Shepherd zooms in on growth impacts in 'State of the City'

Palo Alto mayor uses speech to place ongoing changes in historic context

Citing a climate of rapid growth that leaves many residents feeling like change is happening "too much, too fast," Mayor Nancy Shepherd used her "State of the City" address on Tuesday to lay out the city's efforts for addressing the lingering frustrations that come with Palo Alto's economic prosperity.

Speaking in the ballroom at Lucie Stern Community Center, the city's first community center, Shepherd delivered a speech that zeroed in on the topic that has dominated City Council agendas in 2013 and that promises to do so again in the coming year -- the impacts of new developments on the city's quality of life. At about 20 minutes, it was one of the most concise and focused addresses in recent years.

Unlike the speech delivered by then-Mayor Greg Scharff last year at the Tesla Motors headquarters, Shepherd's address didn't include any new initiatives or proposed laws. There were no announcements of new public WiFi hotspots or anti-smoking laws. Rather, Shepherd's address largely limited itself to the continually dominant theme of the city's growing pains. In discussing the council's work plan for the year, Shepherd tallied off a list of long-discussed projects dealing with land use and transportation, including the reconstruction of California Avenue, another iteration of the just-updated Housing Element and an increase in the city's parking supply.

Shepherd, who was introduced by her daughters, Rachel Kaci and Becca Shepherd, pointed to Palo Alto's long legacy of wrestling with change, from the late 19th century when Stanford University opened its doors and the city's grain fields gave way to orchards to the 1930s when Stanford Professor Fredrick Terman began setting the stage for Silicon Valley's technological revolution.

To underscore her point that growth anxieties are far from new, Shepherd played a short clip from an interview Terman gave in 1969. When asked whether the charm of the city was getting lost due to of growth and industrialization, Terman responded that Palo Altans have a tendency to always like the city the way it was when they arrived here, no matter when their arrival took place.

"If they came 20 years ago, they complain about the changes and increased traffic and more land being built on and so on," Terman said. "If they came five, eight or 10 years ago, they like it that way and they're perfectly content."

The fact that people seem to like Palo Alto no matter when they came suggests that it "can't be all bad," Terman said.

Shepherd likewise tallied off a list of reasons for why Palo Alto, despite the widespread concerns over traffic congestion, parking shortages and new developments, is having "the best of times." Recent surveys show 91 percent of respondents rating the city's quality of life as "good" or "excellent" and 99 percent consider the city a "good place to work." The local economy has been booming, with commercial vacancies at all time lows and home values increasing by 46 percent in the last five years. The city has also won national awards over the past year in categories ranging from an Open Data initiative to its environmental stewardship.

Yet she also highlighted some of the ways in which this success has hurt Palo Alto, prompting some residents to view the current period as "the worst of times." This list included traffic increases, parking shortages and "disappearing opportunities to live in Palo Alto." Shepherd said the pace of the city's "vibrant economy" has caused many residents to worry about the future, much as has been the case throughout Palo Alto's history.

"Like those before us, we must strike the right balance between evolving as a city while maintaining those things that make our Palo Alto livable," she said.

Shepherd also urged listeners, about 100 of whom attended the event, to get involved in the city's new "Our Palo Alto" initiative, which aims to get feedback from a broad range of residents about the city's future. The initiative will include numerous idea-gathering meetings "beyond City Hall," whether in local parks or during bike rides; an effort to update the city's Comprehensive Plan and numerous "actions" – actual near-term changes that address the impacts neighborhoods have long complained about.

Over the past month, the council has embarked on the "action" component with renewed gusto, approving a framework for a "residential parking permit program" that would set time limits on commuters' cars in residential neighborhoods; directing staff to explore new garage sites; and considering a new "transportation demand management" program that would offer incentives for drivers to switch to other modes.

All these efforts are expected to stretch through 2014. Palo Alto, Shepherd said, "is in a continuing conversation about growth, development and change." This, she said, is "the setting and the attitude which brought most of us here and which continues to shape our community and drive our future." The city's "dynamic environment," has brought with it "inevitable problems and challenges" that the council will be grappling with in the coming year.

She gave as an example her own arrival to Palo Alto in 1984 and her realization several years after the move that the city is a place for her. She said she was at first "overwhelmed by how groomed many yards were, and how well educated other parents were."

"At parent gatherings, I would ask others what they did and often got a response like 'study smashed atoms' or 'the liquidity of matter' or 'the property of bacteria when light first hits it,'" Shepherd recalled, adding that she ultimately stopped asking the question and "just enjoyed how family-oriented the community was."

She said the city's new outreach effort will help the council ask the community questions that will "lay the foundation of how we move ahead as a community."

"While the University or tech sector jobs may have brought many of us here for a great adventure, it is our neighborhoods, open space, and the quality of our schools that have been at the heart of what defines Palo Alto," Shepherd said. "And we want to protect and maintain all of these things."

