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Palo Alto struggles to find the meaning of 'benefit'

Original post made on Mar 27, 2013

Philosophers may rack their brains over the meaning of life, but for Palo Alto's developers, neighborhood leaders and elected officials, the meaning of "public benefits" is in many ways a more puzzling matter.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 10:21 PM

Comments (48)

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Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Public benefits should be directly commensurate with the public nuisance of a proposed project. Ugly projects could be balanced with new public parks. Projects causing population growth should include large contributions to public infrastructure and public services (such as schools). Projects causing new commuters should build or fund improved public transit and bicycle transportation routes.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2013 at 7:33 am

The Palo Alto Bowl was a public benefit. The future hotel will not be a public benefit.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2013 at 8:17 am

It is worth looking at a definition of benefit.

In the old days of Lucky I frequently used it for a couple of items on my way home because it was handy. We also used the Chinese restaurant, the pizza place and also BJ Bulls. I did not like the Lucky/Albertsons, because it appeared dirty and rundown and the staff were rude to me on more than one occasion.

I also used Mikis for the same reason, but I did like it. However, it was not an attractive option from the street. Parking was a problem. The spots appeared to be compact sized and on my most recent trip a large vehicle parked beside mine was so close I couldn't open my door and had to climb in from the passenger side. I have no idea how someone with a car seat would be able to open doors wide enough to get a car seat in or out of the car, or able to help a child with their seatbelt. The 30 minutes did not allow enough time for a coffee as well as a shopping trip.

I know many people who had used Mikis for a couple of items but nobody told me they used it for large quantities of groceries on a regular basis. Most people I have spoken with have said that it had not got onto their radar yet or had the same comments as my own.

I often drive Alma, it is rare that I do not have to stop at the light for Mikis, but I don't say the same thing about the other lights on Alma. This light is necessary for Mikis but is a nuisance for efficient traffic flow on Alma. If drivers are changing their routes as a result it can hinder the premise of public benefit.

The new building in place of the gas station on Middlefield now has a name on it which means absolutely nothing to me. I have heard rumors that it is a yoga studio but it must be very elite as I have heard nothing about it. Is this also supposed to be a public benefit?

I do not like the WholeFoods in Los Altos parking lot. When you need to take a cart of groceries into an elevator it is not a pleasant shopping experience so I usually carry my bags on the stairs. I also do not like the entrance, buses at the bus stop and coming up the ramp not being able to see the light makes it a difficult intersection to negotiate.

The reasons why the public do or do not use a so called benefit is worth asking. I see very little market research done or even public surveys on what we have. It would make sense to ask people in Safeway, Piazzas parking lots why they are choosing to shop at that particular time and what sort of groceries they are buying on that trip.






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Posted by homeowner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:32 am

Public benefit? (snort) You mean "Trojan horse" for developers to get whatever density they want.

I see Miki's Market happening all over again in my neighborhood, where they're railroading rezoning of single-family residential/duplex to high density. IMO, the city shouldn't be able to touch single-family residential, unless they can convince all the residents in an affected neighborhood to go for it, period. By that standard, the "public good" would have to actually be pretty good for anything to fly. As it is, things like Miki's happen because everyone is just so eager beaver to pack high-density willy nilly everywhere they can, and the "public benefit" is usually just so much PR (or BS) generated by a completely developer-centric process as cover for the density pack.

In case anyone hadn't noticed, this town is horrendously expensive, and it's exhausting to have to keep up on whether the neighborhood is going to keep getting carved out for high density where it's zoned for single-family residential. When I buy my home, I"m not just buying the walls, I'm buying the location, of which zoning is a big part. (Remember "location, location, location"?) The whole point of zoning is so that people can count on what's there and what's going to be there in the future.

I wish the City council would start taking zoning seriously. Yes, I see the value of selectively increasing density in areas already zoned for high density. But things have gotten absurd, city leaders in recent years have absolutely no respect for zoning. Alma Plaza should have stayed mostly commercial. What a lost opportunity for the neighborhood and city.

