemptions to developers in exchange for negotiated "public benefits."

Most of the disagreement Wednesday wasn't about growth or housing but about what information staff should bring back when the conversation resumes. Even so, members did offer some opinions about the city's future.

Gail Price, who made a motion to support staff's recommendation and proceed with the Environmental Impact Report, said that by changing the process, the council is "getting caught in a trap" of making "perfection the enemy of the good." She also made a pitch for encouraging more housing, which was also the dominant message from the downtown employees who spoke Monday night.

"We need to have more housing; we need to be more innovative; we need to act like (the community) we think we are: a cutting-edge, innovative community that cares about the future," Price said.

Mayor Nancy Shepherd was prepared to support Price's proposal, and Councilman Marc Berman also said he was leaning in that direction, but both ultimately voted for an alternate idea from Councilmen Pat Burt and Larry Klein. They proposed to continue the discussion, reconsider the scope of the revision and gather more data.

Burt and Holman also stressed the urgency of acting now to protect the city from new developments in the city's commercial areas. Burt advocated a "focused approach on zoning changes that we can do in a matter of months rather than years" and that would not require a completed Comprehensive Plan, which in theory lays the foundation for zoning revisions.

While Holman said she appreciated staff's narrowing down of the alternatives from nine to four, she maintained that the discussion is premature.

"I think part of the problem with this is we're trying to accomplish too much too fast," Holman said. "We're trying to digest a big gulp, and it's not something we should really be after at this point in time."

She also urged the city to focus on near-term solutions for the city's traffic and parking problems.

"We have too many things now that the public is asking for, that the public expects us to do," Holman said. "They're not unreasonable.

"Rome is burning. We have a lot to address here. I want us to take proactive actions."

Burt argued that the city doesn't yet have the proper contextual "setting" to consider the different growth alternatives. Without adequate data about the impacts of growth, residents would have a hard time deciding if the proposed updates would enhance or degrade their quality of life, he said.

Upon urging from Burt and Holman, the council also agreed as part of its vote to schedule a meeting at which members will consider potential changes to the city's commercial areas. The changes are intended to target areas like El Camino Real and California Avenue, where larger new buildings are replacing smaller ones and prompting anxieties about congestion and parking shortages.

Klein said the Comprehensive Plan update has suffered from "mission creep," with the Planning and Transportation Commission, which over several years had been reviewing every chapter, expanding the project beyond what the council intended.

"We have problems that we need to address," Klein said. "The programs we have under way are responsive to that. I'd prefer to see us focusing on those things rather than getting off on a project that I'm not sure what it's trying to accomplish."

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

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