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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Planning Director: searching for someone who walks on ? hot coals?

Uploaded: Jun 26, 2013

The imminent departure (June 30) of Planning Director Curtis Williams leaves Palo Alto city officials searching for a replacement for the lightning-rod position.

Williams received high praise for his ability to listen to people during his four years as director, after several years involved with Palo Alto planning issues and projects. Among his more challenging assignments was streamlining the city's development office -- where people go who want to build or remodel something.

The planning and building processes in Palo Alto have for decades been the target of criticism and even ridicule, the brunt of disdainful "Palo Alto Process" comments about delays and bureaucracy that date back more than two decades.

But Williams' calm, respectful manner -- reminiscent of that of his predecessor Steve Emslie, who retired earlier this year as assistant city manager -- and Williams' deliberate, thoughtful approach to planning and development issues have won praise from even some of the harshest critics of the city's planning and development policies.

And yes, he truly does plan to retire, he said in a brief telephone interview. No plans to move to another community to continue in planning, although some consulting assignments might come along, he has said.

Finding a replacement will be a daunting task, and people with Williams range of knowledge and personal communications skills don't come along terribly often in the field of planning and development. For now, Williams assistant, Aaron Aknin, will fill in as interim planning director. It is not known whether Aknin, a 30s-something, will actively seek the full position.

The challenges facing a new director are complex, varied and a bit staggering in terms of sheer volume. In addition to a fast-paced daily workload of incoming or in-the-works development/remodeling projects (some truly large), there are numerous specific assignments and area-plan studies underway, and a Comprehensive Plan revision that is moving forward, ostensibly.

And the issue of parking spillover from commercial areas into residential neighborhoods appears to be gaining steam -- some of it hissing from the ears of residents inundated by cars parked in their neighborhoods.

At the minimum, an organizational wizard is needed to keep everything moving, a bit like a circus juggler balancing spinning plates on sticks -- someone who can keep an eye on the overall picture while attending to specific details and frequent brushfires during a dry year.

It's no wonder there has been a record of burnout among a few directors.

But the challenges ahead are not new to Palo Alto, and in some ways a new planning director will have it somewhat easier than some in the past.

As a longtime reporter covering Palo Alto in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, and an involved observer later, I have been acquainted with every planning director who served since the early 1950s, when the city shifted to a council/manager form of government.

Lou Fourcroy served many years in the planning hotspot, including in the harsh 1950s when the battle was to establish basic zoning law that divided communities into residential, apartment (multifamily), commercial, industrial and other zones. There was a vigorously expressed tradition of "It's my property and I can do anything I want with it."

In 1960s Palo Alto a major "residentialist" revolt took place against a pro-development City Council, being cut back from 15 members to 13 and ultimately to nine as at present -- with some sentiment floating around that seven would be an even better number.

By the 1970s, Fourcroy was clearly showing the wear-and-tear of the often thankless job, and was moved to special projects in City Manager George Morgan's office. He played a role (working with then City Attorney Peter Stone, later named a judge) in creating the 1972 foothills rezoning, a significant downzoning of lot size. The rezoning generated a flurry of landowner lawsuits and resulted in the city settling a big one by buying what is now the vast Pearson-Arastradero Preserve for $9.5 million (considered one of the great buys in city history, along with Foothills Park).

He was replaced by two short-termers. The first was Jeffrey Holland, a native of Australia, who landed in Palo Alto with both feet and a Crocodile Dundee tongue. His penchant for making derisive comments about other city officials cut his tenure to a period of months. Palo Alto still has a small-town flavor in the sense that what you say about someone is almost certain to get back to them.

Then came a planner named Charles Boyd, who had been in charge of the well-done redesign of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, among other achievements. But Boyd walked into a department filled with senior planners who were used to a professional working environment and a relaxed (even if busy) demeanor. One, in fact, was stopped at the Mexican border where officials informed him his long hair pegged him as a hippie, an unwelcome species there at the time. They let him through after he protested, "But I'm not a hippie; I'm a senior planner."

There was an exodus of senior planners after Boyd had a time-clock punch-in device installed. And Boyd clocked out soon after.

Then came the arrival of a planner, fresh from the University of Chicago's expansion battles, who quite literally turned the planning process of the time on its head. Naphtali Knox, still a consultant in the Palo Alto area, took a look at the mostly moribund General Plan of Palo Alto and decided things had to change.

In the 1950s, teams of consultants drifted up and down California selling "General Plan" studies to local communities. The result was multi-colored community maps, with green for residential, red for commercial, something else for industrial. For the most part, the maps were hung on the wall above the city councils while the documents and policies gathered dust.

Knox's analysis was that the plans were ineffective because they started out with over-arching policies, broad statements of direction and goals. But when it came time to make specific decisions, the political and community processes kicked in and the "issues" of the moment overwhelmed the lofty generalities of the plans.

So he convinced Palo Alto to start with the issues first, make basic decisions over a six-month (give or take) period and based on those decisions to let the planning professionals sum up the broader directions and policies into a document. Thus the "Comprehensive Plan" was born.

When Knox stepped down as director, pretty much intact psychologically, his place was taken by his longtime assistant, Ken Schreiber. Schreiber was solid on process and details, and focused on getting the day-to-day things done in the face of strong community opinion that favored slow (or even no) growth. It was at this time that "Palo Alto Process" surfaced as a community catch-term. I once jokingly asked Schreiber over lunch whether "planning director school" had a course in how to slow down development in a sea of Process, with a capital P.

Schreiber was followed by Ed Gawf, who shifted some directions and worked on residential zoning issues, such as second-story overlay bans in single-story Eichler (and Eichler-like) neighborhoods.

Each director over the years had strengths and weaknesses, but the job itself is almost one that is too big for one person to encompass. And it needs to be done in public, enduring the often harsh criticism from a vocal community now armed with an anonymous Town Square to vent their more negative sentiments, whether well- or ill-informed.

Williams passed the test, and has set a high standard and example for his successor in the job.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.