I applaud this effort to bring some clarity to what has become backhanded kryptonite against zoning and respect of zoning. As a homeowner, I feel absolutely under assault.


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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:49 am

One person's ugly is another's beauty --- so it's hard to buy into the "build a park" paradigm.

But in general I agree with "resident" and the obvious trade-offs.

We're looking forward to the re-opening of the Edgewood shopping center. Despite the running issues over demolition, small number of homes and Eichler-fanatic demands --- the place is shaping up nicely.

The big difference between Edgewood and Alma is that the layout will be essentially the same - where you can see the new store from the street, parking visible to the public, etc.

Does anyone know what other stores, restaurants, etc. are slated to go into Edgewood?


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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:49 am

One person's ugly is another's beauty --- so it's hard to buy into the "build a park" paradigm.

But in general I agree with "resident" and the obvious trade-offs.

We're looking forward to the re-opening of the Edgewood shopping center. Despite the running issues over demolition, small number of homes and Eichler-fanatic demands --- the place is shaping up nicely.

The big difference between Edgewood and Alma is that the layout will be essentially the same - where you can see the new store from the street, parking visible to the public, etc.

Does anyone know what other stores, restaurants, etc. are slated to go into Edgewood?


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Posted by Jeff
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:55 am

The public benefit should compensate proportional to the nuisance/detriment of the project. Ignore the profit. The goal isn't to be a robber baron. (not "quantify the project's benefit to the developer and then extract a commensurate quantity in public benefits")

If a developer is smart enough to design a project that has few detriments and provides lasting value to Palo Alto, let him reap the profits.

If a developer proposes a project having a huge negative impact and little financial profit why should the "public benefit" be small?

The public benefit should be something lasting more than 6 months. A grocery store? ... don't legislate or subsidize a business to exist: inadequate profits -> no business.


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Posted by Jane
a resident of University South
on Mar 28, 2013 at 11:38 am

Some "public benefits" are a total joke - they don't benefit anyone but the developer, who is allowed to make the city more congested. The "frieze of tiny cars" adorning the edge of an entrance to a building is a perfect example.


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Posted by Tip of the iceberg
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 28, 2013 at 11:48 am

It was disheartening to observe how little the planning commissioners know, with the exception of Arthur Keller. Keller suggested they look into the whole process of awarding PCs not just Public Benefits. The public speakers clearly knew much more about it than the commissioners.
Public Benefits are the visible tip of the iceberg of money-making in the PC zone.There are millions of dollars corrupting the system some of which the developers spread around in places where it will help. The newspaper might consider looking into it.


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Posted by Henry
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 28, 2013 at 12:13 pm

This headline is misleading. There's really no struggle to find the meaning of 'benefit' for Planned Community Zones in Palo Alto. The discussion is just a smoke screen to hide the truth that City Hall and Council are controlled by a handful . In a Planned Community Zone in Palo Alto, the developer gets all the benefit and the public subsidizes the true costs of the project (lack of parking, narrow sidewalks, school overcrowding, infrastructure shortfalls, traffic, air pollution, etc.).


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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Marie is a registered user.

If there is a huge negative benefit, it should not be approved. What positive is there at all to increased office space in Palo Alto? What positive is possible from high density overcrowded housing, except to make ABAG happy? The only rational benefits that should be acceptable are increased parking (beyond what is required for the new building), land donated for the new schools that will inevitably be needed as ABAG requirements will result in another 10,000 new residents by 2020, and low income rental housing (probably the most rational and needed public benefit).

There is no benefit to additional stores we don't need, and are likely to fail, there is no benefit to nebulous art, there is no benefit to community rooms that are rarely available and for which there is limited parking and there is no benefit to plazas used for nearby restaurants. And there is no possible offsetting benefit to building with inadequate parking in areas which are already have more demand than spaces and no possible offsetting benefit to high density housing which will overwhelm our schools.


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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Sorry for the couple grammatical errors as my typing was faster than my grammatical sense.


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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I think it's so wonderfully beneficial that not a single worker or resident in those new developments will have a single car or contribute to our already horribly clogged roads and traffic tie-ups.

