Listen for Yourself: An index into "A Conversation on the Future of the City" | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Listen for Yourself: An index into "A Conversation on the Future of the City"

Uploaded: Dec 13, 2013
At the December 2nd City Council meeting, there was over 3.5 hours on zoning, planning, traffic, parking,... (f1) The general themes and specific items have presented in the subsequent news article and editorial (f2) and the associated Town Square Forum comments (Note: use the links provided -- they have dropped off the front page at However, for such meetings, I like to hear for myself what was said (because sometimes nuances and context can get lost). I watched/listened to this meeting from the archive in shorter segments.(f3)

Instead of simply watching, I decided to build an index of the key points, partly as an experiment for myself, partly to see if others found it useful, and partly to encourage others to experiment with adding such links to their own comments. It turned out to be a bit easier than I expected--fewer key points and larger gaps allowing some slop in recording the start-times. However, my note-taking below was a bit uneven because of variability in my multi-tasking while listening.

Note: I tested the below links on the current versions of the Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers. There is a deceptive aspect to this: When you click on the link, the video starts playing in the current position and there can be a delay of some seconds before it jumps to the designated time. For the first link clicked on, that means that it temporary plays the beginning of the video. On some mobile devices, the links either failed or had a too large delay--the person told me that they manually scrolled to the time-code. If you have to scroll, check footnote (f3) to see if that is of any help. I would appreciate anyone who finds problems and figures them out letting me know, either by a comment here or by private email (address in blog header).

I have included some comments on points that I don't remember being covered in the Town Square Forum comments.

1:11:25 Begin. City Manager Introduction.
1:19:00 Planning Director presentation
1:25:36 City Manager comments

Public Comments Begin
1:27:00 Harvey Miller (resident) Like several subsequent speakers, he values the concept and promise of PC (Planned Community) zoning, while ignoring how it is practiced in Palo Alto.
1:30:24: Eric Filseth (resident, Downtown North) I strongly recommend that you watch this comment, or read it below (f4), not only for its content, but because it is referenced by other speakers.

1:33:40: Robert Lansfield (property management)
1:36:10: Martin Bernstein: Fairness of PC.

1:39:15: Bob Moss (resident)
1:42:30: Ruth Lowy (resident), City not playing sufficient attention to traffic and parking. Problematic traffic signals (no sync).
1:45:40: Dick Rosenbaum (resident, former mayor)
1:47:10: Neilson Buchanan (resident, leader on parking overflow from downtown)
1:49:40: Richard Brand (resident)

1:52:40: David Kleiman (developer, controversial project at 240 Hamilton)
1:55:15: Ken Hayes (architect, including 240 Hamilton)
1:58:30: Randy Popp (architect, member of the Architectural Review Board)

I encourage you to watch the following two presentations.
2:01:00: Michael Alcheck (current member of the Planning Commission)
He is 32. Sees himself as member of "the next generation" and "the smallest constituency".
"I don't think that the individuals that are over 55, and over 65, and over 75 always necessarily vote for what they really want. I think that they vote against change a lot because it's scary, but I don't know if they always make the same decisions in their private life that they are making on the ballot."
He asserts he supports "Density done well", but "X done well" is a code phrase for acknowledging pervasive problems with X, not offering any fixes, and being determined to proceed nonetheless.
Note: Don't ask how he reconciles the rising enrollments in Palo Alto schools with unaffordability for his age group (affordability is a huge problem, but he doesn't seem inclined to go past catch-phrases).
2:04:08: Susan Fineberg, or read the text below. (f5)
Susan Fineberg was a Planning Commissioner who was renown for her knowledge of the Comprehensive Plan, asking probing questions of Staff and developers, worrying about impacts of major developments, ... The Council refused to reappoint her in July 2012. Instead they appointed the previous speaker, Michael Alcheck, by a vote of 6-3.
Aside: Alcheck's application for the Commission showed interest in urban planning decisions for San Francisco, not Palo Alto (Filseth's earlier comment to the hearing, reproduced below, focused on whether the vision was to have Palo Alto become another San Francisco).

