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Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 21, 2014

Survey shows opinion gaps between north and south Palo Alto

Findings of National Citizens Survey puzzle Palo Alto officials

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Altans overwhelmingly feel like their city is a splendid place to live, a great place to raise children and a decent place to retire, but when asked about a "sense of community," bus routes and the quality of services for seniors and youth, Palo Alto's northern residents tend to be far cheerier than their counterparts in the south, a recent survey indicates.

The 2013 National Citizens Survey, which City Council discussed Monday night, was compiled by the National Research Center and the International City/County Management Association. The results illustrate how residents from the city's two ends differ on a wide array of topics, from the city's openness toward people of diverse backgrounds to opportunities to participate in social events. In almost every case where there's a major divergence, northern Palo Altans (generally speaking, those who live north of Oregon Expressway/Page Mill Road) gave far higher reviews than southern. This is despite the fact that overwhelming majorities in each geographical areas (94 percent in the north and 91 percent in the south) gave Palo Alto the two highest ratings as "a place to live" and as "a place to raise children" (94 percent in the north and 84 percent in the south).

The differences prompted a string of theories and questions from council members, who concluded that the divergences demand further exploration. Councilman Greg Schmid, who lives in south Palo Alto, was the first to raise the issue. Schmid said he was "upset by the comparisons of the north and south divide" and called some of the differences in assessments of city services from the two regions "startling." In more than a dozen categories, he noted, the difference is 10 or 12 percent.

When asked about a "sense of community," 79 percent of residents in north Palo Alto gave the city the top two ratings of "excellent" and "good," compared to 59 percent in the south. When asked about "openness and acceptance of the community toward people of diverse backgrounds," 84 percent of the respondents in the north gave the city rave reviews, compared to 68 percent in the south.

On "opportunities to attend cultural activities," 79 percent in the north gave the city high marks while only 60 percent in the south did so; on "opportunities to participate in social events and activities," 83 percent in the north were enthusiastic, compared to 65 percent in the south. On "quality of new developments," the city received kudos from 50 percent in the north and 38 percent in the south.

When asked about "services to seniors," 86 percent in the north rated them "excellent" or "good," compared to 62 percent in the south. For youth services, the city split 84 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

"How do you respond to those startling discrepancies?" Schmid asked staff. "What can be done about them?"

Though other questions followed, concrete answers proved elusive. In some cases, members said, responses seemed to have more to do with perceptions than reality. Councilman Pat Burt, for instance, said he was interested in the difference in opinion but then cited some puzzling survey responses that defied easy explanation. He noted that downtown is not safer for residents from the north than for those from the south, in spite of their differences in responses on the issue. He also noted that employment opportunities in the city as a whole are no different whether one lives in the north or south.

"At a minimum, this shows that there's a difference in perception," Burt said. "There may be differences in realities, but the clearest thing is that we have a difference in perceptions."

Furthermore, council members deemed some of the survey categories so vague that they pose a special challenge to solve. If a resident complains that the streets are shoddy, the city can re-pave them. Addressing a resident's "sense of community" is trickier business, officials felt.

"It's easier for us to deal with a specific service issue than it is with people's individual perception of the sense of community," City Manager James Keene said. "There are so many factors that go into that."

Councilman Larry Klein, speaking for the majority, argued that many of the answers merely beg for more questions and could have nothing to do with the north-south split. For instance, the fact that the survey was taken last year at around the same time that the Measure D campaign was heating up could explain why there has been such a citywide dip in opinion regarding land-use and traffic issues ("land use, planning and zoning" received positive ratings from 35 percent of the respondents in the north and 37 in the south, a huge drop from 2012). Even so, the fact that the election centered on a housing development in the southern half of the city may have widened the geographical split. Sixty percent of respondents from the north rated the overall direction that Palo Alto is taking as "good" or "excellent," compared to 48 percent in the south.

Klein also noted that citizens' concerns about crime increased between 2012 and 2013, even though crime statistics have not. He asked staff whether it's possible to go deeper and ask follow-up questions to the residents who took the survey. That way, he said, the council could better understand the reasoning "when the objective facts would indicate that there hasn't been any change in the community, but we're hearing a different answer (from respondents)."

Acting City Auditor Houman Boussina, whose office coordinates the release of the annual report, said city officials can follow up with the National Citizens Survey to see if that's possible.

In at least one case, the survey may have made a victory look like a defeat. Councilman Marc Berman, following Klein's comment about crime statistics, suggested that the growing concerns may have to do with the police department's outreach efforts, which generally benefit the community but can also have the effect of making residents aware of more crimes, large or small.

Council members expressed interest in having the council's Policy and Services Committee further explore the report's findings. Mayor Nancy Shepherd said "it would be interesting to see if there's any more information that comes out of doing a deep dive."

But like her colleagues Councilman Greg Scharff and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, she characterized the latest survey as, on the whole, a very positive one, with Palo Alto getting far higher ratings than comparable cities in most categories not related to land use and transportation. Kniss noted that while many of the city's older residents may be frustrated about increasing traffic, most people are, on the whole, happy to be in Palo Alto.

"When the 'overall quality of life' is about 90 percent in your community, that doesn't seem all bad," Kniss said.

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

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