Want to buy a bridge?

You've read the plan where the Bay Area is supposed to absorb another 1 MILLION households for let's say 2.45 MILLION new residents and not a single car. They also justify it by saying Asians and Hispanics LOVE living in high density.

Got another bridge?


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Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Public benefit? Here's a 'joker'. There is a big new building at the southwest corner of
Embarcadero and East Bayshore Road across from MIng's and where Scott's used to be. To get more bang for the buck, the builder Arrillaga et al gave 'public benefits'. One is sign 'in a ditch' at the S/W corner of the adjacent intersection which welcomes people to the Palo Alto Baylands and Nature Preserve. Sometimes it''s covered with weeds. This FACES highway 101. It does not direct to the Baylands and is not in it. .The building is now the new Stanford Byers Eye Clinic . Note: Arrillaga=Stanford=public benefits. Drive into the Clinic area and on your right you will see some small pretty signs in VERY small - call it tiny - landscaped plots which are supposed to be parks with some informational signs. They are on the outer fringes of the parking lot. Who's got time to stop in a driveway and read? The is a prime example of the misuse of public benefits.


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Posted by For Whom???
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Palo Alto does not struggle to find the meaning of benefit. The city council and powers that be think only of profit-- for themselves. That little bit of power they have corrupts them enough that profitability for themselves in the future seems to be all that matters to them. Public benefit or public harm seem to have no importance to them unless it benefits or harms THEM directly. Otherwise the go into denial and ignore it.


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Posted by MadamPresident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

main public benefits are:
1.smart lighting
2.well taken care of roads/sidewalks
3.well-designed libraries that open evenings/weekends & serve as community centers
4.well-developed & reasonably priced apartment complexes

were are 1,2 & 3 in Palo Alto?


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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm

IMO public benefits should not be the promise of certain kinds of retail, see Miki Market. It does help to have a,market or community serving businesses. But public benefits should be public art projects, park and open space, or city or school benefits. Even funds for community needs, see youth and senior programs, after school programs.


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Posted by Jim
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm

The crooked developer of the housing development and building where Mikki's Market was located, knew that Mikki's would fail. The developer didn't charge Mikki's Market rent, because he needed to get a poor sucker in there to fulfill the "public benefit." What a scam. Shame on Palo Alto.


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Jim-- I think that you are repeating the same unfounded claims that a poster named "a local" posted on the thread about miki' s closing. Same nasty tone without any proof


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Posted by WhatBenefit
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm

The city asks the residents to pay for the infrastructure improvement( adding garages etc) while holding hands with the developers to build more complexes and buildings.


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Posted by Tina Peak
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm

"Public Benefit" means "I will have my expensive lawyers and design teams out negotiate city staff and city council so that I can build the huge over-sized project that will make me even more millions and will destroy the atmosphere in Palo Alto" to a developer. "Public Benefit" means "I can get a huge architectural eye-sore built for my company or my friends company and get written up in the journals" to all the architects on the ARB. "Public Benefit" means "I can make large employers like Stanford and various developers like me so I can get a better job after retiring with full benefits at age 50" to planning department employees. "Public Benefits" means "I can get some improvements to roads, lights and sidewalks and not pay for them" to the traffic guys. And "Public Benefits" means "Residents are getting screwed by large developers and the city again as they destroy quality of life by over crowding the schools, parks, streets and city infrastructure. It is time to ban these public benefit projects. Follow the written zoning laws for the size of developments allowed. No more allowing developers to buy massive developments for a pittance while leaving city residents with the consequences forever.


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Posted by It's Pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm

OK! Mr. Not a issue. Jim's opinion may not contain facts. However it's pretty safe to say that is a darn good explanation of what most likely transpired.
I'll bet that was the whole idea all along. If I was a shady developer and was forced to makes something like a grocery store part of my newly built development. I would make it look ugly and not look like a grocery store. With high hopes that it would fail.
Then when it did fail I could go back to the city and say ''Hey this idea of having a grocery store just wont work". Let me divide the building up into 3 new comercial properties.


