Planning, infrastructure top city's 2014 agenda

Palo Alto officials decide to keep last year's priorities largely unchanged

Gathered in a cold room with metal folding chairs, a mere handful of electric outlets and no wireless Internet, Palo Alto officials acknowledged that their annual priority-setting "retreat" doesn't fit the typical definition of the word.

For Mayor Nancy Shepherd and City Manager James Keene, the setting had everything to do with the point of the exercise. Shepherd opened Saturday morning's meeting by noting the difference between the posh and faddy amenities often associated with retreats -- a five-star hotel, some team-training exercises -- and the City Council's strategic gathering at the Ventura Community Center. Keene observed that "it's really not the best space for meetings." It was partly chosen, he said, "to be representative of some of the kinds of challenges and issues we have in our city."

These challenges, including the outdated infrastructure the center represents, were the main focus of the strategic retreat, a session in which the council sets annual priorities and discusses possible reforms, considers staff's annual work plan and ponders procedure revisions. This year, the process didn't bring forward any new burning topics. Rather, it afforded the council the opportunity to renew its vows of yesteryear.

For the second year in a row, the simmering issues of parking shortages and an infrastructure backlog were chosen by the council as the primary focus areas. Fittingly, the council did what it said it would do last year and effectively carried both of these priorities from 2013 to 2014. Members also agreed unanimously to keep "technology and the connected city" as a priority for another year, largely as a way to underscore the city's commitment to building a citywide ultra-high-speed Internet system.

The council agreed, however, to change the wording on the land-use priority to "Comprehensive land use and transportation planning and action: the built environment, transportation, mobility, parking and livability." The wording, proposed by Councilman Pat Burt, replaces and broadens the 2013 priority, which specifically referred to the "future of downtown and California Avenue."

"We've expanded our concern beyond downtown and California Avenue," Burt said. "That priority doesn't talk about any south Palo Alto land-use and transportation issues, which are a big part of the discussion."

The council voted unanimously to adopt this as a priority. The only disagreement was over the inclusion of the word "mobility," which was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff and approved by a 6-3 vote, with Burt, Marc Berman and Greg Schmid dissenting.

The newly adopted planning priority acknowledges that the lingering issues of traffic congestion and parking shortages remain at least as bad as they were last year. In the coming 12 months, the city will be bringing forward a "transportation demand management" program aimed at getting people out of cars and into other modes of transportation; consider construction of new garages and pursue a slew of bike improvements.

A new citizens survey confirms what council members have long acknowledged: in the eyes of the citizenry, parking and traffic problems are getting worse. The National Citizens Survey, which ranks Palo Alto's services and amenities against those of other communities, showed scores for parking and new developments plummeting between 2012 and 2013. When asked about the "amount of public parking" in the city, the percentage of respondents who ranked the city as "good" or "excellent" dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent (in 2010, the percentage was 60 percent).

The overall quality of new development was rated as "excellent" by just 12 percent of respondents, while another 32 percent ranked it as "good." At the same time, citizens continued to give the city failing grades when it comes to availability of affordable housing, with only 13 percent giving Palo Alto the two highest grades in this category.

Councilman Greg Schmid alluded to this report on Saturday and urged his colleagues to pay attention to the survey results.

"Those are numbers that just leap out of the page and this is citizens talking to us," Schmid said.

For most council members, the numbers have confirmed what they have been hearing from residents throughout the year. Even before the citizens overwhelmingly shot down last November a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue, new developments and their impacts on existing quality of life had been a subject of heated and divisive debate.

"That's probably the prime conversation we've been having during the last year," Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said, referring to the land-use priority.

One action that the council plans to take in the near term is to reform the "planned community" zoning process, a controversial procedure in which a developer gets zoning exemptions in exchange for benefits negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The council plans to discuss these reforms Monday night.

