Good feelings and big buildings
Come November, elected City Council candidates will join governance board that's been largely united, especially when it comes to growth
There was a time decades ago when City Council meetings in Palo Alto resembled episodes of "The Real World," with raucous debates, endless bickering and insults flying across the dais.
In this bygone era, which peaked in the 1960s, the slow-growth "residentialists," who sought to protect Palo Alto against encroaching developments, feuded with "establishment" council members who pushed for more growth and economic prosperity. The establishment side dominated the council throughout the 1950s, a period of dramatic growth in Palo Alto, but began losing power in the early 1960s. Spurred by controversial projects such as construction of the Oregon Expressway (which ended up going to the voters and prevailing by 474 votes out of 18,340 ballots cast, according to Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: A Centenial History"), residentialists such as Enid Pearson, Kirke Comstock and Byron Sher began to take council seats. By 1966, establishment council members held a mere seven-to-six advantage.
"We had fights and were fighting. We weren't getting city business done. It was totally absurd," Pearson recalled in a recent interview.
The city had just hired its first city manager, Jerome Keithley, to manage the growth of the 1960s. He instantly became a target for residentialists and, according to Winslow, resigned in exasperation and under fire in 1966.
Things inside the council chambers got hairy. Writes Winslow: "Personal relations between the two sides deteriorated to the insult level and, once, almost to fisticuffs. Sometimes, they couldn't agree to accept the minutes of the previous meeting. Council meetings ran long and late, and decisions were delayed for weeks because the members could not compose their differences, particularly on issues related to land use and growth."
Council meetings today still run long and late, but the divisiveness and acrimony of yesteryear would seem unimaginable to anyone who has attended a recent City Council meeting, where unanimous votes are the norm and where the atmosphere behind the dais is usually one of genial consensus. Even on issues as controversial as California's high-speed rail system, lane reductions on California Avenue, benefit cuts to city workers, legalization of marijuana dispensaries and massive new office developments, the council members consistently speak with the same voice, albeit a voice with nine distinct tones. There is a range of opinions: Greg Schmid and Karen Holman bring more skepticism toward new developments than most of their colleagues (both voted against the proposed four-story Lytton Gateway development) while Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Larry Klein have been the council's leading advocates for development. But the gulf isn't very wide. There have been a few 5-4 votes, as in when the council authorized money for design work for a compost plant in the Baylands earlier this year or when it placed a repeal of binding arbitration on the 2011 ballot. But unanimity, or something very close to it, has generally been the rule.
Gary Fazzino, a former two-time mayor who is writing a political history of Palo Alto, said the current council has had more unanimous votes than any since the mid-1990s. It's also the most pro-development council since the 1960s. Fazzino compared current City Manager James Keene, with whom the council has had a smooth working relationship, to Keithley when it comes to his philosophy about economic growth and changes to the city's character.
When the council approved the massive, $5 billion expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center in 2011 — a project that added 1.3 million square feet of new development and that officials frequently referred to as the "largest development in the city's history" — the vote was 8-0 (Klein recused himself because his wife is on the Stanford faculty). While some members of the community expressed concern about potential traffic problems caused by the expanded hospitals, council members oozed with enthusiasm about the ambitious project, with Gail Price saying it was a "pleasure to be a part of the process," Mayor Yiaway Yeh calling it a "momentous evening" and Schmid declaring it "a night for celebration in Palo Alto."
Fazzino said the council discussion reflected the council's view of Stanford University and Stanford Hospital not as major developers but rather as leading educational and medical institutions, respectively.
"I cannot imagine the Stanford Hospital being approved on a unanimous vote 10 or 15 years ago," Fazzino said.
Other major development projects are getting the ear of the council. The two most recent proposed developments look to transcend just about every major zoning restriction on the books. Commercial developer Jay Paul hopes to build a pair of office towers on Page Mill Road, and billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga has proposed four office towers (one of which would be 161 feet tall) and a theater near the downtown Caltrain station. Whereas before, it was relatively rare for developers to exceed the city's 50-foot limit for new development (a residentialist restriction that once was more or less sacrosanct), that request has become relatively routine.
The Arrillaga proposal "wouldn't have made it to first base" a few decades ago, Fazzino said. He also pointed to other recent developments, including the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Alma Plaza and Lytton Gateway, that the council allowed to be "built to the max."
November's election, in which six candidates are vying for four seats, may not dramatically change that — although some candidates express residentialist concerns. The unusually small candidate field consists of two incumbents, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid; former two-time mayor and soon-to-be-termed-out Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss; attorney Marc Berman, a former volunteer for a successful school-bond campaign who recently served on a citizen committee that analyzed infrastructure needs; financial consultant Tim Gray; and former concert promoter Mark Weiss.
