Palo Alto weighs new strategies for Comprehensive Plan

City Council to consider more funding, changing process to encourage more public engagement

Under a staff proposal that City Council will consider on Monday, the city could spend another $597,206 on consulting services for work on the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.

If approved, this would raise the total that the city has spent on consultants for the Comprehensive Plan update to $1.7 million and kick off a two-year process involving extensive public engagement, a citizen "leadership group" and the creation of numerous planning alternatives for the city to explore. The plan would have a horizon of 2030.

If the council signs off on the contract with The Planning Center | DC&E, the city's upgraded Comprehensive Plan would be approved some time around December 2015.

The upgrade of the bulky and wide-ranging document, which includes chapters on everything from land use and transportation to business and the natural environment, is one of the key components of "Our Palo Alto," the city's recently launched strategy for engaging with the community about changes that the city is undergoing. In recent months, as the city kicked off this effort, council members have taken several actions to address residents' concerns about parking shortages and traffic increases, including eliminating parking exemptions for new developments and suspending the "planned community" zoning process, which allows developers to barter public benefits for zoning exemptions.

In discussing the need for an updated Comprehensive Plan, staff pointed to the rapid growth that the city has been experiencing in recent years as the economy rebounded, and the anxieties borne out of this growth. In light of voters' rejection last November of the controversial Maybell Avenue housing development,

the city agreed it needs to do more to encourage public participation in the planning process. A new report from City Manager James Keene notes that the revised Comprehensive Plan approach would include more public engagement and "a more robust analysis of alternatives than originally anticipated."

The current Comprehensive Plan covers the years 1998 and 2010. Council members first proposed updating it in 2006 and agreed to keep the changes relatively modest. They also proposed new "concept area plans" for the changing areas around California Avenue and near East Meadow Circle. Starting in 2008, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and consultants have held public hearings on both the broader document and the two plans, which have largely been completed. The commission has been working ever since on revising each chapter of the Comprehensive Plan.

Under staff's new approach, the commission's recommended changes would become the starting point for a series of meetings and online forums during which other alternatives could also be proposed and data about development, traffic and parking would be provided. The city would then spend much of the year creating an Environmental Impact Report that evaluates the various planning scenarios and selects a preferred alternative.

"The ultimate goal of the process – and the justification for the substantial investment of time and resources involved – would be to adopt an updated Comprehensive Plan that expresses the community's collective vision for the future of our City," Keene's report states. "Once complete, the updated plan would play a lasting role in guiding wise decision-making to preserve what is treasured about Palo Alto and to meet the challenges we face between now and the suggested plan horizon year of 2030."


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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 13, 2014 at 11:11 am

The Comp Plan should be a dynanmic document that is uppdated periodically but it makes sense to do that ONLY if it is going to be followed. Otherwise, the updating is just an expensive exercise. Further, I think I will never understand why a city our size has such a large staff (for a good comparison, check out the org chart for the Sacramento, a city that is about 7x larger than Palo Alto) yet we still need to employ consultants. If our staff is as capable as we are told and we have a good record of volunteerism by highly qualified and experienced residents willing to lend their expertise to various issues, it is questionable, to me, that major issues are delegated outward to consultants instead of internally to existing staff. If you know the answer, please share it. Thank you.

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Posted by Kathleen
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2014 at 11:30 am

I agree with the above comment. Why does this plan need to be outsourced ? What do the City employees do. This appears to be a giant waste of our money.

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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm

City officials claim they want more input yet they continue to ignore the input here.

Maybe we should charge them a few hundred thousand dollars so they'll value our input.

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Posted by Amused
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm

If a project is outsourced to consultants and the public does not like it, staff can distance itself, blaming the outcome on someone else.

Only when a project is deemed good by the vocal few, will staff take credit, sometimes even taking all the credit, even if a project began through a collaboration of public/private efforts, and even if volunteers gave their time to make something happen.

Lots of money here, but too many people are short on memory.

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Posted by Melinda
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm

The answer is pretty easy. No one in the city is willing nor capable to take responsibility. When things go wrong, it's a lot easier to blame the consultants. Sort of job security.
Why care when suckers like us pay their salaries? Some may ask what about honesty and integrity? My answer to that question is: wake up from your hibernation, honest people is a rare commodity nowadays.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Basic leadership/management training is that such a process needs to be open, fair and honest. Under the current leadership, the City has demonstrated that it is unwilling/incapable of providing such.

The indications are that this will be yet another instance of that problem. If this is not what the City leaders intend, they need to do something major to build the confidence of residents that this is not yet another rigged process.

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Posted by Wowed
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 13, 2014 at 7:05 pm

This city has obviously learned nothing from the Great Recession. They still keep wasting money like it grows on trees.

While a. Of sultanate may sometimes be needed, there is no way that over half a million dollars should be spent on one.

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Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 13, 2014 at 7:29 pm

$1,700,000 / 65,000 = $26 per man, woman, child that is a resident.

The problem is the consultant's work isn't monitored. It seems too many reports are thrown out. Maybe the city should hire a consultant to learn how to hire consultants?

Whether a consultant is hired or not, the city council and city planning staff should be held accountable for the cost and the results.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2014 at 10:49 pm

We don't need a long drawn out consultant project with endless meetings and feedback. The problems and the solutions are clear. We need a down zoning
of commercial floor area ratios, curtailment of exemptions and bonuses,
and enforcement of design review. The infrastructure constraints require it. Quality of life, character, aesthetic values, safety, which have all
been compromised and ignored will not take a back seat to the development
mania which has ruled this City. We need a new perspective, a new focus,
with a time sensitive sense of urgency and purpose.

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