Bob Moss, a persistent critic of local land-use policies, referred to the "planned community" on Saturday as "wildcard zoning" that typically benefits developers far more than the public. The result, he said, has been a "disaster" for the city.

"You have to go back and completely redo the PC process because it hasn't worked and it isn't working," Moss said.

While dealing with these reforms, the council will also continue to wrestle with an infrastructure picture that has somewhat brightened over the past year. Though the council is still considering a November ballot measure to pay for infrastructure projects, members have also acknowledged in recent weeks that the city has enough existing funds to pay for the most important item on the list: a new public-safety building. At the same time, the city has invested heavily in street and sidewalk repair over the past few years, making substantial progress on one of the issues highlighted in 2010 by a specially appointed citizen committee.

"The list of what is unfunded has shrunk and shrunk," Burt said, adding that the city's is "on the cusp of largely solving" the problem that has been facing the council for the past decade: an infrastructure backlog totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The council voted 8-1, with Gail Price dissenting, to keep the infrastructure priority for another year. Price acknowledged the importance of the subject, but argued that the process will unfold whether or not the priority is carried over.

Price also advocated adding a priority relating to climate change and sustainability, an issue that she said has become more critical during a drought period.

"Considering the sense of urgency and the governor's statement and many other individuals' (statements) including our staff, I feel this in an opportunity for us to add this second focus area and really examine our adaptation policies," Price said.

In addition to setting its annual priorities, the council agreed to scrap two of its recently formed committees -- the Technology and the Connected City Committee and the Rail Committee. Members agreed that while the subjects remain important, it would be appropriate for the full council to grapple with them.

The council agreed by a 7-2 vote, with Kniss and Scharff dissenting, not to seat these committees. By the same vote, the council agreed to try an approach that Keene described as "committee as a whole." The concept would allow council members to hold meetings in informal locations outside City Hall focusing on particular topics.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Getting people out of cars is not the solution to traffic and parking problems. When will they realize this?

Moving traffic efficiently and getting more parking where people can use it is never ever discussed. If they really put technology and the connected city as a goal, then they should work out how to use technology for connecting traffic and parking issues to the real world rather than the virtual world.

Nothing new here. Just a waste of a day, but at least they were in a cold old school site rather than a fancy expensive venue.

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Posted by Sham meeting
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Did they discuss the $1,000 a month ($12,000/year) increase the City Manager is getting?

This sham meeting became a venue for the City Manager to control, under Frank Benest (Keene's mentor). It isn't really a retreat for the council.
No wonder hardly anyone attended, it's a sham and bo-o-ring.

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Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Window dressing waste of time. Only so many hours in a lifetime. Please vote them out (except for maybe Schmid) and bring in some candidates who will work for and with our citizens.

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Posted by Resident Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2014 at 10:07 am

"Getting people out of cars is not the solution to traffic and parking problems. When will they realize this?"

Resident is right, its about moving people efficiently, and ensuring there is enough parking. Some people are just not going to get out of their cars, and its just not realistic to assume that they will. If you've got a job in Mountain View or Foster City and there is not enough parking for you to take the train, you're not going to take the train. If you have a kid in elementary school, another in high school, you probably drive them when it rains. More bike lanes won't help.

Seems that city council is as out of touch now as it was last fall.

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 3, 2014 at 10:47 am

Think about Golf Carts. Instantly double the available parking spaces.

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Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Let's be open minded about the practical potential for traffic demand management. A year ago I would not have placed any value in TDM for Palo Alto; however, I now see its potential. We must embrace it with our eyes wide open. First, City Staff and Council have over the last year identified a few easy, low-hanging fruit projects to see how TDM fits into the Univ Ave parking solutions. By the end of 2014 we will learn what works and what must be tweaked.

TDM is a deliberate, engineered process that requires a COMPLETE, but simple worker database for Calif/Univ Ave commercial core and Stanford Research Park. This takes strong funding, professional management and time for workers to adjust their personal preferences for new modes of transportation.

