Housing advocates clashed with neighborhood preservationists in Palo Alto on Election Night. When the dust settled, it wasn't even that close.
For advocates of Measure D, which lost by nearly 2,000 votes (44 percent to 56 percent), the election results spelled a bitter end to a project that promised to expand the city's sorely needed supply of affordable housing for seniors. For opponents, who concluded their election party with hugs and clinks of champagne glasses, the result was a victory for democracy and a resounding statement against the growing density of new buildings in residential neighborhoods.
"It restores faith in democracy, that ordinary citizens in Palo Alto can make a difference," said Jen Fryhling, one of the leaders of the "Vote Against D" campaign.
In the near term, the consequences of the Measure D vote are fairly clear. The 2.46-acre orchard site on Maybell and Clemo avenues will retain its existing zoning despite the council's effort in June to change it to a "planned community." The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, the nonprofit developer that was planning to build 60 apartments for low-income seniors and sell the rest of the land to a developer for 12 market-rate homes, will now likely look elsewhere in its Sisyphean effort to bolster the city's stock of affordable housing. And the old apricot orchard will remain an old apricot orchard until a new development proposal is submitted to the city.
But the emphatic victory of the anti-Measure D campaign leaves plenty of lingering questions that won't be answered for months, if not years. How will Measure D affect other dense developments on the city's horizon? Will the City Council reform the infamous "planned community" process that continues to frustrate the community? How will the citizen rebellion against the council influence the 2014 council election?
Election data and interviews with stakeholders help shed some light on these issues. Here are a few takeaways from Measure D's emphatic defeat on Election Day.
Citizen engagement is alive and well
For years, "civic engagement" was one of the official priorities of the City Council, whose members often talk about the need for community outreach and just as often lament the lack of people in the council chambers when they're discussing important issues like high-speed rail and the Comprehensive Plan.
Just this week, the council was discussing ways to engage the public in identifying the city's "core values" and approved an outreach process that involves giant touchscreens, a website called Open City Hall and a video made in conjunction with local students.
Whether or not the city's campaign proves successful, one of the lessons of Measure D is that local residents are far from apathetic when it comes to local government. The voter turnout (of about 38 percent of the city's registered voters) was predictably mild given that there were no local, state or national races and that Measure D was the only issue up for a vote. The roughly 14,540 ballots that were counted as of Thursday afternoon were far fewer than the roughly 25,000 cast in 2010, when voters struck down a firefighter initiative to freeze staffing levels and changed local elections from odd to even years. The number was also slightly below the roughly 15,000 who voted in 2011 to "undedicate" a portion of Byxbee Park to allow for a potential facility that would convert waste into energy.
Even so, the campaign was successful in both qualifying the issue for the ballot this summer and in getting the votes out. Opponents of Measure D had a strong message "preserve neighborhood zoning" and this message resonated far beyond the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, ground zero for Maybell. Residents also formed a new group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, whose members stressed Tuesday night that they will remain engaged in the city's future zoning issues.
Mayor Greg Scharff, who supported Measure D along with the rest of the council, nevertheless was quick to praise the victors on running a successful campaign. Though he said he was "disappointed with the results," he added that he was pleased to see democracy in action.
"A large group of Palo Altans organized and did an excellent job on the campaigning. They got the message out and democracy prevailed," Scharff told the Weekly in an interview. "I think that's a good thing. That's a positive thing."
Measure D was never really about Maybell
The election maps carry the same message as the list of people who contributed to the plucky, low-budget anti-D campaign: Rezoning is a citywide issue. Nearly every precinct outside of downtown, Palo Alto Hills and the neighborhood near the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life on the southern edge of the city opposed Measure D, though the margins varied greatly.
The three precincts near the Maybell site predictably had the widest gaps, with one of them opposing Measure D by a vote count of 483 to 193 and the other one voting 411 to 166 (in both cases, 71 percent against). The precinct by the orchard voted most overwhelmingly against the measure, 595 to 165 (78 percent opposition). Elsewhere, the margin was far closer.
Most of the precincts leaning in favor of Measure D were clustered around University South, which includes the senior community of Channing House and the affordable-housing development Webster Wood. The precinct with the two facilities had 323 people voting in favor of the measure (69 percent) and 126 opposing it. Several adjacent neighborhoods tilted slightly in favor of Measure D.
The color-coded map provided by the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters shows Measure D opposition extending from nearly border to border. The color connoting precincts with a "no" majority, dominates the map. Exceptions include the downtown cluster of precincts, the vast but sparsely populated Palo Alto Hills (where Measure D prevailed 40 to 34) and the precinct that includes the Saint Francis and Triple El neighborhoods near U.S. Highway 101. The latter supported Measure D by only four votes, 249 to 245, according to the registrar's "semi-final" tally as of Thursday afternoon. In the south Palo Alto precinct that includes the senior-housing community Moldaw Residences and the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, 181 votes out of the 322 supported the measure (56 percent).
Paralleling the map, the Vote Against D campaign's financial contributors came from neighborhoods throughout the city. While the opposition was heavily outspent, its supporters included plenty of neighborhood leaders and watchdogs from outside Barron Park, including Fred Balin of College Terrace and Neilson Buchanan from Downtown North.
