Since mid-September 2009, I have collected, analyzed, and distilled a great deal of the record leading up to that disastrous event. One goal of this effort is to help prevent a recurrence of the conditions that led to it via relevant information ready to be disseminated at critical times. We are now at such a moment.
In the late hours of October 24th, and amidst a flurry of meetings and other activity related to plans for the California Avenue streetscape, a gentlemen named Bob Hayes -- a new face -- stepped to the microphone in front of the City Council and introduced himself as "representing the California Avenue Business Association."
From CAADA to CABA, I thought.
CAADA, of course, is the acronym for the long-standing California Avenue Area Development Association, established in 1958 but greatly discredited in the wake of the 2009 tree removals.
But it appears that Mr. Hayes misspoke, because in his next address to the council six weeks later, he inverted his words and said he was president of the Business Association of California Avenue (BACA). Maybe the catchy CAADA-to-CABA alliteration was just too close for comfort. But while the switch to BACA may help break its mnemonic to CAADA, a key question looms large: How close is the actual connection?
As per LinkedIn, Mr. Hayes is Vice President and Financial Center Manager at Technology Credit Union. The bank opened a new branch office a mere 10 weeks ago at California Avenue and El Camino Real.
He stated that he had sensed a lack of trust from some of the merchants regarding the current streetscape project and intended to help find some common ground "to bring these parties together so that we can move forward."
He returned with a similar message in November amidst a larger showing of dissatisfied merchants. In the interim, a judge had ruled that the city had violated state law by committing to a streetscape grant application project before approving an environmental study.
Terry Shuchat, longtime CAADA board member and property and business owner, preceded Mr. Hayes in his comments, and Mr. Hayes was later followed by former city council member Jack Morton.
Mr. Morton, a Sherman Avenue business owner, had joined Mr. Shuchat as part of his April lawsuit against the city. Before moving on to his criticism of the lane reduction and other elements of the streetscape plan, Mr. Morton stated that he was Vice President of the "newly constituted" organization and that "one of the things that is clear is that the old CAADA did not represent the majority of the merchants in the area." The latter statement rings true, but the irony should be duly noted, as Mr. Shuchat was one of the leaders of the old CAADA."
The City of Palo Alto did not fully recognize and deal appropriately with CAADA's limited representation. And as time went on within the mostly private communications between the two groups, the city didn't just listen, it complied with a small group within CAADA, who wanted all the trees removed from California Avenue in one fell swoop.
If the new BACA is now saying they represent the business community, they need to demonstrate how they are different from the old CAADA, understand its recent history, and incorporate the lessons of this experience.
Key elements of the history of CAADA's role in the tree removals begins below, followed by a Call-For-Response to the leaders of the new BACA.
The Birth of the Streetscape Plans
In 2005, the city council authorized CAADA to create a "master plan" for California Avenue area improvements. Mr. Shuchat, another long-time property owner, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jim Stevens, Vice President of Country Sun at the time, comprised the CAADA Board subcommittee that submitted a plan to the Palo Alto's Department of Public Works (DPW).
The CAADA plan of February 2006, included replacing all the street trees at the same time and installing Pistache trees within new intersection bulb-outs. According to the staff review, this would support approximately 30 large street trees. The canopy along the avenue at the time, not including the plaza area was about twice that number.
DPW refined the plan and decided to apply for outside funding. Toward the end of the grant proposal process, the sole meeting announced to the public was held on June 6 within a business on the avenue.
The final grant proposal increased the number of new trees to 50, and it also revised the CAADA plan to remove the existing trees all at once via an explicit statement in the grant proposal that there would be a phased replacement. Curiously, the proposal also called for the elimination of one lane in each direction on California Avenue, a position Mr. Shuchat now opposes.
Similar to the current city grant proposal, streetscape amenities were included (e.g., street furniture, public art, signage, etc). One major difference, however, was the inclusion of funding for replacement of all the streetlights. The total funding request in 2006 was $1.65 million, about a half million more than the current program proposal, with a city matching grant of $520,000, including $12,500 from CAADA.
The grant proposal was submitted in late June 2006 to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and then a month later to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Both requests were turned down.
A Second Try
At the end of 2006, DPW decided to move ahead without reapplying for grant funding in the following year. They opted for a stripped down project within a city budget of $520,000.
