143 important decisions in 150 minutes by a 20-member committee | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

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.

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