http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2007/07/18/board-of-contributors-integrating-life-with-neighborhoods-and-the-broader-world


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 18, 2007

Board of Contributors: Integrating life with neighborhoods and the broader world

by Stephen Levy

I had to go on a business trip to Los Angeles last week and went down early so I could spend a few hours with my mom and dad.

They are 86 and 96 and are beginning to have some physical limitations and pain. But they are still alert and active and living independently.

I can tell that my mom has a lot of pain that she lives with daily. There are limits to what medicine or therapy can do. And their friends are slowly dying around them.

But every time I am with her she takes my arm, looks me in the eye and says "Stephen, do you know how lucky we are. We have led good lives, we have good health, the children are fine and we have all the money we need."

My wife, Nancy, and I feel the same way -- and I am sure it affects how I view policy issues, both as an economist studying broad trends and a Palo Alto resident following community or neighborhood issues.

I try to model my mom's sentiments, but I am sure that I grouse too much and am not as thankful as I should be for what life has given me.

Which brings me back to Palo Alto.

I started out to write a column on how we integrate neighborhood, city and regional priorities in land use related to recent local debate over the 800 High St. housing development, Alma Plaza and the effect of adding more housing on our schools.

But I have found from experience that neighborhood priorities often lead to different answers than priorities suggested by city or regional trends and interests.

I realized early on that one of the reasons I am so passionate about emphasizing the broader city and regional interests isn't technical at all. It is because I feel lucky and grateful to live in Palo Alto and have good health for my family.

When we moved downtown a few years ago Palo Alto was still considering building a new police station right across the street from where we now live. I don't know whether that was a good location or not, but I figured that if we need a new public-safety facility it will have to be near someone's home.

So I wrote a column in the Weekly saying we would not complain if our street turned out to be the best place for the station.

I know I am not the only person who feels that way. Palo Alto is full of people who put the public interest above personal convenience. You need only look at the local discussion of global warming to know that many residents clearly separate the broader public interest from their own personal convenience.

And Palo Alto is full of people who feel that they are lucky to live here.

But in public discussion I see a lot of complaining and finger pointing. I remember that about the 800 High project and discussions about what to do with Edgewood Plaza and more recently about the Alma Plaza proposals.

I read these sentiments in the online discussion of Mandarin immersion classes, where there seems to be a lot of name-calling as well.

Most of these discussions involve public policy decisions where we need to find the overall public interest while some people are going to be inconvenienced or not get what they want. Police stations must go somewhere if they are needed. Housing must go somewhere in the region, whether it is market priced or subsidized. There is only a certain amount of retail activity relative to our population and income. Every city or shopping center or street that gets more means another city, shopping center or street gets less.

And the children who live in these houses must go to school in some neighborhood in some city. Any house or child we chase away by local policy decisions ends up somewhere else.

I think we are lucky to have more money to spend on public programs in Palo Alto than elsewhere. And we are lucky to have a great university, which attracted a research park and shopping center that pay part of the taxes that allow us to spend more on children in school than nearly any other city in California.

I am not writing this column to change any minds. But I would be interested if there are other readers who feel lucky to live in Palo Alto and are willing to accept some personal inconvenience if it makes sense for the entire city or region.

Stephen Levy is Director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto. He can be e-mailed at slevy@ccsce.com.

Comments

Posted by Drew Pauly, a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2007 at 4:58 pm

I think Stephen hit the nail on the head (as usual). I should disclose, however, that I am married to his sister!


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 21, 2007 at 8:12 pm

There is a great deal on which to comment amongst Stephen's observations, and while I have spoken with him on the phone, we do not know each other personally, let alone have any familial ties....

I would like to weigh in on one aspect of what Stephen addresses, which is the changing face of retail. I own a small business that sells to retail establishments nationwide, so I base this in part on what appears to be a national trend, and has application in these parts. I hasten to add I am not a retailer myself, nor do I claim to have expertise in how to succesfully operate a retail operation. But I do talk with such people daily, and I base the strategy for my own business on what they tell me.