The Weekly recently asked the candidates whether they think the current council gives too much weight to the views and interests of developers or residentialists, or whether they think the council strikes "an appropriate balance."
Berman and Burt both said they think the council is striking an appropriate balance.
Kniss expressed caution, saying she's been hearing from the community that developers are "coming out ahead," a sentiment she agrees with.
"Regardless of the reality, the perception is an unbalanced approach in weight given to the developers," wrote Kniss, who as a former City Council member and a veteran Supervisor has ample experience negotiating with Stanford over land-use plans.
Gray, who calls himself a residentialist, is more outspoken in his view that developers are given too much weight. He pointed to Arbor Real, a townhouse development that was recently built on the former site of Rickey's Hyatt on El Camino Real and Charleston Road. The dense development has become a poster child for land-use watchdogs and residents decrying the recent trend toward massive and dense buildings.
"The community provided all the community amenities, and the value went to the developers, leaving the residents with increased demands on roads, water, sewer, and the experience of increased traffic," Gray wrote.
Weiss also railed against developers having too much interest. But Schmid chose none of the three options, stating instead that the council "gives way too little time to long-term planning that can help define how a mature and sophisticated community can continue to grow."
The term "Palo Alto Process" may be a pejorative in local development circles, but Schmid says he's all for slowing things down and hashing out a community vision before proceeding with negotiations on major new projects.
"I'm in favor of process, and I think the council and staff have the obligation to set the tone for the discussion, Schmid said.
The new era of civility and growth reflects both the composition of the current council and the economic and demographic changes Palo Alto has undergone in recent years. The political spectrum had narrowed by the end of the 1970s and, according to Winslow, political slates disappeared from elections in 1981, when "most of the council members agreed on major planning and zoning issues."
"Many goals of the early residentialists had been met, including a limit on industrial and residential growth, protection of the Baylands and foothills and extension of city government into social services," Winslow's book states.
Following years of complaints over developments by neighbors, a sort of moderate "residentialism" has set it on the council. Council members routinely spend hours fine-tuning proposed developments and delving into anticipated traffic problems and parking requirements.
Burt, a former planning commissioner who frequently leads the late-night design sessions, said expectations have changed for planned-community projects. In the late 1980's and 1990's, he said, the city had a big wave of such proposals getting approved with only "nominal public benefits." These days, developers are expected to provide more if they wish to exceed zoning regulations, he said.
"The projects we have now are expected to have very significant public benefits if they're to go forward," Burt said in a recent interview.
Still, council members' votes do show a leaning toward growth and economic development. Fazzino suspects the city's financial picture is driving this trend. With the city's revenues plummeting in 2008 as a result of the Great Recession and pension and health care costs rapidly rising, the council has been scrambling to find ways to maintain city services and fund needed infrastructure projects, including a new public-safety building.
"There's such concern about the city's fiscal situation and the need to promote economic growth — keep social media and other new companies here — I think that has driven a large part of what the council has done in terms of supporting these projects," Fazzino said.
Development approved today looks different than it did in the 1960s, however. In a nod to residents' desires, the council has been limiting new buildings to areas near transit sites (mostly near University and California avenues), away from the residential neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. And some of the council's positions — including its heated and unanimous opposition to California's high-speed-rail project and its dispute with the Association of Bay Area Governments over the number of new homes the regional group expects the city to accommodate — probably wouldn't have been as popular among the 1960s group.
But whichever way they tilt on a given issue, current council members tend to tilt together, much like the 1960s establishment. Fazzino said there is "less of a gulf" on the council now and that the political spectrum is "more concentrated" than it was even 10 years ago.
"The folks on this council are pretty close to each other," he said
The united development front hasn't gone unopposed by the city's lingering residentialists, though. Neighbors of new developments still speak out, often decrying proposed buildings' size, density and potential parking problems. More broadly, Bob Moss, a veteran land-use watchdog, led a successful grassroots drive in 2009 to force private developments to have wider private streets — a proposal spurred by the approval of the Alma Plaza redevelopment, which includes 52 homes and a grocery store. After Moss gathered more than 2,000 signatures for his effort, the council agreed in July 2009 to adopt the private-streets ordinance outright rather than sending it to the voters.
Concerns from Downtown North residents this year about the parking problems that could arise from the proposed Lytton Gateway development at Alma Street and Lytton Avenue prompted the council to add a host of conditions relating to parking as part of the approval, including a $2 million payment for future parking improvements such as a new garage.
