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A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

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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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143 important decisions in 150 minutes by a 20-member committee

Uploaded: Aug 5, 2015
The anticipated blistering pace of decision-making by the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) on the Comprehensive Plan update will be enabled by City Hall not giving the Committee enough information for them to actually think deeply about or discuss the decisions they are being asked to confirm. No way will they be able to fill their purported role of providing input and citizen oversight of the proposal.

I wrote about the more high-level problems of the CAC in my previous blog "The Remedy to Inadequate Citizen Input? More of the same" (2015-07-31), but here I am going to take one of the topics to be decided at the upcoming CAC meeting (August 11), that of adequate parks for the population, current and expected. This is a complex and difficult issue, but you wouldn't know that from the proposal. And the plan is supposed to look forward 15 years, to 2030.

There are three overlapping, uncoordinated policies in the Proposed Updated CompPlan (PDF) about new park: C4.7-C4.9.

Policy C4.9 is a continuation from the current CompPlan and simply cites national standards for parks, both in the amount of space per resident and proximity to residents. It reads:

" Use the National Recreation and Park Association Standards as guidelines for locating and developing new parks. These guidelines are as follows:
? Neighborhood parks should be at least two acres in size, although sites as small as one-half acre may be needed as supplementary facilities. The maximum service area radius should be one-half mile. Two acres of neighborhood park land should be provided for each 1,000 people.
? District parks should be at least five acres in size. The maximum service area radius should be one mile. Two acres of district park land should be provided for each 1,000 people.
? A park should be provided within walking distance of all residential neighborhoods and employment areas. The National Recreation and Park Association defines walking distance as one-half mile."

If you were being asked evaluate this plan element, your first questions should be for data, including visualizations:

? "How well are we currently doing?",
? "What and where are our current deficiencies?" and
? "Based on projected growth, how much do we need to add, and where?"

Your second set of questions should be about the known and anticipated problems and opportunities.
Your third set of questions should be about needed changes:

? "What changes would reduce the causes of the current problems?" and
? "What changes would make it easier to take advantage of the opportunities?"

Notice that I am not asking for special preparations, but rather what I would expect managers to have already created and maintained as part of what they need themselves to do their jobs. Has briefing materials on this been provided to the Committee? You're kidding, right?

One of the (two) programs to implement this policy (C4.9.1) seems to say that it would be good to have answers to the above questions ("Conduct a survey to evaluate usage and capacity of existing facilities and parks to assess community needs and to identify underserved neighborhoods"). Maybe this item is in the plan so that City Hall can claim a quick "accomplishment." Or maybe it is an admission that City Hall doesn't have this crucial information? This seems strange: With the Update already having dragged on for 9 years, there has been more than enough opportunity to get this data in order to meaningfully participate in this planning process.

The fundamental problem with this policy is that the cited guidelines presume that the government has the flexibility to acquire large chunks of land throughout the city for parks. This is true when a large area is being developed, or redeveloped, but it certainly isn't true of a built-out city like Palo Alto which is densifying in increments.

The second program intended to implement the policy implicitly acknowledges the problem of finding available land: C4.9.3 "Assess the value and cost benefit of new parks, plazas and other green spaces that are less than one half acre in size, in meeting the needs of surrounding neighborhoods." That is, parcels smaller than the minimum set in the national guidelines. First, when your stated program to implement a policy is explicitly a violation of that policy, you should see this as a warning that the policy itself needs to be re-thought and modified.

Second, I was involved in the creation of one these small spaces, a "pocket park", and the description of this program gives no hint of understanding the opportunities or difficulties. The details of this decade-long travail (2003-2013) is part of a history article in the Barron Park Association newsletter of Fall 2013, starting in column 3 of page 7. Third, never mind: The word choice "Assess" in bureaucrat-ese typically means "appoint a committee" or "hire a consultant", and then do nothing.

Policy C4.7 is a modified version of the current policy reading "Seek opportunities to develop new parks and recreation facilities to meet the growing needs of residents and employees of Palo Alto." The updated policy replaces "growing" with "emerging". For those unfamiliar with bureaucrat-ese and City Hall predilections, this proposed change translates into "Ignore the basics; focus on the fads." You can understand Staff wanting to work on bleeding edge projects (as more professionally fulfilling), but those are not the results they are being paid for. Then there is the segment of the city's residents whose top priority is "bragging rights"?about about trumpeting "truly innovative", "world-leader" ? However, they want to stoke their vanity with OPM (Other People's Money).

