Never let a crisis go to waste: Overloading the City Council agenda | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Never let a crisis go to waste: Overloading the City Council agenda

Uploaded: Jun 14, 2020

"Never let a crisis go to waste" is one of those sayings that has conflicting interpretations. One is to force a focus on what needs to be done, especially if those actions have been neglected in favor of unimportant ones (see ^Parkinson's Law of Triviality^ aka the "Bike-shed Effect"). Another is for abusive tactic: One faction holds authorizations for crucial needed actions hostage in order to get approval of measures that couldn't get enough support under normal circumstances.

This is the situation with Palo Alto City Council now. Their final scheduled meeting before the summer break is June 29, with meetings resuming on August 3. Council has been in intensive meetings on the budget since May 4, with an extra session each week, with both the regular and special sessions each lasting 11 hours or more. Add to that the preparation time, and the diligent ones must be exhausted. Recognize that some Council members have regular full-time jobs and are not subsidized by their employer. For this, the City pays Council members a stipend of $1000/month (pre-tax). The perfect setup for abuse.

----The President Hotel conversion from housing to hotel----

A prime example is "^Reversing course, Palo Alto staff now say conversion of President Hotel is legal: City Council prepares to vote on change of apartment building into hotel downtown^" (Palo Alto Online, 2020-06-12). Many of the comments are quite informative.
Back in 2018, the developer knew that City ordinances prohibited such a conversion and that it was against widely supported City policy -- his consultant was a former high-ranking member of City Staff. He had private meetings with the developer-friendly City Staff and Council member and former-Mayor Greg Scharff about the conversion. The developer artfully claimed on the basis of those conversations that the City would approve the conversion. Boy, was he mistaken! (foot#1)

Yet again, we have a (new) City Manager and his staff supporting a developer in being exempted from City ordinances and City policy, with favorable timing for it being brought before Council. The manipulative behavior of the City Manager and his staff can be seen in their argument that being converted to a hotel "is consistent with the historic use of the property, which operated as a hotel from 1930 to 1968". Notice that 1930-1968 is 39 years, and the period when it was apartment -- 1969-2019 -- covers 51 years. For the City Manager and Staff, cherry-picking is always in season.

----Semi-approval for a large development project----

Also on the June 22 Council agenda is a "pre-screening" for a major project in the Stanford Research Park at ^3300 El Camino Real^ (SE corner of El Camino and Hansen Way). The proposal would include approximately 52,500 square feet of offices, which at a very generous 250 sqft per employee represents 210 jobs; at 150 sqft it is 350 jobs. There are also supposed to be 187 housing units, but experience is that the number of housing units gets pruned throughout the approval process.
Notice that this project would produce more jobs than housing units. One of the long-running scams has been to claim that such projects reduce the jobs-housing imbalance. How? Count only the housing units and ignore the jobs.

The ^Staff report^ (warning: part of a 53 MB download) notes that a requirement of the proposed zoning is that "the number of housing units must offset the number of net new commercial jobs that are generated by the project." (last line of the first page of the report; page 10 of the PDF). No explanation of the arithmetic.

Although the pre-screen is supposed to be only guidance to the developer as it more fully develops the project plans, it is too often abused. For example, the developer and Staff may try to portray musing by an individual Council member as all-but-official approval by the full Council.

Seemingly absurdly, the agenda for the following day -- June 23 -- includes working out the details for the proposed zoning for this development (paragraphs 3-4 of page 4 of the report; page 13 of the PDF). Yes, Council is scheduled to provide guidance on the project relative to requirements that are still being discussed.

Technical terminology is used to hide a potentially contentious issue: The needed separation distance between CPI and the housing. The Staff report identifies the issue only as "Tier 2 hazardous materials", and that the separation of 650 feet exceeds the 300 feet required by the ordinance. The danger is of releases of various toxic gases, the worse being hydrogen cyanide. My house is just within 1000 feet of a potential release and within the evacuation zone.

Big Question: What is it about this project and the associated zoning that it needs to be urgently brought before a mentally exhausted Council? I saw no explanation in the Staff report.

