Seeking vision for city's growth, council rejects staff's ideas

Council says progress on Comprehensive Plan update can only be made with more data

Faced with four different visions for future growth of the city, Palo Alto's City Council members quibbled and agonized Wednesday night before settling for a fifth option: none of the above.

After four hours of deliberation, the council rejected by a 7-1 vote a recommendation from planning staff to analyze four different growth scenarios as part an update of the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding land-use document, citing a lack of adequate information and focus.

The council's vote, coming two days after a meeting at which more than 80 residents and Palo Alto employees attended with about 30 offering their own diverse visions for the city's future, represents yet another twist in a tortuous update process that started in 2006.

With only Gail Price dissenting and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss absent, the council ultimately agreed to continue the discussion at a later meeting and asked city planners to provide a range of additional data, including a menu of all studies currently under way relating to traffic and parking; more information about existing conditions for development; and suggestions for changing the scope of the Comprehensive Plan revision.

The existing Comprehensive Plan was intended to guide the city's planning from 1998 to 2010. The updated version would extend to 2030.

The four alternatives that the planning staff recommended were to be included in the update's Environmental Impact Report. One option would leave all land-use policies and zoning designations in place; two would promote "slow growth" and cap commercial development; and a fourth alternative, known as "net zero," would evaluate projects based on their ability to avoid contributing to problems in areas such as traffic or water consumption.

The scenarios had been developed by city staff based on feedback they'd received over several community meetings held between late May and July. Yet rather than evaluate these alternatives, council members spent the bulk of Wednesday evening criticizing the process that planners used in creating the options.

Councilman Greg Schmid argued that the staff hasn't collected or released enough credible data on the city's traffic and parking conditions to facilitate a real discussion on growth.

"We have a wonderful opportunity in our Comprehensive Plan to look at alternatives upfront (and) to explore the consequences of those alternatives," Schmid said. "In order to do that, you need to focus attention on the numbers, set measures for the goals you want to achieve and then identify the measures that can be tracked over time."

Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman both argued that the proposed growth alternatives "aren't ready for prime time" and urged staff to pay more attention to the immediate problems of parking shortages and traffic congestion. Scharff also rejected the "net zero" alternative, saying that it "doesn't feel vetted" and would lead to uncertain consequences.

"It feels scary. It feels like we don't know what we're doing," he said.

"It frankly feels like the PC process on steroids," he added, referring to the city's controversial "planned community" zoning, by which the city grants zoning exemptions to developers in exchange for negotiated "public benefits."

Most of the disagreement Wednesday wasn't about growth or housing but about what information staff should bring back when the conversation resumes. Even so, members did offer some opinions about the city's future.

Gail Price, who made a motion to support staff's recommendation and proceed with the Environmental Impact Report, said that by changing the process, the council is "getting caught in a trap" of making "perfection the enemy of the good." She also made a pitch for encouraging more housing, which was also the dominant message from the downtown employees who spoke Monday night.

"We need to have more housing; we need to be more innovative; we need to act like (the community) we think we are: a cutting-edge, innovative and community that cares about the future," Price said.

Mayor Nancy Shepherd was prepared to support Price's proposal, and Councilman Marc Berman also said he was leaning in that direction, but both ultimately voted for an alternate idea from Councilmen Pat Burt and Larry Klein. They proposed to continue the discussion, reconsider the scope of the revision and gather more data.

Burt and Holman also stressed the urgency of acting now to protect the city from new developments in the city's commercial areas. Burt advocated a "focused approach on zoning changes that we can do in a matter of months rather than years" and that would not require a completed Comprehensive Plan, which in theory lays the foundation for zoning revisions.

While Holman said she appreciated staff's narrowing down of the alternatives from nine to four, she maintained that the discussion is premature.

"I think part of the problem with this is we're trying to accomplish too much too fast," Holman said. "We're trying to digest a big gulp, and it's not something we should really be after at this point in time."

She also urged the city to focus on near-term solutions for the city's traffic and parking problems.

"We have too many things now that the public is asking for, that the public expects us to do," Holman said. "They're not unreasonable.

"Rome is burning. We have a lot to address here. I want us to take proactive actions."

Burt argued that the city doesn't yet have the proper contextual "setting" to consider the different growth alternatives. Without adequate data about the impacts of growth, residents would have a hard time deciding if the proposed updates would enhance or degrade their quality of life, he said.

Upon urging from Burt and Holman, the council also agreed as part of its vote to schedule a meeting in which members will consider potential changes to the city's commercial areas. The changes are intended to target areas like El Camino Real and California Avenue, where larger new buildings are replacing smaller ones and prompting anxieties about congestion and parking shortages.