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Posted by MyMoneyOnMyMind
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Tina Peak is smart for she has seen the light


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Let's remember that the ARB wanted something like alma village. Let's also remember that no national chain would open at that site, given its size and that is thanks to NIMBYs, neighborhood whnng and a gutless city council


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Posted by It's Pat
a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 28, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Miki? Miki is a great guy from what I hear. He had a dream and took a chance.
He hoped his dream would become fruitful.
Just like the shady developer who took the chance. The chance that just maybe the grocery stor would sucede but with hopes that it would fail.

And NO! I don't need facts to come here and post my opinion. If a palo alto reader reads my post and takes what I spew forth as fact then god help him.


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Posted by Marcie
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Palo Alto needs to drop the public benefits designation from their books. It is a form of corruption and bribery. The city needs to say NO to any developer that deviates from the height, size, and parking requirements that the residents approved.


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Posted by Eleanor d' Aquitaine
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:06 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Alan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm

The so called Public Benefit program has been a bonanza for developers, it needs to be stopped, period. When city council trades a tiny bench, a doorway decorated with poor shaped cars, 'public space' that has been taken over by at least two restaurants I'm aware of and is now essentially their rent free private space, and so on, something is wrong. City council; there are zoning codes on the books, learn them, embrace them, enforce them. Trading really stupid public benefits for egregious zoning variances must stop.


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Posted by Eleanor d'Aquitaine
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:26 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Patrick Muffler
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Hey people. After you write something, take a few minutes to check the spelling, grammar, tone, and accuracy; complete, articulate, cogent sentences would be nice. Do you want people to read and consider your opinions, or do you want them to dismiss your opinions and arguments as just mere emotional trash?


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Posted by It's Pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:38 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Whoa!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm



I've not had a chance to read all the comments or memo yet, but reading the article, I see no thoughts from City Council about first measuring what you are giving up in the first place.

Developers want height and density. Who can say that a parking lot or a theater is worth 1 extra floor, 2 extra floors, 3 extra floors. Where is the model to value location, traffic costs, historical value?

I'll read the memo, but surely there must be a plan to measure what is being given up.


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 29, 2013 at 4:56 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2013 at 7:07 am

All you need to know about many members of the city council is this quote Web Link

"I think this is a prime site and having an office building -- a Gateway project -- is itself a public benefit," Scharff said.


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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2013 at 8:42 am

If a developer wants a variance, let him propose an offsetting benefit then let folks vote on whether the benefit offsets the variance.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 29, 2013 at 9:19 am

I'm not surprised that Miki's is already closing shop. I'm sad for the owner, but the whole plan for that development is/was a formula for failure... just a newly built version. The design and layout was wrong from the beginning and I cannot envision any combination of businesses that will be successful there. It's all shiny and new, but completely uninviting no matter how you look at it. It's amazing people can be so stupid about planning and development.


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Posted by maditalian1492
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm

I think the City needs to get out its checkbook and write a big fat check to a consultant to appropriate definition of "public benefit" for this discussion. Send the consultant to several large East Coast cities, spend fabulous sums on hotels and meals in order to consult other municipalities for their take on the term. We'll get a nice report and wait for the City to decide that might not have been such a hot idea after all and it should have just opened up an dictionary or an encyclopedia.


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Posted by Larry
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 30, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Short of an expensive and complex public vote for every project, evaluating the public "benefit" vs. "cost" tradeoff is a fool's errand because the value of both is in the eye of the beholder. The only practical solution is to eliminate the tradeoffs entirely and stick with the zoning laws as they are written.


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Posted by realistic
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 30, 2013 at 5:20 pm

It's not that complicated. It's happened all over this country but
we didn't expect it to happen here. And it's happening here in spades because the market forces are so strong here. Developers are in total control of the City government and you are seeing the results. What is compounding the problem is that the City staff has no idea what constitutes an attractive environment so where they can do more harm they are doing it. What you are seeing unfold is the total destruction of the city and its neighborhoods, environment, aesthetics, and quality of life.