----Foothills Park access----

The issue of restricted access to Foothills Park has come up repeatedly and has met with substantial opposition from the community. Well, it's back. A June 7 letter urged the City to repeal the restrictions, repeating once again the arguments for this position while not addressing the arguments against it. "^'Meet this moment' : Growing coalition calls for Palo Alto to expand access to Foothills Park^" (Palo Alto Weekly, 2020-06-08). The urgency of this matter (sarcasm) is such that it is on the agenda of a special session of the City Council on June 23 as item #5.

----Continue the S/CAP Update----

Item #2 on the agenda for the June 16 special session of Council is "Direct Staff to Continue With the 2020 Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP) Update and Evaluate the 2020 S/CAP Potential Goals and Key Actions." It is scheduled to take an hour of Council's time. By the way, my questions to Staff about cost/effectiveness -- is the amount of carbon reduction larger than the carbon footprint of the program -- gone unanswered, and seem to still be largely unanswerable in the positive with real data, not intuitions or aspirational statements.(foot#2)

----And maybe more----

Adding a review of a highly controversial development project is being floated as an addition to a Council meeting before the July break.

----What you can do----

If you want to send an email to Council (hint, hint),
• the address is [email protected] (upper/lower case irrelevant).
• the subject line should be descriptive -- some/many Council members don't read the emails as they arrive, but bunch them together as a topic and read them as a group to get a better sense of the various perspectives.
• have your major points in the first paragraph or two. If you want to write something longer, those paragraphs need to be an executive summary.

Note: Any email to Council is a public record, so don't include personal information, such as phone number, or minor children's names. Similarly, for your home address, you can omit the house number.

If you are writing about a specific item on an upcoming agenda, prefix the subject line with the date of the Council meeting, its item number and an approximate version of the item's title (in case the numberings change).
The ^City Home Page^ currently includes links to the "Agenda and Packet" for upcoming meetings.
Be warned that this can be a very, very, very big file: For example, the one for June 22 is a PDF of 2429 pages consuming 53 MB, which could be a significant chunk of your monthly cellular data allowance. Previously, you could be able to download only the agenda itself -- typical 2-3 pages -- but I couldn't find this on the re-designed website.

The President Hotel conversion is on the June 22 agenda as item #33 "488 University Avenue" -- items 4-30 are supposedly non-controversial and are to be voted on as a block (the "Consent Calendar").
The project pre-screening is also on the June 22 agenda as item #2 "Study Session: 3300 El Camino Real".

----Commenters please note - drafts may disappear----

If you are writing a comment that you can't easily reproduce, I strongly suggest that you draft it in another app and then cut-and-paste it into the comment box below.
Reason: The browser settings for security/privacy, do-not-track, and ad-blocking can cause the website software to discard your comment when you click "Submit". The PAOnline website administrator has looked for such disappeared ads and cannot find them in the records. I have been able to reproduce this problem. Unfortunately, browser updates sometimes change the default settings for the potential causes, so the problem may suddenly appear.
The current problem I know of is in the Firefox browser in the setting for "Enhanced tracking protection for this site". If it is ON, comments disappear. The setting can be changed with the shield icon on the left side of the address bar. However, changing it after you have started a comment will cause what you have already entered to disappear.

1. "^Documents reveal secret dealings over President Hotel: Using tenants as leverage, developer pushes to speed city approvals^" (Palo Alto Weekly, 2018-11-30).

2. S/CAP: cost/benefit?
• In my 2016-05-05 blog ("^City Council & School Board: Leaders, Overseers, Technocrats or Advocates?^"), I wrote "at a meeting earlier this year, the City's Chief Sustainability Officer Gil Friend stated that City Hall had 'hundreds of sustainability initiatives'. I asked how one could manage so many programs and assess their effectiveness, and his response was that it was done with normal management reviews. I am highly skeptical."
• My blog "^Sustainability: Better management needed^", 2017-06-05.
• Sherry Listgarten's blog "^The Gulf between Climate Plan and Climate Results^", 2020-04-19.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
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 particularly 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", do not 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.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.