Program C4.7.3 has dangerous wording: "Encourage private development proposals, to include creation of park, plaza, or other recreational, and art facilities to meet the needs of the community." The problem is "How is City Hall going to 'encourage' developers to do this?" Oh, I know: Give them additional development rights for what should have been part of the cost of the project. This has been a prominent part of the sordid history of "Planned Community" (PC) zoning. Is this just sloppy wording or yet another stratagem by City Hall to rationalize having taxpayers help private developers boost their profits? You can search here on Palo Alto Online to find examples of the many flagrant abuses of the PC zoning, and the current proxy of "Design Enhancement Exceptions".

Program C4.7.4 has similar dangerous wording: "Encourage the inclusion of publicly and privately financed art in the design of new and renovated public spaces, facilities and parks." It is just not as clear as to what will be given away to whom as "encouragement".

On a positive note, Program C4.7.1 upgrades wording from "Consider" to "Plan for".

Step back and ask a very basic question: Policies C4.7 and C4.9 address the very same thing, so why are they different policies? Why aren't they integrated? I don't know. But notice that there is an interesting difference between the two. The latter states needs in terms of "each 1,000 people" whereas the former talks about "residents and employees", although C4.9 does mention "employment areas" via the cited guidelines. Palo Alto has a massive influx of employees, and the-powers-that-be want to greatly increase the number of employees commuting to jobs here. Is City Hall planning?remember this is a planning document?to "develop new parks and recreational facilities" for these employees at a rate of 4 acres per 1,000 out-of-town employees (2 acres for neighborhood park and 2 for district park)? For visualization, Palo Alto currently has at least 40,000 out-of-town employees, which translates into 0.25 square miles of parks. Visualization for the North Palo Altans (who dominate the Committee): Roughly the area between Alma and Cowper, from University Ave to Addison. A second visualization: It is 50% larger than the whole of the College Terrace Neighborhood.

Does City Hall see taxpayers as obliged to acquire and maintain facilities for the thousands of employees in Stanford Research Park?? For visualization, SAP in the upper Stanford Research Park is roughly a half-mile above Foothill Expressway (chosen because it is near the middle of the upper SRP and labeled on Google Maps).

Policy C4.8 provides an easy decision: Dump it. Whoever inserted this into the draft couldn't be bothered to competently write two simple sentences (the Policy and the Program). One of the basic management rules of formulating plans is to not include elements for which there isn't an identified leader, advocate, evangelist? If you don't have one, and can't find one quickly, that is an strong signal that that proposed portion of the plan "ain't happening". Be aware that this isn't the first draft of this plan: It has already gone all the way through Staff, a public outreach effort, been reviewed and approved by the Planning and Transportation Commission and sent to Council for adoption. Council's dissatisfaction caused the plan to be sent down for further consideration. There has already been abundant time and opportunity for whoever inserted this proposed policy to "get it right."

The details: The previous version of the policy was "Strategically locate public facilities and parks to serve all neighborhoods in the City" and has been replaced by C4.8 "Locate new parks and community facilities so that it is safe to walk and bike to them from all neighborhoods" and its implementing program C4.8.1 "Actively implement the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan (BPTP) guidelines for locating new parks within one half-mile of all residential neighborhoods and employment areas". Notice that there is no place in Palo Alto that is "within one half-mile of all ?", at least not in 3-dimensional space. Of course I know what the author probably meant to say. Let's let that pass. Then notice that the default reading of the sentence is that there must be a new park within that half-mile distance of each neighborhood, regardless of whether there is already a park within that distance. The statement of the policy has a similar wording problem (which I addressed in my previous blog entry). Clearly the author doesn't take the CompPlan seriously, and was engaging in self-indulgent "Look how superior I am!"

Aside: For a proposed plan deemed ready for official adoption by City Council, this draft has a surprising number of typos, grammatical errors, and similar mistakes. For example, in Program C4.7.3 above, the first comma shouldn't be there.