Read Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd's State of the City speech.


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Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 11, 2014 at 10:19 pm

If they mean that, the first thing the Council should do, tomorrow morning, is do what it takes to save Buena Vista Mobile Home Park from being razed. It is the last, large parcel of true affordability in this town, and the long-time residents an integral and important part of our community. The Council could ultimately take steps that wouldn't cost the City anything in the long run, and would be on par with other efforts they have been willing to make lately. It's in the same neighborhood as the Maybell rezoning, and saving the mobile home park would be wildly popular among people on both sides of that debate.

Time for the Council to put their money where their mouths are and live the ideals Mayor Shepherd expressed in her speech. I know I will personally rank very high in my decisionmaking in the next election, did they do what was in their power to save BV?

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Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 12, 2014 at 3:15 am

Don't you just love how people try to say all opposition to anything, no matter how bad, is silly, just because there was opposition in the past (often not so silly opposition)? Lest anyone forget, those waves of development in the past started getting out of hand, too, that's why we have these high rises in very incongruous places around town, such as the Tan Towers on Arastradero or the "skyscrapers" at Page Mill and El Camino. At least the latter have setbacks. A lot of the zoning rules that have protected our quality of life came out of reactions to stop such rampant overdevelopment. STOPPING the overdevelopment turns out to have netted many of the good things, and those who were concerned about the overdevelopment had a point. If not for them, Palo Alto would be another San Jose.

The attitude that people will want to live here no matter what we do to the place is similarly flawed and self-serving (or, developer-centric). Once it gets bad enough to prove it, it's too late to do anything about it.

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Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2014 at 7:24 am

The quality of life in Palo Alto is good compared to Los Angeles, Manhattan or Vallejo, but it isn't good at all compared to many other places. The pro growth crowd equates good quality of life with tall buildings, lots of office space and congested traffic, supposedly a sign of prosperity. In reality. good quality of life is about no crime, peace and quite, clean air, less traffic, lots of trees and flowers, friendly residents, etc. We used to have all that in Palo Alto, but we lost years ago due to greed and short slightness by our politicians. Palo Alto greatness was formed by the great and progressive minds living here, by respect for the environment, definitely not by start ups, greedy developers cozy with city council members, tall office building, far too dense population and obscenely expensive real estate.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2014 at 10:01 am

Of course people are reluctant to change from what is comfortable, that is only human nature. Nostalgia sets in as we get older and looking back with fondness on the past is something that is not unique to Palo Alto.

The problem as I see it is that Palo Alto has grown without any thought to future planning of any description. Now while this was probably ok back in the 50s and 60s and even into the 70s, because that seems to have been the norm everywhere, but from the 90s on when trends, studies and statistical data became commonplace, it was no longer OK.

As examples, the fact that schools were closed and sold for housing shows the mistakes made in those decisions. Midtown was a thriving shopping area with 3 supermarkets, several banks and a department store, and fell into sad decline but is now to some extent revived, shows that what goes can return. Piazzas and Charleston Centre survived many changes, Alma Plaza did not and the jury is still out on Edgewood Plaza. The changes at Town & Country have transformed the rather run down useful centre into a Yuppy supermarket as anchor to a Yuppy extension of Stanford Shopping Centre. But rather than piecemeal attempts to look at Palo Alto as a complete town, we have a north/south divide and to some extent a neighborhood v neighborhood divide too.

When planning is done the questions should be asked as to where the people who live/work are going to shop for food, park their own and guests cars, buy their lunch/coffee, what impact it will make on schools, infrastructure and services and above all traffic in commute times. Questions should be asked about public transportation, walking/biking but not assume that people will be living within walking/biking distance of their job, or that public transportation will be walking/biking distance from their home or their job.

We live in the technological age, but Palo Alto has done nothing to aid the technological lifestyle of its residents and workers. We have no technology to assist with parking, traffic congestion, public transit, or even walking/biking. Why are we not investigating how to Tweet about a major accident blocking a major intersection to local drivers, or road construction on a major arterial (I was late for a mid day dentist appointment because of a lane closure on Middlefield recently due to construction for a few hours in the middle of the day that backed up traffic right outside my dentist's office) etc. etc. etc. We have no electronic boards to assist people parking to inform them which garages have spaces, no simple system for visitors to park all day downtown, and an emergency system that is used spasmodically for alerts which are useful and those that are not (eg pancake breakfasts). I won't even mention the library fiasco.

We have enough high paid administrators and planners in this town. How about some of them doing something to earn their money and get something done instead of pushing paper (even paper of the electronic kind).1

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Posted by Mayor wonders why
a resident of Southgate
on Feb 12, 2014 at 10:38 am

Shepherd seemed interested that people kept asking her why buildings are so close to the sidewalk, and why parking and traffic are so bad.
Perhaps she doesn't recall that SHE voted for all of that, along with the other pro big development council.
(the only development she opposes is High Speed Rail because it will hurt HER property.

