City charts new path toward updating Comprehensive Plan

City Council hopes do more outreach, complete update by end of 2015

After a meandering eight-year slog, Palo Alto on Monday night hit the reset button and endorsed a new approach for upgrading the city's stale but venerable land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.

Once completed, the document will replace the current version, which was intended to cover the period between 1998 and 2010. It will include the city's official vision on everything from land use and transportation to natural environment and business. It will also include policies for turning this vision into reality. In theory at least, it would serve as the guiding document for all major city decisions between the time of its adoption and 2030, the planned horizon.

City Council launched the revision effort in 2006 and the city's Planning and Transportation Commission has been analyzing and revising each chapter over the past four years. At the same time, planners and consultants have been forming "area concept plans" (separate vision documents) for two specific portions of the city -- an area that includes the California Avenue Business District and the sprawling Fry's Electronics site on Portage Avenue; and the south Palo Alto neighborhood around East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way. The plan for the rapidly changing California Avenue area, which is preparing for a host of dense new developments, has been in the works since 2009 and has yet to get to the council for a review -- a pace that can reasonably be deemed sluggish even by Palo Alto's famously thorough standards.

The new approach, which Planning Director Hillary Gitelman and Advance Planning Manager Steven Turner unveiled Monday, would inject a hefty dose of community outreach and civic participation into the process. It would send city officials to neighborhoods, churches, clubs and other gatherings to ask residents who don't usually visit City Hall about their visions for the city. It would create a new "community leadership group" of 12 to 15 citizens to work with the city on the update process. It also includes plans to launch an updated website for the process, featuring reams of released data about traffic, development, parking and other issues of intense local concern.

Perhaps most crucially, it would have a deadline: 24 months. If all goes as planned, it would be completed by the end of 2015 or early 2016.

At Monday's meeting, Turner called the Comprehensive Plan the "blueprint for the future" and the "planning constitution for the city." He characterized the new approach as "an opportunity to forge a collective vision as a city." And given the recent period of growth and community anxieties about this trend, he said he feels this is a good time to take the outreach effort a step further and consider different alternatives about the city's future. The new process will include analysis of various possible visions.

"Staff thinks this is a good time to question our growth management strategies and wonder if there are any alternatives to the way we think about growth in Palo Alto," Turner said.

After a fittingly long, wide-ranging and occasionally tense discussion, the council approved the new approach, though some of the endorsements were tepid and laden with caveats. Councilwoman Karen Holman was one of several council members displeased with the pace of the process.

"I'm really happy to have the schedule and a plan, but it's also very frustrating that we've been at it since 2006 and now we have a schedule and a plan," Holman said.

She said she was particularly frustrated by the city's failure to get the California Avenue concept plan done (the city last year approved the plan for East Meadow Circle). Councilman Larry Klein and Councilman Greg Scharff both voiced concern about the Fry's Electronics site, the only component of the California Avenue concept plan area that would see a change in its land-use designation. The city hopes to retain a mixed-use development in the area, with retail on the ground floor and housing above it. Holman, Scharff and Klein all worried that Fry's will leave before the plan will be completed and site will be taken over completely by housing, as is allowed under current zoning.

"I have grave concerns about what we may end up with there, which either does or doesn't match up with what the Comprehensive Plan currently envisions," Holman said.

Even with these concerns, she called the update of the Comprehensive Plan "some of the most important work we'll do as a council," an assessment Gitelman shared.

Members also expressed concern about the community leadership group and its proposed membership. Under the staff proposal, members would include a few local commissioners and representatives from the downtown business community, a senior organization, a youth organization, Stanford University, the California Avenue business community, several neighborhood groups and the citizen watchdog group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. Klein proposed adding other members, including a representative from Stanford Research Park and an environmental organization. He also stressed, as he has in the past, the need to go beyond "the usual suspects" and reach groups that normally don't attend council meetings. This includes renters, young people and Palo Alto's Asian population, which now makes up nearly a quarter of the city.

City Manager James Keene concurred that reaching these populations is critical, but also acknowledged that the it might not be easy getting people to remain involved in a long process.

"I do think that unfortunately in a democracy we always run into this problem: We can do the best outreach; we can connect (with residents), but whether or not people want to engage or stay engaged is another matter," Keene said.

In approving the staff approach by a 7-1 vote, with Gail Price absent and Greg Schmid dissenting, the council authorized an additional expenditure of $597,206 for consulting services to assist with the effort. Members also agreed to hold a study session in the coming months to go over the work that has taken place with the Comprehensive Plan update so far. Councilman Pat Burt also recommended that staff go back and review the city's previous update of the Comprehensive Plan and its creation of SOFA and SOFA II plans (land-use visions for two sections of downtown's "South of Forest Avenue" area) for "lessons learned."

Schmid argued that the city's process is broken and that the council's stated policies about development have been largely ignored in recent projects. The Comprehensive Plan, he said, isn't working. He cited decisions by the city to put development projects "on a fast track" rather than honoring the land-use bible and pointed to the 2013 National Citizens Survey, which showed residents giving the city lower scores in a host of land use and planning categories than they had in prior years.