2:07:10: Chris Donlay (resident): process not broken but running amuck
2:10:10: Paul Machado (resident)
2:11:30: Herb Borock (resident)

2:15:27: Fred Balin (resident)
2:18:00 : Shani Kleinhaus (Environmental Director for Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the Audubon Society)
2:10:15 Greg Goodwin (resident): Reality check: want to be SF: was on Embarcadero in SF during peak. Took 2 hr 13 min 51 sec to travel 1.9 miles (0.85 miles/hr). Visiting grandmother, nearly an hour to find parking. "Rapacious decisions"
2:22:00 Adina Levin (for Friends of Caltrain)

2:25:10 Dan Garber (architect, former Planning Commissioner) : don't chase markets.
2:27:45 Arthur Keller (current Planning Commissioner, but speaking as individual)
2:30:50: Davina Brown (resident): Council hasn't abided by the CompPlan.
2:32:30 Norm Beamer (president, Crescent Park Neighborhood Association) City doesn't need more office space.

2:34:55 Joe Hirsh (Steering Committee of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, former Planning Commissioner)
2:36:45: David Jeong (resident): City throws out citizen efforts: CompPlan thrown out for PC
2:38:30: David Adams (resident): Maybell: Council came across as out-of-touch. Disputes Council member Klein's claim "Planning Dept is impartial". Observes that Staff reports could have been written by applicants, referencing the Jay Paul project in his neighborhood.
2:40:40: Eric Rosenblum (resident of PA North; startup in San Mateo): no more 20-40yr olds; no need for more office space.
2:43:55 Jennifer Landesman (resident, Fife Ave): on demographics; shocked by height proposed for 27 U. Ave; for Filseth's "Vision A"
End Public Comment

2:46:55 Beginning of Council comments

2:48:00: Liz Kniss + Staff discussing traffic numbers
2:54:45 Controversial statement that "Comments tonight were balanced, about half and half". See Town Square Forum discussions (referenced above -- links in footnote 2 below). My count (missing a few):
For keeping PCs and status quo: Miller, Lansfield, Kleiman, Hayes, Popp, Alcheck, Garber.
Against status quo: Filseth, Moss, Lowy, Rosenbaum, Buchanan, Brand, Fineberg, Machado, Borock, Balin, Goodwin, Brown, Beamer, Hirsh, Jeong, Adams, Bandesman.
Ambiguous: Bernstein,...
Or 7 vs 17. "Balanced" only if Council discounts residents or over-weights developers and architects.
Kniss also makes a mildly controversial statement by measuring the "vitality" of Palo Alto by whether she could find a restaurant to her tastes at 10:30pm.

2:57:15 Greg Schmid:
Traffic: On El Camino, Staff slide says that it has declined 10% at steady pace, other intersections over 13 years by 20%, delay at intersections have increased.
3:03:05 Staff response
more Schmid

3:07:40 Larry Klein
Acknowledge people: former mayor Rosenbaum
Klein wants to consider Jay Paul, but doesn't think it will work.
Acknowledge: Levin (Friends of Caltrain): outreach to younger, would like to see people he doesn't know, echo chamber.
3:16:45: Controversial statement of apples-to-oranges comparison of 2012 and 2013 elections (Presidential election vs off-off-year election; top-4 election vs yes-no).

3:17:45 Berman
Seconds Klein's apples-to-oranges comparison.
He is somewhat dismissive of complaints about congestion by saying that there is a reason that "rush hour" is called that. To me this revealed how out-of-touch he is with both reality and what people are telling Council. "Rush hour" has not only gotten worse, but it has expanded to cover much more of the day. Personal example, the day after this meeting, going northbound on El Camino, I had to wait through five cycles of the light at Page Mill.

3:24:30 Pat Burt
projects should be of high quality
27 University Ave is dead, but takes on life of its own
3:45:50 Quality of the projects and compatibility of projects better for community; Need to look at process; After developers have so much time invested, "Try to make that bad project a little less bad"

3:47:15 Karen Holman
3:49:25 Core value is public trust
Still thinks Maybell was a good project. (Question for her and other Council members who still support Maybell: If you say that decisions should be made on good data, how can you support a project where there was so much bad and missing data?)

4:00:15 Nancy Shepherd
Puzzled by the variability of when the public shows up. She cited the Council meeting where, after the long public comments on the proposed Maybell development, people left instead of staying to comment on the Housing Element. This demonstrated the disconnect of many Council members from the realities of public comment. It was pointless to comment on the Housing Element because Council's constant refrain is that they have to ignore what the public is asking for because they are legally required to do something else. Plus, the discussion of the Housing Element dragged on for 4.5 years, dominated by time-wasting meetings. I was a City-appointed member of the Technical Advisory Group and went to meetings for two years (December 2008 to December 2010) before surrendering to the inevitability.