Google does it. Stanford does it. And PA City Council can do it. It will never be a total placement for the personal auto, but within a few years it could reduce personal auto use by workers by 15+%. I like Senor Blogger idea for some of my daily trips. Zip Cars plus Zip Carts.

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Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:20 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I agree with Neilson that there are practical steps that can help AND that we need to better informed about workers in crowded areas and their parking behavior.

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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:32 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Look at the opposition to private companies providing alternate Mass Transit solutions for their employees.
These companies ARE trying to reduce single occupant vehicle traffic and what do they get? Protests. 1 Bus or 45 cars a no trainer, so what is wrong with environmental impact studies.
Any Decent Mass transit solution should get BIG points (and become a permanent tenant requirement if the points are cashed in)
Zip cars, still tend to be single occupant when used, but they do help replace the residential 'Extra Cars' that cause parking problems.

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Posted by Biking, parking...Complete streets work.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:34 pm

We should design school commute street facilities around the possibility of RAIN? I think not. How many days did it rain this year--or any other typical year in Palo Alto? Most (not all) high school and middle school kids in PAUSD live within a mile or two or three of their school site. This is a very bikable distance. Thousands of them bike EVERY school day. In fact, while the bike counts are lower on cold, rainy days, kids still bike to school. These intrepid kids need a dedicated place on the street.

Example: Bike counts at Gunn this year have ranged from 876 on a beautiful October morning to 706 on a chilly rainy day in November. That's just ONE school. Many more uncounted students walk, carpool, or take the VTA88 to Gunn. To say that adding more capacity for cars is the only solution flies in the face of the facts. Just look how well that strategy worked in Los Angeles.

To say that parking is "NEVER" discussed is, well,just erroneous. Seems like that has been a major part of discussion at the city and the schools recently. Are we done with that issue yet? NO. I think Council at the meeting was pretty clear that they want to work on parking issues more.

Anecdotally, I have been seeing lots of seniors out there bicycling recently. I was fascinated to read a recent national report on bicycling that showed Palo Alto has a growing number of senior bicyclists. Cool! As I approach my senior years, I'm glad to know I'll have lots of company on the street.

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Posted by Thank you for the revision.
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

I appreciate the inclusion of south PA's needs in the planning and transportation priorities. Thank you, Council, for that revision. I think it was a necessary and thoughtful change.

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Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:21 pm

@Thank you,
Did they mention any consideration of taking out the focusing on the densification of South Palo Alto especially on El Camino as a goal in the Comprehensive Plan? (Did they mention that the Comprehensive Plan discusses South Palo Alto like it needs to be densified? Were they discussing things like our need for open space, traffic circulation, safety, some of the many amenities our taxes pay for too on our side of town, etc?)

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Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:28 pm

"We should design school commute street facilities around the possibility of RAIN? I think not. How many days did it rain this year--or any other typical year in Palo Alto? Most (not all) high school and middle school kids in PAUSD live within a mile or two or three of their school site."

Yes, we should. Because unlike this past year which was one of the most dry on record, it usually rains a lot in the winter, and that's (in case you hadn't noticed) when the kids are in school. The reality is that many kids and their instruments and science fair projects, etc., need to be driven when it's raining. Traffic patterns definitely reflect it.

But, I can see a solution if you are willing to get involved. Why not organize biking buses led by volunteer seniors? You know what I mean, right? A brigade of senior bikers at the front, a brigade at the back, and you act like an escort that rides up and down certain streets at certain times in order to "pick up" kids on their bikes who can ride in the space in the middle. Those at the front could peddle a carrier that the kids could put their heavy backpacks, projects, instruments and other things into.

It would be a big commitment, but if you could get something going all over town, it would be a good volunteer opportunity for our seniors and good for their health, and I know a lot of parents who (rain or shine) would be more than happy to have a safer and more bike-friendly way to send their kids to school.

