Palo Alto tries for 'transparency' in new projects

Council committee urges earlier deadlines for development applications, ending last-minute changes

Palo Alto's developers would be barred from submitting last-minute changes to their applications under new procedures and rules the City Council plans to adopt before the end of the year.

They would also be forbidden to even talk to individual council members about their projects while their applications are being reviewed by local commissions.

Another proposed change would "strongly discourage" the council members from getting information from developers before the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board have completed their reviews of the application. Planning commissioners previously expressed concerns that developers frequently ignore the commission and lobby council members directly.

The council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously recommended new protocols for the council to improve "transparency" in the city's process for reviewing development applications.

The council began discussing these changes at its Monday night meeting and adopted a series of minor revisions in council protocols.

The council decided to hold off for now on the more substantive changes. Council members voted 8-1, with Nancy Shepherd dissenting, to send the major revisions back to the committee for further discussion. The proposal is scheduled to return to the full council in December for possible adoption.

The policy recommended by the committee would bar applicants from handing staff or council members revisions to applications just before meetings or public hearings. The revised policy specifies that "all plans and other applicant materials related to Planning applications being heard by the City Council must be submitted not later than noon five working days prior to the release of the Council agenda packet."

The packet, which includes all staff reports for the upcoming council meeting, typically gets released late Wednesday afternoon, prior to the council's Monday meeting.

"If items are not submitted by this date or if staff determines additional review is needed, staff will reschedule the item to a future council meeting," the proposed policy states.

The revisions are spearheaded by Councilwoman Karen Holman and have won support from the city's land-use watchdogs and neighborhood leaders. In March, Holman and Councilmen Yiaway Yeh and Greg Scharff co-authored a memo recommending changes to council procedures to promote transparency and eliminate last-minute submissions.

On Monday, several speakers alluded to recent developments Alma Plaza and College Terrace Centre, which underwent numerous revisions and sparked heated community debates before winning the council's approval. Both developments were "planned community" projects -- a zoning designation that allows applicants to build at greater density than the city's zoning code normally allows in exchange for "public benefits," which are subject to negotiations between the city and the developer.

Fred Balin, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, urged the council to approve the proposed policy revisions and said the new guidelines would allow "for proper vetting," which he argued was subverted in the application process for College Terrace Centre.

Land-use watchdog Bob Moss also said the revisions are "long overdue" and urged the council to act on the committee's recommendations. The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which represents neighborhoods throughout the city, has come out in support of the proposed changes.

No one spoke out against the proposed changes Monday night.

The council briefly discussed the changes, with some members calling for more details about which forms of communications should be included in the new policy for late submissions.

Councilman Larry Klein noted that the changes would apply not just to developers but to other members of the public as well.

The committee is scheduled to consider the policies at its Nov. 30 meeting, when it continues its discussion of council procedures and protocols.

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Like this comment
Posted by Good to Hear It
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 24, 2010 at 11:10 am

This is a hopeful sign. It's been the habit of some developers to play "Gotcha", introducing changes to their projects that would not have withstood the scrutiny of the Planning Commission. These have been presented directly to Council.

Like this comment
Posted by Remembering...
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Not long ago there were articles disputing the fact there was a "Palo Alto Process". Some developers were even quoted, saying how good it was to work with the City, & the "process" was a "myth", unlike the experience of average residents, that experienced almost passive aggressive behavior from the same city staff.

So I wonder what this new 'transparency' will bring. Most likely, more of the same, but with new methods. They'll all find a way.

Transparency? Accountability? It's the mindset that needs changing and with the same players (including Jim Keene) let's not be too hopeful.

Like this comment
Posted by old timer
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 27, 2010 at 12:46 pm

how about posting agendas on the city website?
and it would be nice if ordinary citizens had access to plans that will impact their neighborhood. we need viewable online PDFs for remodel plans, instead of having to drive downtown to see them.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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