Moss is also opposing the new Arrillaga plan, which he called the "most appalling proposal" he has seen in the city in 40 years. The council, Moss said in a recent interview, is notable for both its tendency to "rubberstamp" staff recommendations and for approving new developments.
"This council is the most pro-growth council in at least 15 to 20 years, maybe more," Moss said.
The council appears to be influencing the tilt of local boards and commissions as well, which provide recommendations to the council, relegating residentialist voices to the fringe. The two Planning and Transportation Commission members who have been most critical of dense new projects — Arthur Keller and former Vice Chair Susan Fineberg — both ran into major resistance from the council in their efforts to seek additional terms. Keller, who is prone to wonky monologues about traffic and who frequently attaches technical conditions to his approvals — retained his seat on the commission by a 5-4 vote last year. Fineberg, well-known for her advocacy of transparency, her encyclopedic knowledge of the city's Comprehensive Plan and her exceedingly thorough analyses of environment documents, ended her tenure in July after the council decided not to reappoint her — a vote that was not lost on Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident.
Before the council began its discussion of the Jay Paul proposal on Sept. 10, Balin urged members to take their time to make sure the process is transparent and that potential problems caused by the project are thoroughly — and independently — vetted. Balin also said he and others who follow land-use issues were "incredulous" over the council's decision not to reappoint Fineberg.
"Because in her presence in public, on the dais, Susan Fineberg embodied all these valuable and needed traits — a model commissioner. And therefore, the public's only logical interpretation is that the council majority does not value one or more of these attributes as much as something else the public is not privy to," Balin said.
Pearson, a conservationist and veteran of countless political skirmishes, says city officials who harbor residentialist sentiments get punished politically these days. She points to the council's recent decision to name the more recently elected Scharff over Schmid as its vice mayor, despite Schmid's seniority, and its decision not to name former Councilman Jack Morton — a frequent critic of new developments and a man whose off-the-cuff diatribes often enlivened council meetings — to the mayor's position.
"You've got to be able to debate these things," Pearson said. "You should be able to argue out loud. You should be able to get angry at a council meeting."
The terms of the debate have changed, she said, and just about everyone claims to be a "residentialist" — just as everyone claims to be an "environmentalist" — even as they then go on to approve major development applications.
"I'm not considered an environmentalist anymore," said Pearson, who has an open-space preserve named after her and opposes construction of a composting plant in the Baylands. "I'm now considered an obstructionist."
Pearson suspects that would-be activists for residentialist causes just don't have time to stay engaged in citywide issues — an observation supported by the fact that the six-candidate pool in the current election is the smallest since 1985 (every election since 1999 has had at least 10 candidates).
"It's not that residentialists don't exist; it's just that life is too hard for them to be able to give the time you need to protect the residential character of neighborhoods," Pearson said. "They can do it with surges of activity, but they can't do it all the time. They have children to raise, and they have mortgages to pay on the house, which they need two people to pay for."
Ray Bacchetti, a former school board member and current member of the Human Relations Commission, attributes the small candidate pool in part to the wide range of opportunities Palo Alto residents have to volunteer — including school activities, emergency preparedness and library fundraising. The time-consuming nature of city government also serves as a deterrent, he said in an email. Many people in Palo Alto, he wrote, "are used to getting things done quickly, in part because in their career they have a lot of control over circumstances, resources and people."
"When they look at government, they see 'process, process, process,' and they don't understand or respect the reasons why political settings require it," wrote Bacchetti, who is one of the city's leading proponents of civic engagement,
The tough fiscal situation doesn't help. The city's lack of resources, he wrote, "means that a lot of your decisions will hurt, and your opportunities to do big things are severely limited, if not altogether foreclosed."
"Of course, Palo Alto is better off than most, but the implications for governance are relative, so nobody has much fun governing these days, regardless of their city's financial starting place," Bacchetti wrote.
Fazzino agreed that residents these days have less time to devote to volunteering. Fewer candidates step forward and some who do get elected — Peter Drekmeier, Sid Espinosa and Yeh — only stick around for one term. Both Espinosa, who served as mayor last year, and Yeh, the current mayor, announced this summer that they would not run again, citing their desire to explore other opportunities.
"I do think it's much more difficult to attract people to run for the City Council because of the time commitments," Fazzino said. "People are focused on their careers. I see a smaller pool of people stepping forward like Marc Berman (has) — who have a real interest in government and public policy."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.