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Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Some of us in the local PTA have talked about getting a grant to pilot some biking buses, and there is even a grant source, it's just another situation where the desire is there but not the time. We would LOVE involvement by senior volunteers who would be in it for the long-term.

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Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:34 pm

@ Biking,
Sorry for the extended commenting, I just think you sound like someone who might make this a reality--

One of the greatest side effects of biking buses is that it improves community feel, relationships, and safety. It's not a small effort, it's really a multi-year commitment and would require leadership, but well worth it. Please consider it.

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:46 pm

My kids biked to school all the time through high school regardless of weather. Although we usually get a lot more rain than we got this year, the number of days that it is actually raining during the short time that they are on the road is usually no more than a half dozen per winter. Other days may be wet but not actually raining. If the commute windows are 45 minutes total per day, that is 45/1440 = 3.1% of the time.

"Bike trains" as they are properly called, are a good idea for younger students. I can't imagine the older ones consenting to be part of that.

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Same ol wasted words. Nothingchanges except Jim Kean makeing more money !!!

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Posted by oh well
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2014 at 1:51 pm

....same issues that a dysfunctional city council and an inept city manager have regurgitated for the past 10 years. Why do we continue to employ a city manager that has brought nothing to the table since he has been hired? What service is he providing to the community that equates into a $450,000-$500,000 salary and benefit package? What has he accomplished that our city council deems necessary to charging resident taxpayers an additional $12,000+ salary raise per year? Where is Keene's ideas for moving the city forward in the 21st century. Simply nodding your head in agreement every time a councilmember speaks or creating endless "Blue Ribbon Committees" to further study ideas or options put forth by the public that conclude with no results and no actions taken is not a leadership skill. Perhaps a change in management leadership should be at the top of city councils 2014 agenda.

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Posted by Bikes are not safe...
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Bike facilities are not safe anywhere in the Bay Area. Has everyone noticed how many bicyclists were hit and either severely injured or killed by cars in 2013? Seemed like one a week. I'll drive, thank you.

Furthermore, the transit system does not work for local trips. It could take a person 3 hours to go from Palo Alto to Mountain View, if one depends on buses, then one has a 45 minute walk, on top of that. There is no way this mature citizen will bike, or take transit, especially after dark.

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Posted by I'm probably gonna drive
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2014 at 2:09 am

First of all, you're going to have to plan for those of us who are probably going to drive, regardless of the walking or biking options. Some of us (including me) have health conditions that make walking or driving uncomfortable, or who have other family members with such issues (as in my family). On rare occasions, I will take the free shuttle around town, but its route is limited, and it is often crowded.

Plus, when I go shopping, I am frequently buying big, heavy things. I'm not going to try to lug four 12-packs of diet soda (the amount you usually have to buy at Safeway to get a good deal) on a bike or a bus; ditto for 20 pounds (or more) of cat litter. And some people are feeding big families and buying stuff in Costco-sized quantities; they're not going to take it on the bus. And I try to plan my trips to stop at several different places, to economize on gas and time; this is very unwieldy to do by bus.

On the other hand, you don't have to worry too much about me trying to park downtown or on California Avenue to do my shopping, as I do almost all of my shopping in Mountain View or Redwood City anyway, where the selection of "ordinary" stores with "ordinary" prices and merchandise is much better than here.

As for schoolkids getting to school in the rain, I have a suggestion: Bring back the school bus, especially at the high-school level, where many students must travel long distances to get to and from school. I grew up in rainy
Seattle, and also lived a few miles from my high school, and routinely used the bus, as did almost everyone else.

This would get a lot of cars off the road, and relieve a lot of parents of the duty of taking their kids to school. (In my case, I have a disabled son who couldn't bike and had to be transported by a parent to Gunn every day, and it was a pain.) Yes, it would cost somebody money (the districts used to pick up the tab), but I bet a lot of folks, both parents and other commuters, might think it money well spent. I am surprised that this is an option that is never even discussed.

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

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