The program, which will be designed by staff in the coming months, is another component of Yeh's broader effort to spur community interaction. Earlier this year, he launched the Mayor's Challenge, a series of athletic events intended to help neighbors meet neighbors. He touted the proposed grant program as the next step.
"A game of pingpong is great for one day's worth of getting together and trying something out, but it's not enough to really recommit, rekindle or respark a lot of that sense of neighborliness," Yeh said.
Yeh also cited the dramatic demographic changes Palo Alto has experienced over the past two decades — namely, 17 percent of Palo Altans are now older than 65 and nearly 30 percent identify themselves as Asian or Asian-American, according to the U.S. Census. The new program, he argued in a memo co-authored by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, could bridge the gap between longtime residents and recent arrivals.
"Neighborhoods are well-positioned to bring people together to experience their community through neighborhood watch programs to deter crime, to support each other's day-to-day activities like gardening and dog walking, and to prepare a localized response in the event of an emergency or natural disaster," the memo states. "As a community, the relationships neighbors have are always in need of renewal and are built through pro-active efforts."
Scharff agreed and said the new program, which would distribute up to $25,000 in grants annually, is a reasonable sum to expend.
"It's a small amount of money, and it's a goal which we should all aspire to — to be connected in our community with our neighbors," Scharff said.
Councilman Greg Schmid also praised Yeh's proposal, saying it provides "encouragement for people in the community to try things." Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed but argued the program should not be restricted to established neighborhood associations. Individuals, she said, can also have creative ideas for beautification projects or neighborhood-wide programs that merit support from the city.
"I don't think it ought to be limited to neighborhood groups. It could be some other entity that works in the community," Holman said. "Criteria shouldn't be what the group is, but what the activity and the goal is."
Holman also proposed getting the Parks and Recreation Commission involved in doing the "heavy lifting" in getting the new grant program up and running, a suggestion that her colleagues accepted.
Councilman Sid Espinosa was less sanguine and said he was hesitant to spend taxpayer money on a program unless there are clear performance measurements. But Espinosa ultimately voted with the majority.
The council voted 7-2, with Larry Klein and Nancy Shepherd dissenting, to direct staff to design the new grant program. Klein opposed the idea and argued that it's not clear what the problem is and whether the proposed grant program would address this problem. Klein also said the city's existing neighborhood groups have long been hosting block parties and other events without public subsidies. Throwing money at the problem, he said, is the "classic answer," though in this case it's not clear what the expenditures would achieve.
"We have a number of very vibrant neighborhood associations that put on such events all on their own, without the need for city money," Klein said. "So I don't see why we should be spending money when they're already doing it."
Shepherd argued that the Parks and Recreation Commission doesn't have the purview to review the new grant program and voted against the motion on those grounds.