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Posted by Sick at heart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

Resident is right, we never expected such a thing to happen here. This is one of those things that happens only in big, corrupt East Coast cities where all the politicians are on some sleazy developer's payroll. Certain not in clean, idealistic, politically correct Palo Alto!

Not an issue, could you eliminate the nasty tone from your posts? They are all being deleted, and we do not get to read what you have to say because of it.


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Posted by Waiting for a Benefit
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm

When Los Altos allowed the Packard Foundation to build off San Antonio Rd, it too, factored in public benefits. But that was the only area where I had trouble driving in the middle of the long construction (Main Street construction was easy to negotiate), and now that it's finished, one can't even walk in their driveway, as they have a no trespassing plaque cemented into the sidewalk. It is not inviting.

They built on lots on two of three formerly developed sides of the street, for their private parking. I've heard they are remodeling the only building that remains, also for more of their offices.

Packard Open houses are mostly closed - by invitation only. People that work there are snobby. The only benefit I see is some may buy lunch at local restaurants during the day. But is the foundation being there a benefit to the average person in Los Altos? I'm still waiting for my benefit.

I don't even think their architecture is all that warm and inviting. The structure seems cold and bland. But beauty, as pointed out, is in the eye of the beholder. Benefits should be for the public, and easy to recognize, when cities cave to whatever a developer wants.


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Posted by Long time resident of palo Alto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 1, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Please, please we can't fix the Miki's fiasco but perhaps we can stop the horrendous 27 University project! University Ave and El Camino are a parking lot from 3-6PM every day I can't imagine what it will be like when a huge number of cars are dumped on to these streets.I would hate to be in an ambulance trying to get to Stanford Hospital. Already many cars are taking Hamilton to get through downtown. The quality of our town is being destroyed. Let's stand up to power, money and politics. No on 27 University project!


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Posted by PaloAltoBill
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 2, 2013 at 11:53 am

How is it that we Palo Altans are able to prioritize the discussion of "just exactly what is a public benefit" over discussions of which of our roads and sidewalks are we going to repair in the very near future. My wife and I walk all over Palo Alto and I can tell my fellow Palo Altans that the sidewalks are in a pathetic state of disrepair. Why is this? I also drive throughout Palo Alto as well and the streets are a disaster. Why is this? We seem to be able to prioritize an $80M Library and Cultural Center and we can prioritize a discussion of public benefits. But, sidewalks and streets - "Move along, there's nothing to see there."


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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Please, Mr. Keene. Order SOMEONE to fix MIddlefield Road between county-line bridge southbound (north also) along Middlefield Road. How many years does it take to get this fixed? It is dangerous. And while you are at it, please have someone clean up the Embarcadero overpass and adjacent ramp areas. Many Palo Alto maintenance employees and brass go that way everyday. Can't they SEE how bad it looks already?


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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Please, Mr. Keene. Order SOMEONE to fix MIddlefield Road between county-line bridge southbound (north also) along Middlefield Road. How many years does it take to get this fixed? It is dangerous. And while you are at it, please have someone clean up the Embarcadero overpass and adjacent ramp areas. Many Palo Alto maintenance employees and brass go that way everyday. Can't they SEE how bad it looks already?


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Posted by Not Amused
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm

This council cannot define what constitutes a "public benefit" for Palo Alto, yet they feel qualified to weigh in on the redefinition of marriage for our whole country?

Mr. Keene - please suggest that this council only address issues in our own city. It's not like there are not numerous problems to solve, like infrastructure work neglected for decades. What is a "public benefit"? If they weren't serious, it would be laughable.


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Posted by lost
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 3, 2013 at 6:48 am

You will not let this post survive, I know. Public benefit:
Rainbow flag issue: marriage about equality and freedom. No, marriage was instituted not for procreation, nor for protection of the weak. What it was created for was to enshrine the power of the man over the woman/women, his chattel/chattels. There is no public benefit to flying a flag which represents an issue people are supporting out of ignorance of the history of marriage.


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