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Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:16 am

Trying to use an old quote from Terman to justify that the City Council can ignore residents and do whatever they want says a lot about Shepherd's intentions.

Create more offices and jobs than than the total city population, give exemptions from building the required parking, turn every road in Palo Alto into a two lane road ... then claim Terman said this is okay. I'm not going to listen to you.

Build parking in the baylands ... then allow more commercial development and give exemptions to the developers because the proposed building is so beautiful. Build modern glass intensive office buildings, then when they are too hot, cover them in giant fly swatter screens like at the corner of Alma and University.

Is this planning or pandering to special interests?

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Posted by Tony Carrasco
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:32 am

Great speech Mayor.
Best I have read in a while!

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Posted by Concerned citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

Mayor Sheppard is just trying to cover her arse. She has voted yes on everything that is bad in Palo Alto. She's just giving the citizens of Palo Alto lip service, because she is hoping to get re-elected in the fall. Vote Sheppard out!

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Posted by Chop
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:44 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Old Man
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:48 am

It look tome our Mayor realized that this is an election year,The council should start "Looking Good"

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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 12, 2014 at 12:51 pm

I loved this quote from the Josh Green article in the Merc:

"I"Shepherd invited residents to help the city chart a course for its future through its new "Our Palo Alto" initiative. She also vowed to hold related conversations far from the confines of City Hall. For instance, a picnic in a park could serve as a venue to discuss the parks and recreation master plan."

Does that mean that she'll stand in the middle of gridlocked traffic to discuss traffic plans and problems?

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Posted by anony
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Wonder if she still feels bullied by a majority of voters?

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Posted by Concerned citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 12, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Mayor Sheppard famously said at a recent city council meeting that she wasn't going to be bullied by Palo Alto citizens. She said she was going to vote the way she pleased. The woman is clueless. She isn't knowledgeable about commercial real estate, urban planning and development, architectural design, and finance. She is tone deaf and doesn't understand or care that her job is to protect the interests of Palo Altans. She is easily manipulated by developers. Also, the way she conducts city council meetings is an embarrassment.
She is completely unqualified to be mayor.

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Posted by disconnect
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2014 at 1:26 pm

The City is in a severe downward spiral. This downward spiral is accelerating. The City is becoming unrecognizable. It is not just loss
of character, and over-sized buildings in your face, but a low-grade ugliness is spreading all over the City's sign-cluttered streets which along with traffic and congestion are becoming the most dominant features of life here. The Council rationalizes, minimizes what is happening. The message is don't overreact, there is nothing new going on here, and it will all work out in the end.

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Posted by Kate
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 12, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Of Course Tony Carrasco would just love anything THIS mayor said. They are all in the same political and building- craze ark together. Not a big building that Tony doesn't love. He's one of the BIG developers in town although he has a designed a few nice ones. Nancy Shepherd must be voted out in the next election. The electorate should adopt now the motto "Save Palo Alto" - from further destruction by the city manager, the staff, and the clueless council.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2014 at 8:19 pm

Vote them all out.

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Posted by Hutch 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2014 at 11:16 pm

^I Agree

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Posted by Mayor Wonders Why
a resident of Southgate
on Feb 13, 2014 at 12:48 am

One of the anomalies about this Mayor is that she does not seem to understand the notion of bias or vested interest. Or the public good. Sure she follows the city attorney's narrow definition, but she seems to lack science/research training that would internalize the concept.
[Portion removed.]

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Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

I believe Shepherd is more astute than many are giving her credit for. She has learned from her mentor (Price) that most voters are consumed by their daily lives to pay too much attention to local politics. But she understands that the unions and developers are constantly focused on influencing politics and will fund the campaigns of politicians who will vote for the special interests. So politicians like Shepherd and Price vote for the developers and unions, and in return the special interests use a part of the largesse they garner to elect politicians who are prefer to represent the special interests. The result is union fire employees with a high school education making $200K per year, and developers being allowed "exceptions" that are worth millions per project. Time to wake up voters and get rid of Shepherd and Price.

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Posted by Full,of Bologna
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 13, 2014 at 3:28 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by Greasy
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 13, 2014 at 7:52 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Full of Bologna
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 14, 2014 at 8:35 am

Mr Johnson,

If two posters live at the same address but use different laptops, how is that the same poster using multiple names??? They have different email addresses!

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Posted by Susie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 17, 2014 at 12:28 am

Her quote about thinking Palo Alto is right at any point that you move in sounds nice, but isn't quite so.
When we moved to Palo Alto there was no crime, you could park by the store you were going to, and the city wasn't filling up with overly high/dense buildings.

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

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