The color maps also suggest that while the City Council was focusing on the technical specifics of the Maybell project the number of cars it would add to each street around the orchard, the lot sizes of the proposed houses, potential alternative developments that could be built under existing zoning many of the opponents were thinking in broader terms about issues such as "planned community" zoning and Palo Alto's increasing traffic congestion and parking shortages.
Cheryl Lilienstein, spokesperson for the Vote Against D campaign, said her group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, will remain engaged in the city's planning process as other rezoning proposals come online. The issue of protecting neighborhoods from increasing density, she said, is not limited to her neighborhood of Barron Park.
"In doing this campaign, we have connected with other neighborhood groups who have concerns that overlap with ours, and we intend to support one another," Lilienstein told the Weekly.
Planned communities could become a tougher sell
Before the Maybell election, many people complained about planned-community projects, which trade away zoning exemptions for "public benefits" negotiated between the city and the developer.
The process has a checkered history, with the most recent controversies including two disappearing "public" plazas (one next to Saint Michael's Alley restaurant and the other subsumed by Caffe Riace) and one disappearing supermarket (the "Save JJ&F" campaign succeeded in getting the College Terrace Centre development on El Camino Real approved but didn't really save the venerable grocer, which departed soon after the approval).
The Maybell project was different. Shepherded by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit with a four-decade history of providing affordable housing, it sought to address one of the city's greatest needs by building 60 apartments for low-income seniors. In a city where rents are sky high and where nearly 20 percent of seniors live near the poverty level, affordable housing was widely seen as a legitimate benefit.
Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who is one of the city's staunchest critics of the planned-community process, fully supported the Maybell development. So did Councilwoman Karen Holman, one of the council's leading skeptics of new developments.
Even so, the voters rallied behind the cry, "Preserve neighborhood zoning," and defeated the project.
The Election Day results thus beg two questions: If the voters can unify to defeat a planned-community project with benefits so tangible they are almost oxymoronic (affordable housing in Palo Alto!), what can they do with more typical PC projects such as the office developments proposed by Jay Paul Company and Pollock Financial Group near El Camino and Page Mill Road? Also, how will it affect the city's handling of planned-community applications?
Not every council member was in a mood on Election Night to discuss the issue. When asked if he was surprised by the election results, Councilman Larry Klein declined to comment. Councilwoman Liz Kniss called it a "sad day" as she walked out of the "Yes on D" party shortly after the early results were announced.
Holman, a former planning commissioner, called the results "instructive."
Scharff said the message that he heard from voters on Election Day is one he's been hearing for months. Residents are concerned about too much traffic and not enough parking. They don't want to see ugly architecture and out-of-scale density. These positions are easy to understand and sympathize with, he said, and the council is already taking many actions to address them. In just the past few months, the council had eliminated a series of laws granting parking exemptions; unveiled its planned downtown "residential parking program"; begun a conversation about a transportation-demand management program that would get commuters out of their cars; and continued to look into new garages, which Scharff said cannot be built soon enough. The vote only reinforced the sentiments that the council is well aware of, he said.
But at least one thing about Measure D changed his thinking regarding planned-community projects the campaign's focus on preserving the "neighborhood feeling." Unlike most PC projects that the council had been considering, the Maybell proposal was in a residential area, albeit bordered by two apartment complexes. This resonated with many residents, including Scharff.
"I'd be much more hesitant frankly about a PC in a residential neighborhood," Scharff said.
He cited the concerns put forward by the Vote Against D campaign that residents will "have PCs pop up in your residential neighborhood."
"That's unfortunate. I don't think there's a sense on the council that we'd do that. But I think we may need to provide reassurance on that point. ... One of the things that maybe we can do is simply say that we will not do PC in residential neighborhoods. Period."
November 2014 should be very interesting
Palo Alto's last City Council election was a humdrum affair, with just six candidates (including incumbents Pat Burt and Greg Schmid) fighting for four seats. The 2012 candidate pool was in fact the smallest since 1985.
Measure D suggests November 2014 could be far more exciting.
In the weeks leading up to this year's Election Day, there was plenty of grumbling from the anti-D camp about the council not listening to residents. At the election party Tuesday, some opponents of the rezoning decision talked about replacing the current council and also reforming the city's planned-community process.
The group Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning was planning to meet on Thursday to break down election results and consider next steps, Cheryl Lilienstein said. Members hope to get a better understanding of the PC process and also the way in which the city drafts an "impartial analysis" for referendums (the group has contended having the city's attorney write an "impartial" analysis on an item in which the city is challenged poses an inherent conflict of interest).
But the prospect of fielding council candidates also looms large, begging comparisons to the heated 1960s election battles between "the establishment" and "slow-growth residentialist" candidates. The analogy is far from ironclad. Most members of the current council, particularly Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt, already hold strong residentialist credentials and are cautious about new developments.
There will be at least one new council member after the 2014 election, when Councilman Larry Klein will complete his second consecutive term. The big question now is how many people will enter the fray to take his seat and to challenge the other four incumbents Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and councilmembers Holman and Gail Price whose terms will expire and who will have the option of running again. That's a question that neighborhood leaders will be wrestling with in the coming months.
"I'd say from the beginning, because the City Council wasn't listening to us, there has been a consistent undercurrent of challenging the incumbents," Lilienstein told the Weekly. "That's been a very strong message that has been internal to this organizational effort.
"If we felt their decisions have been considering our concerns, I don't think we'd feel there was a challenge necessary. It definitely feels that way now."