Scharff lays out bold plans in 'State of the City'
Palo Alto mayor focuses on downtown improvements, technological advances in speech at Tesla Motors
Calling Palo Alto a place where the "future continues to be invented," Mayor Greg Scharff rolled out on Wednesday night a broad and ambitious agenda for the coming year, including plans to bring wireless Internet service to local parks, add parking garages to downtown and institute smoking restrictions in open-space preserves.
In a "State of the City" speech presented at the headquarters of Tesla Motors, Scharff recapped the city's recent accomplishments, detailed the city's official 2013 priorities and made a few proposals of his own, including requiring developers to pitch in more funds for public art and reviving the city's recently stalled effort to bring ultra-high-speed Internet to the masses.
Calling the coming year "Lucky '13" and referring to it as the "Year of the Future," Scharff told the assembled crowd of about 100 that they have much to be proud of and look forward to. Palo Alto, he said, is "the birthplace, the creative center, the heart, the essence of Silicon Valley."
"The ideas that change the world start here," Scharff said. "In a garage, or in a coffee house, in our homes, or offices, the future continues to be invented here in Palo Alto."
While his speech celebrated many of the city's recent achievements, it also offered a host of new proposals for the City Council to debate in the coming year.
Among the new ideas are Scharff's proposal to expand the city's existing "One Percent for Art" program — which requires developers to allot 1 percent of a project's construction budget for acquiring public art — to encompass private as well as public capital projects (currently, it applies to only to public projects); his plan to bring Wi-Fi to local parks, starting with Cogswell Plaza in downtown Palo Alto; and a proposal to bring buildings on University Avenue into conformance with zoning laws that require retail on the ground floor.
Scharff also said the council will consider banning smoking at three downtown parks: Lytton Plaza, Cogswell Plaza and Sara Wallis Park. After that, he said, the city will explore "a much broader ban on smoking in all parks and open space in Palo Alto."
"Palo Alto has fallen behind other cities in restricting smoking," Scharff said. "Second-hand smoke, as everyone knows, not only is a huge quality of life issue, it kills you."
In recommending the expansion of the "Percent for Art" policy, he said that Palo Alto also trails other cities "in fostering public art and providing a dedicated funding source for maintenance of our public art collection." Scharff also said the city should have a dedicated funding source for maintenance and administration of the city's art collection.
Scharff's speech also covered the three priorities that the council adopted earlier this month at its annual retreat: infrastructure, the future of downtown and technology.
Among the proposals to strengthen downtown is the addition of parking — both building new garages and closing loopholes in the zoning laws to make sure that new downtown developments don't make the existing parking shortage any worse, Scharff said.
"All new projects now will have to provide parking for their ground-floor office or retail space," Scharff said. "We must ensure that all new buildings are either fully 'parked' or pay the full cost parking space into the parking fund."
Scharff also highlighted the council's recent efforts to encourage downtown retail, including a proposal to require ground-floor retail on the 600 block of Emerson Street, a peripheral downtown block where the retail space in several buildings recently switched to more financially lucrative office space.
On the infrastructure front, Scharff picked up where former Mayor Yiaway Yeh left off last year. Yeh had labeled 2012 the "Year of Infrastructure Renewal and Investment" and Scharff's speech underscored the fact that this priority will extend into 2013 and beyond. Scharff cited the city's recent steps, including a decision to add $2.2 million annually for capital improvements, and alluded to the council's ongoing work to determine whether to put an infrastructure measure on the 2013 ballot.
In addition to overdue fixes, the city is also pursuing significant new developments, including a police headquarters, a project Scharff acknowledged he wasn't excited about before but now sees as urgent. A bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and a major renovation of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course are also planned. The latter project is part of the regional effort to improve flood protection around San Francisquito Creek, and in addition to reconfiguring the golf course, the project would make space for three athletic fields on the site.
A thornier infrastructure subject is Cubberley Community Center, a much valued but dilapidated hub in south Palo Alto that the city shares with the school district. With the city's lease of Cubberley space set to expire next year, Scharff said a "master plan needs to be developed now." School and city officials met for much of the past year to consider the future of the community center.
"I envision that this year we will rise to the challenge as a community to develop a plan now for Cubberley that gives the school district flexibility while creating a first-rate community center in south Palo Alto," Scharff said. "We must not give in and kick the can down the road to some future council while Cubberley rots in place."
Technology, another council priority, also featured prominently in Scharff's speech. Palo Alto, he said, "should be the leading digital city of the future." He cited recent accomplishments, including last year's Hackathon event, which received national attention, and the city's unveiling last year of an Open Data platform that posts raw data on such topics as libraries and building permits on the city's website so that programmers can create applications based on them. Future projects that he cited in his speech include more Wi-Fi spots, a "Palo Alto 311" help line and a variety of apps, some of which would presumably be built by citizen entrepreneurs.
Perhaps the grandest and longest pursued technological endeavor is "Fiber to the Premises," a stalled effort that the city has explored for more than a decade. The project entails using the city's existing dark-fiber ring to bring ultra-high-speed Internet to all residents. While this proposal largely fizzled last year, when staff recommended scrapping it, Scharff proposed on Wednesday that the city bring it back.
"Over the years, several plans were developed but not implemented, for a variety of reasons," Scharff said. "Ultra-high-speed Internet has been a Palo Alto vision for a long time. Now is the time to fulfill that vision."
Scharff's speech stood out from recent "State of the City" presentations both for the range of its proposals and for its location. For the third straight year, the city held the annual event away from City Hall. While the last two speeches were presented at prominent and highly visible locations — Cubberley Community Center in 2011 and the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center last year — Wednesday's speech took place in the relatively secluded Tesla headquarters in Stanford Research Park. This meant a smaller crowd, fancier catering and two Tesla Roadsters on prominent display at the company's warehouse, which functioned as an auditorium for the evening.
Scharff was introduced by JB Straubel, Tesla's chief technical officer, who talked about the company's decision to move its headquarters to Palo Alto in 2009. What sets the city apart, Straubel said, is the people who foster the city's culture of innovation.
"The quality of the people, the general breadth of education, the openness and the insights and the attitudes are so unique," Straubel said in his introductory remarks.
READ MORE ONLINE
The text of Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff's "State of the City" speech is posted on Palo Alto Online. Discuss his ideas on Town Square, the website's community discussion forum.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.