4:15:40 Gail Price Maybell - thought it was a very well designed project.
4:25:05 Staff response

4:27:25 Greg Scharff

4:37:15 Staff wrap-up and discussion of timing of subsequent discussion

---- Footnotes ----

1. Formal Title: "Initiating a Community Conversation on the Future of the City, Including the Comprehensive Plan, Planned Community Zoning, Parking and Traffic Strategies, and Related Matters"
Staff Report

2. News article: "Council has no appetite for doing away with PC zones: In wake of defeat of Measure D, Palo Alto officials reach out to public for input on zoning, development, traffic", 2013-Dec-03, Palo Alto Online
"Editorial: In search of a 'community conversation': City Council begins process of 'recalibrating' policies to reflect community attitudes over development", 2013-Dec-06, Palo Alto Weekly/Online

3. The Midpeninsula Community Media Center maintains an archive of the videos of such meetings, with the video available typically two days after the meeting.
Advice: The video itself is hosted at, and its web interface is not designed for multi-hour videos: The scrolling is too coarse-grain to accurately hit a given time, or to rewind a short interval (eg 10 seconds). Instead, what I do is select "Copy video URL at current time" from the pop-up menu on the video (mouse-right in Windows), then paste that URL into the browser's address bar. The end of that URL is "t=N" where N is the number of seconds into the video. I adjust N to rewind or jump forward the desired amount of time.

4. Text of Eric Filseth's comment:
I have a question that I'm going to come back to at the end of this. But first, I think the core issue here is really simple. There are two conflicting visions for Palo Alto, and pretty much all of this other stuff stems from that.

Vision A is we're a medium-density family town, a great place to live, with good schools to send your kids to.

Vision B is more like San Francisco South ? basically the financial and professional hub of the Peninsula. The idea is that Palo Alto will accommodate regional growth through high density office and housing construction, near public transit, and with a thriving retail and entertainment sector to support it. That said, Vision B also comes inherently with unsolvable traffic and parking problems, pollution, and overstretched city infrastructure and schools. If you want Vision B, these things are the price. It is San Francisco South, for better and worse.

We're here tonight nominally talking about Planned Community, Parking Plans and so forth. But the real issue is the two visions. The Comprehensive Plan and the City's zoning laws were designed to support Vision A. The reason the City now has 25 PC zones and all kinds of other loopholes and exemptions is that you folks and the City Staff are trying to implement Vision B, within a framework of laws that say Vision A.

It really is that simple. The Planning Department, the ARB, the PTC, certainly the development industry, and most of you folks sitting up there want Vision B. Whereas most Palo Alto voters want Vision A. Certainly not all. But a clear majority of us are not willing to accept the costs, in terms of density, traffic, congestion, school crowding and all that other stuff, that it would take to reach Vision B.

Now I'm sure some of you will say, we can have the best of both. But we can't. You can't add thousands, or tens of thousands more people and jobs here without a lot more car trips and parking demand, and we will still be a basic aid school district. Or you may say we should abandon Vision A, it can't be maintained anymore. Of course it can. What it has lacked is not city latitude, but city leadership.

So that's the issue. Most of us want Vision A, but most of you want Vision B ? that's B as in "build, baby, build." You even say it yourself: you're being bullied by residents into following zoning laws. You say you can't read anything into elections, that people vote for all kinds of reasons. Well, the reason is what you want and what we want are different things.

All of which brings me back to my question. Half of you are running for re-election next year.


It's a serious question. You don't get paid, you spend all your Monday nights here, you pore over endless minutia about City operations, and you have to sit there and listen to all of us at three minutes apiece. Life is short. If you don't like us, or you don't have passion for Vision A, why waste your time here? The voting majority of us want leadership that will preserve Vision A in the midst of serious regional challenges. If that's not your passion, then for heaven's sake go find something else to do that is.

5. Text of Susan Fineberg's comment
Mayor Scharff, Council Members: Good evening.

You have not been listening to the citizens of Palo Alto for years as we have spoken to you and Staff about our vision of what Palo Alto should look like now, and in ten or twenty years.

You have kicked some of us out of City Hall and surrounded yourselves with Yes Men and sycophants.

You have structured a planning process with pre-determined outcomes that find no significant impacts. The population in Palo Alto has grown 12% in the last decade. That's more than in the prior 30 years. Yet the findings are always no traffic impact, no parking shortage or intrusion into nearby neighborhoods, no new school construction despite the construction projects at all 17 school sites, no infrastructure shortages, not one cumulative impact, and on and on.