Here is the overall trend that I perceive--as a retailer, you either move to the higher price/higher service model or you move to the low price/self-service model, there will be no "in between." I take this a step further, and will comment that most people will get most of their things from national chains, not regional chains or local establishments, whether buying on the high end or the low end. There remains room in selective niches for smaller establishments that are in deep touch with their local patrons, but that is largely in high disposable income locations only, not so in average to below average income areas.

I am "painting corners" but if we look around here, the notion seems to be borne out. Big Box is springing up everywhere, the JC Penney's of the world are on the wane, Santana Row opens with the likes of Nordstrom. Albertsons/Lucky struggled then folded, Piazza's, Mollie Stones (local high service grocers) and Whole Foods are doing well, alongside Costco and WalMart--how many of us shop at both types of places? Most of us, I would wager.

This trend seems to be occuring all over the country, and our city and our region cannot stop it. If Palo Alto is smart about it, we will recognize the trend for what it is, what we have to offer, and develop a strategy to attract the types of retailers that will do well going forward, not try to bring back the good old days of Sears and Co-Op. It will have significant implications for what type of sales tax revenue Palo Alto will generate, and our city must plan its budgets in the future in light of such revenue projections.

One aspect of this that is specific to Palo Alto is that in the past, people came here to shop from other nearby communities. Stanford Shopping Center, San Antonio Center, inter alia, were where the stores were. Now cities that once were mainly homes and orchards now have their own retail, in some cases more contemporary than Palo Alto's, and that sales tax revenue is probably lost forever to other places. Another thing we cannot bring back.

I don't say any of this in a pessimistic or doom and gloom way. We have a very sharp community, and if we understand the environment in which we now find ourselves, we can adapt and manage to it as effectively and successfully as any place can. But, if we refuse to face the realities of the changed face of retail, we will merely hobble along, longing for a time that has come and gone.


Posted by Thomas, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 21, 2007 at 8:25 pm

"all politics is local". That's what Tip O'Neil understood. He walked the streets of his constituents, drank beer with them, listened, then led. He understood that a politician that acts regionally, but not locally, is doomed to failure.

I agree with you, Stephen, that Palo Alto has a lot going for it. It has some strong neighborhoods, neighborhood schools, parental participation, generous givers, forward thinkers, etc. There is a natural tension between the conservatives that want to preserve what has been, and the progressives that want dynamic change. Ironically, the conservatives can be political liberals in a national political context. For instance, the historical home preservation movement (conservative) was led by erstwhile political liberals, whilst the progessives (build to the future) were conservatives, in general. I sense that the same paradox is also at work in other local issues (e.g. global warming, where national conservatives are open to a future of carbon-free nuclear energy, whilst national liberals oppose nuclear power, yet support carbon spewing alternative fuels).

Something is a bit odd in Palo Alto. There seems to be an old idea at work: If one can purchase dispensation (e.g. carbon credits), we are now free to live an extravagant lifestyle. If we give money to a poor school in EPA, then we can feel good about sending our children to expensive private schools on the Peninsula, or take exclusive private vacations. Perhaps it is simple guilt or some type of urban neurosis.

There is a current debate about Foothill Park. Some of the most 'liberal' people in Palo Alto are adament that it remain exclusive. Yet, these same people are very proud of our open parks, in general. It is rare to hear a Palo Altan publicly delare that he/she is just selfish, and wants that which makes her/him most happy. It is usually cloaked in other terms, such as conservation.

Many people in Palo Alto illegally use undocumented laborers. They do this knowingly, but they do not ask questions. Yet, if you ask them if they support the exploitatin of labor that this means, they just shrug, and say they know nothing.

We have laws that prevent dogs from being run off leash. Shortly after a small boy was badly bit by an off-leash dog, one could see many dogs off leash, including a former mayor's and district attorney's dog. These same people are mostly champions of child welfare.