"If we're going to listen to people, there's a message out there: People are upset," Schmid said. "We promise things; the Comprehensive Plan promised things; the council in their actions has promised things. And we're not doing them."


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Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2014 at 6:47 pm

"Design sprints" (week-long intensive problem-solving and brainstorming) and high-tech participatory democracy (a la California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome's book Citizenville) can shrink 48-month public processes down to one week, with more innovative outcomes, higher impact mitigation, richer quantitative analyses, and increased public participation, all at much lower cost.

In Citizenville, Gavin Newsome draws on his frustrations from his term as San Francisco's Mayor. Within public processes, loud citizen voices drown out others. Feedback is monopolized by a small, passionate group of people with hours of free weeknight time to spend sitting through plodding public meetings. At these meetings, staff/electeds spend four times longer than normal to say half as much, in order to not to offend anyone. The views of the too-busy-to-attend silent majority are ignored in favor of more extreme views. Old-fashioned processes enable defensive, obstacle-seeking strategies, dampening problem-solving creativity.

According to Newsome, "new digital tools can dissolve political gridlock and transform democracy." These tools address complex, messy, seemingly-intractable issues and augment citizen capacity to find ways through messy situations. Rapid-fire processes break down creative barriers.

According to Google Ventures Design Staff, "design sprints" produce predictably good results for startups and new products in only one week. Such sprints also promise to revolutionize city planning processes.

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2014 at 8:51 pm

[Portion removed.]

As to Google Design Sprints -- Google does not generally design, develop and sell products that people are willing to pay for. Google is an engineering-centric house that churns out a lot of Beta-quality software, that often disappears about as quickly as it is created. If it doesn't work, they can can the project as quickly as they green-lighted it. Given the City's ability to take people's property with eminent domain, got to wonder how often Google would simply take property owners homes and business, and bull doze them down as the simplest way to get from point A to point B?

If Google were building airplanes--wonder how many people would actually be willing to Fly Google?

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Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2014 at 2:03 am

" monopolized by a small, passionate group of people with hours of free weeknight time to spend sitting through plodding public meetings."

You mean, our current City Council?

We need a paid Council. It's time we had full-time Councilmembers who could afford to take the time from their jobs to work for us as we need.

Where in the above mix is the parent community from different sides of town? We are often the least able to attend City meetings, but we make up a huge contingent in this town that is known for its schools.

Why don't we have the ability to participate remotely in City Hall meetings? Someone stood up and suggested this at a recent meeting and mention San Carlos (?) already does this?

I fear this coming into the community is less to know what we think and more about trying to find people who know less about what is going on than the historic numbers who have been newly participating in the past year, and whose message they would like to give themselves a reason to ignore. I think they feel if they can reach people in smaller groups, they can elicit the echo they hope for. Shepherd, Price, Kniss, and Klein are inclined to do this.

City Council needs to give residents some teeth to enforce protections in the comprehensive plan, at least in regards to important state-mandated provisions like safety and traffic circulation. We don't have a separate safety and traffic circulation element you say? I wish I believed part of the consultants'' job would be to examine where our current plan needs improvements to further the goals of maintaining neighborhoods and quality of life as in the existing plan, but I see no evidence that this council has changed its spots. It's more likely they'll be figuring out how to hijack the thing for developers. I would like to see the timetable extended beyond where THIS Council decides its ultimate form. We should all be willing to go to bat over that, or it's kiss Palo Alto college town goodbye, hello San Jose Mini-Me.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 19, 2014 at 6:05 pm

I think as part of the Comprehensive Plan there should be included a inventory of the number of apartments, condominiums, and houses throughout the city - with approximate rental value where appropriate. There is a considerable number of apartments on Alma between Green Meadow and Embarcadero that are one story, older, and relatively inexpensive. There is also a large number of older apartments in the El Camino / Park Blvd quadrant. It should be clear where people should be looking for apartments / housing based on their budgets. I keep hearing that there is no lower cost available housing in the city and that is not true.

There should also be a inventory of the commercial space in the city. There are a high number of buildings "for lease" which tells you that the availability exceeds the demand. There has to be a numerical basis for evaluating what is on the ground today to determine where the need is.

Once there is a baseline for the city in total that is published and available for residents / newcomers through the city central system then we are meeting a basic need as a starting point. The housing inventory should include the school systems it is in proximity to.

This information is available in pieces through the real estate indexes but I do not believe that there is a total city picture available through the city systems. If so where is it?

When people speak to development then they should be locating exactly what is on the ground today and what are they replacing it with. There has to be a numerical basis for comparison that is evident in the planning documents.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 19, 2014 at 6:18 pm

I think the concept of south and north Palo Alto is an over simplification of the city. I saw today that Louis Road has consistent numbering to Charleston - but once you cross Charleston it becomes Montrose with a different numbering system. It looks like Charleston / Arastadero was an outer edge border at some point with Cubberly and the shopping center anchoring that edge. The housing between Charleston and San Antonio was built at a different time period and has a different zip code.
Mitchell Park would represent what was the outer edge at some point in time.
How the city was built is more complicated than simply saying north and south.
I know from the geological map of the city that there are layers of type sediment which determine if you are in a flood zone based on land fill.

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

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