Please begin a series of reforms that fix the mess that you have created so that the citizens of Palo Alto are not forced to appeal, sue, and place future matters on the ballot. The citizens of Palo Alto should not be collateral damage in the fight for power and money.

This should be accomplished swiftly with:

1) An immediate moratorium on all major projects in all zoning designations, not just PCs. Do not allow this to linger as the projects in the pipeline will cause harm and compound already existing problems.

2) Bring the Comprehensive Plan Update out into the light of day where the public can participate in the process in a meaningful manner, before it is all set in stone.

3) Reform the project review and approval process to restore the public's faith in the integrity of the process and Councils decisions.

4) Restructure the PC Zone regulations so it is for only the most extraordinary projects with public benefit first and foremost.

5) Restore consistency and predictability for development applications that conform with current zoning by applying the zoning regulations without discretionary exceptions that have become the norm, rather than the exception.

You must begin to represent all of us, not just a powerful entrenched minority.

You must work to restore our trust.

Thank you.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Anon, a resident of Green Acres,
on Dec 14, 2013 at 12:59 am

Susan Fineberg for City Council! Eric Filseth for City writer laureate!

We have such accomplished residents. Why isn't City Council a paid full-time position anyway!

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Eric Filseth's comment:
Vision A is medium-density family town, a great place to live, with good schools to send your kids to.
Vision B is more like San Francisco South

This is efficiently and very well stated. Instead of decentralizing appropriately to local towns everything is getting crammed into Palo Alto. People do not want this, especially since the pace is faster than it has ever been before and is not something Palo Altans can just ignore and hope will go away.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Doug, this is very helpful. It?s tough to scan through the videos of the interminable council meetings. Couldn?t they use voice recognition software to provide transcripts?

Council ignores/distorts/discounts input from residents who sacrifice their time to wait for 3 precious minutes to speak ? unless time is short, in which case they get only one minute. That shows how little council members cares about residents? comments.

Ironic that they asked staff for suggestions on how to find out what residents want for the future of the city.

?Visioning meetings? and special online forums like "Open City Hall"?which was never effective in the past ? are pointless. It?s not about forums ? live or electronic. It?s about LISTENING.

How many times have you received a response to a comment you made at a city meeting or to a letter or email you've written to the council, the planning commission or a staff member?

How many times have you spoken up at a meeting where a city official or staff member sits back with folded arms and an expression that says "my mind is already made up"?

Anon is right that we have accomplished residents. But many council members and staffers treat them with disrespect, if not outright contempt.

Once their campaign is over, council members forget that they are supposed to represent the people of the city. And staff seems not to realize that they are being paid by the people to do the will of the people.

The only way to know the will of the people is to pay attention, to listen with an open mind and to have a meaningful dialogue. Just showing up on the dais every Monday night isn?t enough.

Posted by Serious election, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 8:34 am

"Once their campaign is over, council members forget that they are supposed to represent the people of the city. And staff seems not to realize that they are being paid by the people to do the will of the people. "
The problem is that the council election process in the city is a vanilla affair. All the candidates say the same thing -- they love the city etc. they are never asked to take a stand on an issue and they never question the stance of their fellow candidates. In fact, getting real answers from the candidates in discouraged. In fact, questioning th candidates about their beliefs and goals is considered a personal attack on them.
Maybe we need to take the election more seriously, instead of being a popularity contest where candidates are endorsed by the " good old boy" network of former council members. Also may be time to have an elected mayor, instead of the ceremonial, feel good, position we have now, where the outgoing mayor is lauded for their " accomplishments" and the new mayor is chosen unanimously.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I can second "Serious Election" statements about the difficulty of getting meaningful answers from candidates or getting them to compare-and-contrast themselves to other candidates. I have managed a candidate questionnaire for multiple elections (2005, 2007, 2009) for Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) and have also been an organizer of candidate forums for PAN.

One successful candidate for Council was known for coming into meetings unprepared. On the School Board he was well-known for picking up the packet of background info at the beginning of the meeting and scanning it during the meeting. Yet not one peep of this in the media.

Similarly, multiple successful candidates have "easily confused", but again no mention of this in public. At one event, a neighbor of mine who had just talked to one of these candidates said "a charming airhead". No I am not going to say which -- that there are multiple good guesses is the point.

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