CAADA insiders wanted streetlight and tree replacement. It appears that the CAADA subcommittee members once again called for all the trees to be removed at once, as per the following from DPW's November 2006 summary of options and recommendations:
"The small CAADA working group has asked for street trees to be removed from the sidewalk and new trees planted in the parking lane. However the full CAADA membership and the community seemed split on this. Many felt the loss of the existing canopy would have a negative impact and that the new trees would take too long to reach maturity. Although some of the existing trees are in poor shape, of undesirable species or in bad locations, many are healthy trees in good locations."
DPW recommended replacing the trees over a 5-year period. They also decided against CAADA's desire to place all the new trees in the parking strip due to expense and the loss of parking spaces.
In the spring of 2007, over 90 trees on the California Avenue corridor from El Camino Real to the Caltrain station were inventoried and evaluated relative to the plans for phasing.
After this point, and for reasons I do not have documented, the project stalled for over a year. During the interim there were some personnel changes within DPW and the CAADA board, but Mr. Shuchat and Ms. Bishop remained involved in the streetscape plans.
3rd Time: A Critical Moment
In January 2009, the project moved ahead once more, but it was marked by a critical turn of events. As per an internal DPW email summarizing a meeting with four CAADA insiders:
"They want to replace all the trees at once. They did a tour of Mountain View's Castro Street which had all the trees replaced at once, and they liked it because of the uniformity. They want all the holy oaks out because of the slipping danger from acorns."
DPW acceded and so the road to the removal of all the trees in mid-September, save three along California Avenue and four in the Plaza, was underway.
Who's to Blame?
At this point, I would like to state very clearly my view that the City of Palo Alto bears ultimate responsibility for, and among other things, its failure to validate merchant and community support for the tree removal; for proceeding solely on the direction of a few people within CAADA; and for its very late, inadequate, and misleading public notification.
Quite disheartening from reading internal city communications from 2009 is that there is no indication that anyone among the many staffers with knowledge of the tree removal plan, questioned it.
In short, the city allowed a few within CAADA to unduly influence its processes on a massive scale.
There have been some changes within the city since then. The Public Works Director and DPW arborist have moved on, but the city also failed to follow through on its pledge to release a final report on the matter, although a draft Executive Summary was leaked to the press last year.
But the city's ultimate responsibility does not negate the need for the community, especially the California Avenue area business community, to clearly understand what happened under CAADA and to insist on appropriate safeguards in any new or reconstituted organization created in the name of the district.
As detailed above, from late 2005 until the trees fell in September 2009, a small group of CAADA insiders pursued their private interests within the city. But how much of this did other businesses know?
CAADA reported that it communicated with over 80 merchants via email. I have obtained many, possibly all, of these communications for 2009, the year the trees fell.There were a great many and on a myriad of topics. But on the crucial subject of trees, between that fateful January 2009 meeting between CAADA insiders and DPW and until just before the trees began to came down on September 14, I have not found a single word.
CAADA did hold bi-monthly board meetings and sent out terse 1 or 2 sentence reminders via email. However, I have not seen a single email sent to this group in 2009 that posted an agenda of an upcoming board meeting or minutes of a completed meeting. Neither I have come across any reports, summaries, or other information related to CAADA's private meetings within the city during 2009 within its email communications to this group of 80.
Shortly after the trees fell, the former Director of Public Works apologized to the community. Meanwhile some CAADA board members continued to defend the clearcut; others remained silent. To this day, there has not been a single public word of remorse or apology from within the 2009 CAADA board for what happened under their watch.
Burdened by this regrettable history, the leaders of the new BACA have a responsibility to their members and to the larger community to step forward with vital information if they seek to establish any sense of respectability and trust.
And so I present a challenge and an opportunity to BACA: Respond to the community on this public forum to the vital questions below.
In order to increase transparency and keep the focus on a BACA response, I have set a restriction on comments to registered users only.
I hope BACA leaders will read the questions, prepare clear responses, and post them on this forum under their own names and as registered users.
The community and California Avenue area businesses are entitled to it.
1. Is BACA a brand new organization, or is it CAADA under a new name?
2. What is the stated purpose of the organization?
3. Who are the board members of BACA?
4. Who is eligible to join, and what are the requirements for membership?
5. Who is eligible to be a member of the board, and what is the board nomination and election process?
6. Does each member have equal rights to vote in elections for the board.
7. When are board meetings held and are they open to all members?
8. Will board agendas be made available to the entire membership before each meeting and the minutes afterward?
9 Will discussions of private meetings between board members and the city be reported to the full membership? If so, how?
10. In short, how does BACA intend to ensure its members and the larger community that it will not evolve into the CAADA of 2009?
- Fred Balin
This story contains 2016 words.
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