Klein said the Comprehensive Plan update has suffered from "mission creep," with the Planning and Transportation Commission. which over several years had been reviewing every chapter, expanding the project beyond what the council intended.

"We have problems that we need to address," Klein said. "The programs we have under way are responsive to that. I'd prefer to see us focusing on those things rather than getting off on a project that I'm not sure what it's trying to accomplish."

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Like this comment
Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 7, 2014 at 9:24 am

On one hand it sounds like same-old-same-old Palo Alto Process, send it out for discussion, examination, consultation, and wringing it dry until it finally dies a gasping death. On the other, it sounds as if the Council is actually listening to residents and business concerns and not rubber stamping Staff recommendations. It seems clear that the Council has not set an objective of exactly WHAT Palo Alto should be, the small city with Birge Clark buildings setting the tone and scope of growth or the center of booming technology. "Growth" may be inevitable, as some (residents and non-residents alike) feel but reality exists in this cloud of wants and needs, the reality that Palo Alto has limited physical space on the ground. It seems clear that if the choice is growth, it has to be made to either expand up or out into the hills. No matter what the choice, there will be people who will end up unhappy. But also people who will be happy. “Sometimes doing the right thing does not make everyone happy -- just the people who need it the most.” (Tony Posnanski) So I think the goal should be to serve the people who need it the most and the choice will become clear.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2014 at 10:30 am

A wise decision.

Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2014 at 10:38 am

It baffles me that Staff always seems to want to completely redo our Comprehensive Plan rather than to simply update it to reflect changes that have occurred under the present plan. A Comprehensive Plan is supposed to be a framework, sort of like a constitution, with zoning being the implementing tool. A good starting point would be to revisit some fine earlier planning studies that were done such as the Citywide Land Use and Transportation Study from the 1970's or '80's and the Downtown Plan which I believe is still in effect. Unless we know whether those plans were followed (or not) and what may have been their flaws, it is really flying blind to start with a blank slate. Land use decisions are pretty permanent and we will never have a second chance to correct the problems.

In my opinion, our town has spiraled out of control and unless the City gets a grip on the cumulative consequences of exception after exception, there will be no semblance of the town we would like to envision.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2014 at 10:46 am

A wise decision. There is absolutely no need to rush on this huge issue. I would prefer that no decision is made until after the new CC is seated as it's highly probable that the new CC would just reverse or delay any decision made today. In the meantime, I hope the city staff will dig deeper and also realize that ABAG and the smart growthers are not the only sources for predictions and visions of the future.

I'm sure the smart growthers were hoping to push forward now - regardless of how the majority of residents feel. But luckily the future of PA is still in the hands of the residents...and that will be influenced by the November it should.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2014 at 10:48 am

Why is it that so often when council members are asked to take a stand or give a crucial opinion, Liz Kniss is absent?
Could it be that she doesn't want her opinions to come back to haunt her IF and WHEN she tries for another public office? So it's better to be absent rather than 'get involved'. Or is it illness or ????

Like this comment
Posted by Interesting meeting
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:00 am

A most interesting meeting. It was clear who knew what they were talking about and made contributions to the process, and who made pious statements (Price) or jokes (Berman).

Schmid asked for very specific data (such as traffic, etc.) - a most impressive statement.
But the Planning Director kept saying they would present BASELINE data. Does that mean they do not measure the current situation?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:31 am

New people are always moving into Palo Alto, each wanting a say in the planning of our fair city. As a result, Palo Alto is turning into a camel: a horse designed by a committee, such as can be seen on Alma.

Long term residents interested enough to attend meetings over the years, contributing to the overall vision at the time, have either died, moved out of the area, or became so old they stopped voicing opinions. What was done by them was for the most part, disregarded.

It makes no sense to continually start from scratch because there is no continuity of even city employees in the vision, that either retired or moved to other cities. From a driver/pedestrian perspective, areas of Palo Alto look like tunnels. That was not our vision or that of any other long-time residents that we know.

In spite of a lot of meetings, there is still a lack of communication and transparency. Taking the Comprehensive Plan begun years ago, implementing it when decisions need to be made, keeping that vision in mind for future projects would have eliminated a lot of problems and doing that now would help prevent more failures.

The Plan up to now has been like busy work for citizens and city staff. Council disregards it, on a lark, without the specific data as asked for by Councilman Schmid. Emily Renzle's point here needs to be taken seriously.

We too, have noticed that when important decisions are made, Liz Kniss is a no-show. It is a pattern.

