In mid-2013, Palo Alto's elected leaders stumbled upon the perfect formula for sparking civic engagement: approving an unpopular development in a neighborhood.
Not coincidentally, that's when Tom DuBois entered the political stage. The Ohio native has lived in Palo Alto since 1995, but it wasn't until the last year or two that he became concerned about the pace of the city's growth. He wasn't pleased with the council's approval of a planned-community project at 101 Lytton Ave., which he said offered minimal public benefits in exchange for the density exemptions. He opposed the Jay Paul Co. proposal to add two massive office buildings to the AOL complex at 395 Page Mill Road.
Then in June 2013 came 567 Maybell Ave. -- a development that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes and that sparked criticism from neighbors who believed it to be too dense for the area. The project only further reinforced his idea that the city is going in the wrong direction when it comes to development.
DuBois took part in the referendum that overturned the housing development, and he became one of the founders of the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. He is in favor of tweaking the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, rather than overhauling it, a path that the current council is pursuing. And he would like to make some immediate changes to the zoning code that would prevent the types of buildings he says are causing consternation all over town cubes that pretty much fill out every foot of space that the zoning allows.
Some people, he has said, would like to see a more urban future for Palo Alto, with more density and higher buildings. Others, like him, would prefer to see the city "evolve" rather than be redeveloped. That means quickly rejecting developments that go beyond the property's zoning, rather than, in his words, "tweaking the edges" and keeping the projects alive for longer than necessary, as he said the city did with Jay Paul.
"Palo Alto is a pretty built-out city," DuBois told the Weekly. "We can afford to be choosy about the types of projects we approve."
Since joining the citizens group, DuBois has immersed himself in the weeds of land use. He has been a frequent and skeptical presence at meetings of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board. He steeped himself in the minutia of Palo Alto's housing policies and zoning laws. Last year, he appealed the approval of a larger-than-regulation sign by Grocery Outlet, the new market at Alma Village. Addressing the council, he warned of a slippery slope.
"Small signs work when everyone has them," DuBois said. "Once we have large signs, it will kick off an arms race. If I owned a store and saw a large sign, I'd definitely want one, too."
The appeal ultimate faltered (with only Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Gail Price voting for it), but his prophecy held up quite well. In the months after the sign discussion, Tesla Motors, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Survey Monkey all sought and received the city's permission to exceed the city's code on signage.
DuBois has also expressed some concerns about the city's ongoing effort to revise the Comprehensive Plan. The overhaul was initiated in 2006 and proceeded in fits and start, with the city hitting the reset button yet again last year. Through an outreach process called Our Palo Alto, the council has solicited community feedback and hopes to get a new plan in place by the end of next year.
While DuBois said he finds the outreach interesting, he questions the notion that the city's guiding document needs a significant revamp. He said he would rather see the council immediately modify zoning regulations to address residents' anxieties about the city's built environment. This includes changing some existing definitions in the city's code for things like setbacks, daylight plane and floor-area-ratio to ensure buildings don't simply get built to the maximum of what the zoning allows.
He maintains, however, that Palo Alto should not be completely closed off to growth. As a member of a panel that worked this year on the city's Housing Element, he took part in assessing various sites around the city and considering their suitability for housing. Some moderate housing, particularly within walking distance of services, makes sense, he said. To that effect, he favors adding about a third of the new housing downtown; another third near California Avenue; and the remaining third elsewhere in the city.
His opposition to last year's Measure D notwithstanding, DuBois recognizes the need for more affordable housing. He said he opposes a ban on people living in their cars.
"If they are breaking any laws or causing disturbances, we should alert the police," he told the Weekly. "It's not a situation where I feel we should crack down."
He also supports retaining the city's planned-community zoning, which offers developers zoning exemptions in exchange for public benefits. These benefits, he said, should be intrinsic to projects, such as senior and affordable-housing developments.
"We need to define the kinds of benefits we want. For me, affordable housing and senior housing are good categories."
To read about where Tom DuBois stands on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.