Thought: Should the watermark on this document be a disclaimer that items may not mean quite what they said?

Summary: First, the basic question: Do the draft policies provide any actual guidance on how to address the problems and choices facing the city in the next 15 years? That is, do they reflect the difficulty of the problems and of the decisions to be made? Not that I can see. For example, look at the recent news article "Zoo expansion prompts nature debate in Palo Alto: Parks and Recreation commissioners loath to sacrifice parkland for expanded animal museum" (Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online, 2015-08-04). Does the draft CompPlan provide even a framework for addressing these recurring conflicts and tradeoffs?

The followup question is "Will the current Committee be able to address any of these deficiencies?"
The above 3 policies have 9 attached programs for implementing them. So, at its average pacing of an item per minute, the 20-member Citizens Advisory Committee has 12 minutes to discuss the above, produce any modifications to the wording, and vote. However, that's without taking into account the many overheads of conducting a meeting. Realistically, think 8 minutes or less, for an average of 24 seconds per member. (Such calculations are a reflex: I'm an engineer/scientist by inclination and training).
Pretend you are on the Committee. What would you say? Time yourself: Ready. Set. Go.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

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Posted by Mark Michael, a resident of Community Center,
on Aug 5, 2015 at 8:38 am

Doug has provided another insightful blog. People believe the Comp Plan is important to the future of the City, but it has been a long slow and dysfunctional process to update the 1998 version. Substantive policies, and an overall vision, are significant insofar as future planning decisions will be influenced by the plan. It is natural to be somewhat curious how this update may turn out,

There are five sets of players in the process, including: the public, the City staff, the Planning & Transportation Commission, the City Council and the newly appointed Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee will work long and hard and I hope that any report or recommendations they make will be influential. The PTC's recommendations in the form of draft revisions are on the table and available for public review. The staff deserves lots of credit for their dedication and expertise in facilitating this effort. The two wild cards, in my view, are the public and their elected representatives.

Public engagement should be early and often. Yet past meetings of the PTC on study sessions about the draft Comp Plan elements attracted very little public comment or participation. Perhaps this is understandable because final decisions are exclusively made by the City Council and members of the public may choose to attend the meetings that matter most.

Council input should also come sooner than the submission of the final report of the Advisory Committee, which may be too late for meaningful discussion at late night Council sessions. Wordsmithing the Comp Plan from the dais is not a realistic possibility. Perhaps this is why many are nostalgic about the 1998 plan, because the update process is so painful. The static nature of future planning does not bode well for the Comp Plan as a reference for dealing with inevitably changing conditions.

I hoe that both the public and the Council make full use of the Advisory Committee sessions to elicit meaningful recommendations that can be enacted in a Comp Plan update in 2016. This will be a challenge.

Posted by David Schrom, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Aug 5, 2015 at 10:18 am

Thank you, Doug. The draft reads like something from the Onion. Unfortunately I doubt its authors were intending satire.

I admire you for your persistence, Doug. You clearly believe that reason and evidence have a place in public policy.

From a larger perspective however, evidence and reason show that they don't. When all you're doing is providing cover for addition of building and pavement to Palo Alto none of the points you raise really matter, do they? The "plan" is obvious: build, baby, build; pave, baby, pave! Who cares what congeries of words and phrases, charts, graphs, and color photos is assembled between the covers of the "plan," so long as we build and pave?

Has anyone considered pulling together an alternative "citizens' committee" more geographically representative and less stacked with pro-growth insiders, and drafting a plan? In the absence of the pro-growth bias, planning towards residential quality of life may be straightforward.

An end to growth will come. With each increment we allow, we foreclose valuable options for the future. Why wait to pull the plug?

I'm aware of ABAG "mandates" and other putative obstacles to stabilization of our community. If we're truly the "innovative," "world-class," "leaders" that we claim to be, we'll use our considerable intelligence and influence to deal with these and other issues in adaptive ways.

Allowing the staff who nominally work for us to dictate the process when they are so obviously determined, or at least resigned to secure an outcome detrimental to residents seems foolish. I'll be glad for staff expertise to be available upon request to a citizens' advisory committee empowered to draft a plan.