Hypocracy? Yes, of course, but there is something deeper. Is it a sense of superiority that allows us to pick and choose our own rules and ethics?

Tip O'Neil would have a hard time with Palo Altans. He would expect straight answers and questions, but he would get elliptical responses. We would probably consider our responses to be sophisticated. He would probably see us as brats.






Posted by More Thomas, please!, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 21, 2007 at 9:45 pm

Oh, Thomas - you are good! You've touched on a broad spectrum of issues, exposing them for what they are without being overbearingly judgmental. PA Weekly ought to hire you.


Posted by Got Guilt ?, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2007 at 7:23 am

Hypocracy in most prevelant in 2 types of people. People with high IQ or religious leaders.

Understand it and stop feeling bad about it - also stop making others feel guilty about it.

You only live once. Hypocracy is a human trait. Enjoy it.


Posted by Head and Nails, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2007 at 7:26 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2007 at 1:32 pm

Almost all of the comments came from people in the "North"section of Palo Alto. Interesting. How great it is in North Palo Alto!

Almost all of the available tax money go to projects in North Palo Alto! Heritage Park: $10,000,000 plus, Undre the tracks walk/bike way :$5,000,000 plus. Moving The Alma pwr substation: $10,000,000 possibly this much so 800 High stree project won't have to hear the transformer noise.

South Palo Alto gets super high density housing projects, No policing of traffic, red light runners, Giant earth haulers and gasoline tankers taking short cuts thru residential neighborhoods, etc, etc ,etc. No parks planned ,no undregrounding of power lines, No high speed internet connected to city funds planned, etf, etc.

South Palo dosen't have enclaves of the "Right" people who run the businesses, corporations.


Posted by Work in HR, a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2007 at 1:35 pm

More Thomas said " PA Weekly ought to hire you."
Not gonna happen. Organizations try to hire people they can trust. A phony recommendation letter is not usually helpful.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2007 at 1:37 pm

Anon

Good points. Question. Are any of the? I think we should get someone from this side of the expressway to run and use plans for the south as a platform. They probably won't get many votes from the north and may not be elected at all, but at least they may get the south put on the map so to speak.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Sorry, a line got missed from my post above.

My question, "Are any of the candidates for city council resident in the south of Oregon area?


Posted by twinky, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jul 23, 2007 at 12:08 pm

Anonymous, you're right, and that's another reason we need an ELECTED mayor, with proportional representation (by local district) on the Council.


Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2007 at 3:53 pm

Who do you have in mind, twinky?


Posted by twinky, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jul 23, 2007 at 4:22 pm

That would be for the polis to decide. Certainly, it would have to be someone who is collaborative, with bold *rounded* vision, and an aggressive action plan.

citizen, maybe it could be you...I know more than a few very good people who would pop up to take on the challenge, because it would be an opportunity to make a far greater difference - here and in the region - than the handcuffed policy-making structure that we're living with now.


Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2007 at 6:03 pm

I am deeply honored by your support. But the current council composition and leadership will change in November in any event. Do any of the declared candidates appeal to you so far?


Posted by twinky, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jul 23, 2007 at 6:37 pm

declared candidates for city council?

I haven't made up my mind yet, and that won't happen until I hear unequivocal answers to the follow - a "yes" answer gets my vote:

1) Support for building infrastructure - including the Mitchell ParK Library/Rec Center and Public Safety Building (simultaneously, with a bond or by other means - no more waiting on this issue.

2) Support for creating clear, metric-based, administrative performance milestones for senior executive city staffers.

3) Support for a close examination on whether to sell, or keep, PAU.

4) Support for *comprehensive*, region-wide environmental planning - including better mass-transit, and a start at creatig a region-wide fiber infrastructure. ALL environmental initiatives should have clear metrics attached, and alternative costs considered. Right now, its rather glamorous to be "green" (especially here). We need DEEP infrastructure change to accomplish that - "gloves off", and creative passion will drive success.

