In January 2009, about 100 south Palo Alto residents met inside Palo Verde Elementary School to discuss, and possibly shape, the future of their neighborhood.
The meeting focused on an effort by Palo Alto officials to revamp the zoning laws in this portion of the city to accommodate a recent crop of large residential developments. Planning staff and consultants solicited suggestions from residents, who happily obliged. A few lobbied for a new footbridge to span U.S. Highway 101; one proposed a sandwich shop; several lobbied for a bike path and park space.
Participants did agree on one thing: The last thing the neighborhood needs is new housing. One resident, Ben Lerner, won nods of approval from other attendees when he complained about changes in Palo Alto always entailing the city becoming "bigger, taller, more crowded, more dense and with more stories."
The demographic data that the U.S. Census Bureau released Tuesday is likely to confirm and quantify the observations of residents in Palo Verde and other south Palo Alto neighborhoods. Over the past decade, Palo Alto has become more populous, adding nearly 6,000 residents citywide but particularly impacting the south. It also became more diverse, with the city's Asian population going up by 73 percent, or about 7,000 people. An analysis of census tracts indicates that Palo Verde and the neighborhoods next to it are at the forefront of these changes.
The census showed the city's population growing by 9.9 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 58,598 to 64,403. The city's Asian population, meanwhile, grew from 10,090 to 17,461 residents. While the city's Asians made up 17.2 percent of the city in 2000, they comprised 27.1 percent in 2010. The city's white population, meanwhile, dropped by more than 3,000 over the past decade. White residents made up more than three quarters of the city's population in 2000. Now, they make up less than two thirds.
City officials, much like residents, view the new census results as not so much a revelation as a pretext for a larger conversation with the community. They praise the increased diversity, while acknowledging the need for "smart growth" and transit-friendly developments to accommodate the overall population increase.
"I think this region in general expected this type of growth," Mayor Sid Espinosa told the Weekly. "We knew that the city has seen growth, and the numbers aren't shocking.
"The good news is that Palo Alto has done a good job in planning for this type of growth and working to do it in a smart way."
Espinosa said the city is already addressing the recent population spurt by using zoning regulations to encourage housing and mixed-use developments near transit corridors -- encouragements that they hope will promote vibrant neighborhoods near train stations and mitigate some of the traffic impacts.
At the same time, Espinosa said the city still has plenty of work to do to address the city's most dramatic demographical shift -- the sharp increase in its Asian population. The trend has already been documented in school data, which shows an influx of students of Asian descent. One of every three high-school students in Palo Alto is Asian, and in eight schools in the city, Asian students make up more than 40 percent of the student body.
At Hoover Elementary School, which is located on East Charleston Road in south Palo Alto, Asian students comprise 78 percent of the student body.
Some members of the Asian population have recently become involved in civic life. Yoriko Kishimoto became the first Asian mayor in Palo Alto's history in 2007. Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh is slated to become the second next year.
But most members of Palo Alto's growing Asian community have been far less visible in civic affairs. Espinosa said he hopes that trend will change.
"While we've seen that increase in the school-district data, we haven't necessarily seen a broader integration of the Asian community across the different traditional groups and agencies," Espinosa said. "We're talking about active involvement in neighborhood associations, serving on the board of nonprofit organizations, taking on business leadership in the Chamber of Commerce and having a greater representation on boards and commissions.
"I think it behooves us as a city to really have an open dialogue about the changing demographics of our community and how we can make sure that everyone is made welcome in our community."
Both trends have been particularly visible in south Palo Alto, where several large housing developments opened their doors over the past decade. In the census tract that includes Palo Verde and the area around East Meadow Circle, the overall population went up by 17.5 percent (787 people) over the past decade. That area accommodated four new developments: Altaire, BRIDGE Housing, Vantage and Echelon. At the same time, the proportion of white residents in this tract fell from two-thirds in 2000 to half in 2010 while the Asian population nearly doubled, going from 1,069 to 2,045.
A nearby tract that includes Ventura and Charleston Meadows neighborhoods experienced a similar shift. The long and narrow tract, which is bounded by El Camino Real and Alma Street and which stretches from Oregon Expressway to Adobe Creek, saw its Asian population spike by 92 percent, from 928 to 1,785, while the overall population grew by 13.5 percent.
The area, much like the neighborhood around East Meadow, has been a magnet for new housing and the new anxieties that accompany this housing. Recent projects include 181-home Arbor Real development, which went up on the site of the former Hyatt Rickey's hotel, unleashing a wave of criticism from area residents and land-use watchdogs about emerging parking and traffic woes.
The demographic changes in south Palo Alto could, in some ways, be epitomized by an October 2008 public hearing on a then-proposed (now approved) development for low-income residents on West Charleston Road. At that hearing, Arbor Real resident Jenny Zhang brought in a petition signed by 75 neighbors who expressed concern about the new project's potential traffic impacts.
"We really have to consider our children's safety," Zhang said at the public hearing -- the same concern other area residents shared several years prior, when Arbor Real was receiving its own approval.
A tract-by-tract analysis of census data showed more measured growth in Palo Alto's northern neighborhoods. The tract that includes Downtown North (north of University Avenue) and University South (south of downtown) grew by 5.8 percent overall, with its Asian population increasing by 89 percent. Just east of Middlefield Road, in the affluent Crescent Park neighborhood, the overall growth was 3.9 percent. Its Asian population went up by 74 percent.
At the opposite end of the scale is Old Palo Alto, which did its name justice by remaining virtually frozen in time. The population remained flat over the past decade (increasing by 34 people), and white residents continue to make up more than 80 percent of the affluent neighborhood between University South and Midtown. By comparison, white residents constitute 64 percent of Palo Alto's overall population.
The Midtown neighborhood, meanwhile, stood out as a demographic microcosm of the city as a whole. The new census showed that white residents made up 61.8 percent of Midtown, while Asian residents made up 28.8 percent. The neighborhood grew by 7.2 percent over the past decade, according to the census.
Matthew Snipp, a Stanford University sociology professor who focuses on demographic changes and who lives in Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood, said the new census was consistent with the trends he has personally observed around the city. Though he noted that California's overall population growth fell to its lowest level in the last decade than in any other decade since World War II, growth was stronger in Bay Area.
In many cases, people come for jobs, Snipp said. Not surprisingly, cities like Palo Alto, which have a wealth of high-tech jobs, tend to attract more people, he said. It also helps that Bay Area has traditionally been a popular destination for Asian immigrants, particularly since American immigration laws were relaxed in 1976, he said.
"If you look at the new housing that has become available and the number of new businesses and industries and the fact that Asians are a fast-growing segment of the American society, it appears that many of the people are coming here for jobs," Snipp said.
The influx of Asian residents isn't unique to Palo Alto. Statewide, the Asian population grew by 31.5 percent, and its share of California's total population went from 10.9 percent to 13 percent. California's Hispanic population also went up by 27.8 percent over the past decade, from 10.9 million to 14 million. That trend has been a bit less dramatic (though no less true) in Palo Alto, where Hispanic residents now make up 6.2 percent of the population, compared to 4.6 percent in 2000.
Snipp said these California trends could ultimately extend to other parts of the nation.
"The state is become ever more diverse and, in some ways, I think California is leading the nation in terms of the turnover in the demographic composition of the country," Snipp said. "The rest of the country will most likely catch up to where we're at."
• By the numbers: Tract-by-tract race and housing figures
View the map for the location of each tract.