Non-participation leaves us open to being characterized as indifferent, when in reality we know the game is rigged and are reluctant to waste our lives and legitimize it by participating. Resident participation without control of outcome is something other than democracy.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 5, 2015 at 5:50 pm

"past meetings of the PTC on study sessions about the draft Comp Plan elements attracted very little public comment or participation."

Low public engagement with the PTC may also partly reflect the state of public confidence in the PTC's ideological alignment with the Palo Alto mainstream, and its likely receptiveness to public input counter to that ideology. You don't bother talking if nobody's listening. Mark Michael properly laments that lack of engagement, but other members of his commission may actually welcome it.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 5, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Several of my earlier blog entries on problems with citizen input involved the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC), and especially a proposed Bike Boulevard on the street on which I live and an issue I had been working with City Hall for over 11 years.

I submitted an extended analysis of the issue to the PTC. Mark Michael was the only member of the Planning and Transportation Commission to follow-up with me before the hearing (he came to the site and toured it with me on bike - a significant investment of time). Although I made a presentation at the hearing, another commissioner who apparently hadn't read the briefing materials asked all his questions of Staff, despite Staff being obviously confused and unable to answered.

In my blog post "Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems", I wrote:

"Aside: This exchange also showed a common problem in Palo Alto government: The elected and appointed officials knowingly prefer bad information from Staff over accurate information from residents.(foot#1)"

(and Mark Michael warrants and receives a positive mention in that blog entry).

Posted by Bill Ross, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 6, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Thank you Mr. Moran, your thoughtful observations have opened the door to several questions about the purpose and composition of the CAC. From the outset the question should be "will consistency now be required with the new Comp Plan for all development proposals including those of the City?" Presently, as a Charter City the City does not have to comply with the consistency requirement. Further, why is there a lack of reference to the General Plan Guidelines prepared by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research in the actual preparation of a new Plan? They have been judicially confirmed and are instructive of concepts such as "Environmental Justice" which would be applicable to planning goals and policies for the Buena Vista property...the residents of which I would hope were given notice. Mr. Moran's observations are also beneficial as pointing out another example of prejudgment by City Staff. One would think they would want to solicit issues in the Plan Element areas then formulate actual language with reference to the whole Plan being internally consistent as well as a reflection of the ethnic, racial and economic components of the City.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Aug 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

The CAC was deliberately stacked with pro growth advocates, so their recommendations and vision is just more of the same:build more and more, develop more and more, don't ever stop building, developing and paving.

Posted by Suzanne Keehn, a resident of Barron Park,
on Aug 7, 2015 at 5:01 am

As Usual a very insightful, researched piece Doug. Thank you so much. I have sent the link to the City Council urging them to study it before makeing any recommendations. Thank you.

Posted by why Mr Michael?, a resident of Community Center,
on Aug 7, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Mark Michael should identify himself as a long time member of the Planning and Transp.Commission. He has been its Chair recently.

[[Deleted by blogger as off-topic.]]

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 7, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Why Mr Michael?"
> "Mark Michael should identify himself as a long time member of the Planning and Transp.Commission. He has been its Chair recently."

While it is useful for commenters to identify their experience and basis for their perspectives -- and I encourage it -- I don't see anything in Mark Michael's comment that calls for his identifying himself as a member of the PTC. He may have chosen not to because he saw himself commenting as a citizen, rather than a PTC member. However, I think it is valuable for readers to know what citizen representatives on the Commissions and Boards are thinking and thus such representatives are encouraged to ID themselves as such.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 9, 2015 at 6:08 pm

"No way will they [the CAC members] be able to fill their purported role of providing input and citizen oversight of the proposal."

The key word here is "purported." Don't forget that city staff had been drafting the CAC's purported output for nine years before the CAC was even assembled. The committee's role is to be, and no more. At the appointed date, city staff will glowingly praise its purported heroic efforts to the council, and will front carefully chosen starstruck CAC members to gush over their pride at having participated in this momentous event. (Those lucky innocents will provide the only sincerety in the whole show.)

Prior councils have dutifully followed their scripts, ratifying the purported citizens' creation with giddily fulsome oratory. We can hope for better scrutiny from our new, somewhat more sophisticated council. Unless, of course, the potentially troublesome councilmembers get recused by their attorney.

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