5) Support for a close look at our appointed commissions, to see whether they are really necessary, and don't cause more political ferment than good municipal results. Would ad hoc commissions serve us better?

6) Support for more housing, at varying rates - with a special emphasis on infill housing near mass transit.

7) Support for a SERIOUS upgrade to school -community relations. Either we do this, and execute to plan, or it will collectively cost us ten's of millions down the road. We're not talking about meetings; rather we're talking about a co-ordinated sstrategic plan to create cooperative inter- and intra-community efficiencies. (this should also be a sine qua non for PAUSD BOE consideration, this fall).

8) Find ways to create efficiencies in city government - mostly by attrition. Many senior staffers are retiring soon - the opening is there.

9) Support for our current level of services - including creative outreach to other communities, if necessary.

10) Support for getting our financial house in order - with ALL the above OFF the table. In other words, REAL INNOVATION in municipal government that gives is MORE for LESS.

You say that isn't possible? I say look at Moore's Law. There is NO reason - other than automatic thinking - that says that government cannot be even MORE efficient than private enterprise. It can, and must, if we are to continue as an innovative, progressive city.

Innovation needs to be cut loose from all the TALK about innovation that is currently going on. I find the latter disturbing, given Palo Alto's commercial history of entrepreneurial plan execution in the face of great odds. Yes, the challenge is great, but if a candidate feels that s/he is not up to the challenge, step aside and let someone else have at it.

11) Support for a serious consideration toward ELECTING a policy executive - the mayor, and shrinking city council.

12) Support for paying all City Council members 1/3 of Palo ALto's median income, so that people like teachers, social workers, talented retirees, talented homemakers, etc. can realistically consider a run. This is almost a full time job, we should be paying people for their time.

13) Support for making it FAR easier to permit and set up licensing infrastructure for new business.

14) Support for a BIG increase in serious business development. Our current city executive says this isn't necessary; he's wrong (although he has been right about a lot of other things, and has my respect as a competent, well-meaning individual)

15) SERIOUS improvement in our relationship with Stanford, to the point where Stanford actually begins to include Palo Alto in the early stages of its growth plans, instead of giving us crums as we either fawn after their development plans, or try to bury Stanford initiatives to show how "tough" we can be - both losing tactical approaches. What is our long-term strategy with Stanford? I have yet to hear one enunciated that doesn't sound like breakfast pablum.

How's that, for starters? Gee...makes me wanna run, but I don't have the time.


Posted by MiniMay, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 24, 2007 at 11:06 am

Privilege is often accompanied by the assumption of imminent forgiveness, because privilege buys time, and more than one chance.

Palo Alto is burning through many of its chances, because we are a city that is filled with privilege, and the good fortune to be heir to the genius of a handful of visionaries that lifted this city from a summer retreat spot to the jewel it became toward the end of the last century.

Privilege often passes on on from one population, person, or region - to the next.

The necessary quality of adaptation - necessary for survival at all levels, from molecular to macroeconomic - is not always present in those with privilege - i.e. the privileged (among whom I count myself) have no monopoly on wisdom.

We are at the genesis of such a process here. Just as in the days of the turn-of-the-century boom - where ignorant young companies led by even-more-ignorant faux commercial heros burned through cash like there was no tomorrow. Palo Alto is burning through its unique storehouse of intellectual and social capital exactly because we have not been moving fast enough to adapt

Paul spoke in another post about how citizens complain back-and-forth about leadrship, but it's a fact that we're lacking leadership because the very structure of our municipal government prevents us from letting dynamic leadership take hold.

We need to elect a mayor, and so do most of the other municipalities in this region - or we're going to speed up (we're already heading that way) becomes a kind of comfortable, very upper-middle-class haven, populated largely by aging boomers. Forget the dynamic days of the last 40 years - from Fairchild to Google. That's all about to change.

I reluctantly accept this fate, knowing that we could be doing (or have done) better; but, we could have done worse. Se la vie...