Like this comment
Posted by Getting Smart
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:34 am

Great. But the cynic in me thinks this wouldn't have been the outcome if an election wasn't far off.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto resident
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:35 am

It seems that the council is afraid to tackle the big issues. The talk of this being the wrong time to make this decision is a bit comical. These are exactly the decisions that need to be made so the city knows where its gong. We have a plan that is out of data, the current plan was meant to extended until 2010, we need a new vision that deals with the reality of Palo Alto no longer being a sleepy suburb. While new data might be needed not giving a sense of vision to staff leaves the council free from responsibility for what happens in the process. The buck stops with the city council not with staff. Get to work city council, stop punting.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:35 am

Whatever is done, our wish list needs to consider the regular water shortages all over California, including our fair city.

Palo Alto could be on the cutting edge of rationing in a way not seen before, like an allotment of 5 gallons a day per household, if water is just not there in the future.

Like this comment
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

It was an interesting meeting, and Greg Schmid's statement is worthy of a full copy for everyone to see. Many data points were brought up that many of us already know about; many which are already available, and scary scary indeed that this data is not readily "admissable" by staff.

It does mean that there are few or any measures or metrics which Keene has used in the past (other than what developers dictated). Gitelman is corageous to deal with these long time city dysfunctions.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:47 am

> Palo will be no semblance of the vision we hold for it.

Unfortunately, no comprenshive land use policies/visions have ever been put out to vote, so most of the people (ie, voters) have ever had a chance to vote on any of these matters. The most of us have had the visions of a few activists shoved down our throats with little in the way of overturning, or endorsing, the City’s policies.

Like this comment
Posted by frank
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2014 at 11:54 am

Schmid strikes me an intelligent, well-meaning person; however, my sense is that he is a slave to the numbers and can never have enough information. As a result of thinking like this, projects rot on the vine.

The Palo Alto Process has rarely been characterized as hasty or rushed. Like all of her ideas or not, Price's point seems true: the perfect often becomes the enemy of the good around here.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 7, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Thank you to the partial members of the PACC for rejecting the STAFF comments on the Comprehensive Plan Update. WHO IS THE STAFF? Do they live in PA or some other city? We keep seeing people who are not named packaging our cities future.
Good article in the SJM today concerning Menlo Parks' legal actions going in the same direction with a ballot measure for November. Mountain View also will have a ballot measure. The central theme is limit growth.
We need a ballot measure to contain the flagrant out of control growth.

Best article is "Public Interest is second to politics in state projects". This recounts the bay bridge project - how it got out of hand due to both Mayor Browns who wanted an ego project; Sacramento Airport who wanted the most grandiose airport - now too expensive to maintain so ridership is down; and for see's the HSR and water tunnels as ego projects which will ruin the states' budget.

Unfortunately you see the same thought process here in PA - the PACC keeps wanting PA to be in the forefront of all cities as an ego project. We should try flying under the wire for a while to let the current projects in process finish up and see where we are at. We do not need to keep throwing ourselves at national papers for being the first and so great - we are becoming a less desirable city to live in as a result.

Like this comment
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 7, 2014 at 12:13 pm


"Price's point seems true: the perfect often becomes the enemy of the good around here."

We're not anywhere near "perfect" so Price has nothing to worry about.

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Let's not forget that the Advanced Planning Manager who was handling the Comp Plan update just left town for a new job in Redwood City.

Like this comment
Posted by gave up long time ago and moved
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Monumental planning!
Check small details first, the signage for city hall, (250 hamilton)
will be placed on Bryant street? Sign for 801 Alma placed on Homer?
Aren't the signs to be placed in front of the building? I'm going
to put my license plates underneath my car so they can't be read by
License plate reader, police or parking enforcement.
I know it's small, but that how everything starts.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2014 at 3:03 pm

"It baffles me that Staff always seems to want to completely redo our Comprehensive Plan rather than to simply update it to reflect changes that have occurred under the present plan."

That is actually what they do now: the city continually revises the CP to conform with new developments that don't fit the existing version. That gets old.

The new proposals streamline the process. A plan with no substance automatically conforms to anything. No revising necessary.

All of the new proposals can be summarized in one word: Whatever

Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 8, 2014 at 5:49 am

This process is astonishing!

More complicated than sending a person to moon/mars.

Can we get to crisp 20 pages?
A handful of alternatives, without pulling our hair?

And what is the ultimate goal?
To have a 2030 plan with ideas from residents (include renters)?

Seem to me a 'big' effort in a continually changing that we would have to update every 18 months, at least.

What is the output of this laborious process?

Will this be roadmap? Vision? Can it be modified periodically? How often? By who?

Why do we call it EIR? I know some of it is mandated by the state. Why is it 'Environmental'?

Do we include items; people, traffic, youth issues, seniors issues, housing, health care access, pollution, crime, nature, jobs, growth, housing; bicycle friendly, multi-ethnic opportunities?

Is this called 'environmental"


Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 8, 2014 at 6:00 am

And I do agree that it is a wise decision to kill it and rethink.


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

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