In December 2013, Downtown North resident Eric Filseth offered what may be the defining soliloquy in Palo Alto's current land-use debate. Voters had just emphatically defeated Measure D, rejecting a housing development that was supported by the entire City Council. Developer Jay Paul Co., seeing the political winds shift, dropped its plan to build a zone-busting office complex at 395 Page Mill Road. And the council had just scheduled a public meeting to discuss the future of the city.
In summing up the problems facing Palo Alto, Filseth pronounced that the city's woes stem from conflicting visions. Vision A, he said, is one of Palo Alto as a "medium-density family town, a great place to live with great schools to send your kids to." Vision B, which he dubbed "San Francisco South," entails Palo Alto becoming "the financial and professional hub of the Peninsula."
"The planning department, the Architectural Review Board, the Planning and Transportation Commission, certainly the developer industry and most of you folks sitting up here today want Vision B, whereas most Palo Alto voters want Vision A," Filseth said. "Certainly not all of us, but a clear majority of us, are not willing to accept the costs in term of density, traffic, congestion and school crowding and all the other stuff it would take to get Vision B."
Filseth ended the speech with a question.
"Half of you are running for re-election next year. Why?
"It's a serious question. You don't get paid. You spend all your Monday nights here. You pour over endless minutia about city operations, and you have to sit there and listen to all of us three minutes at a time. Life is short. If you think we're bullies, or if you don't have a passion for Vision A, why waste your time here?
"The voting majority of us want leadership that will preserve Vision A in the midst of serious regional challenges," he said.
Filseth himself hasn't always been passionate about local politics. Like many residents, the Wisconsin native had spent the prior two and a half decades paying the mortgage, raising a family and working in the tech industry. But in recent years, as the pace of development picked up and downtown's parking situation deteriorated, he began to pay attention. In 2012, he opposed the Lytton Gateway development, a four-story office building at the corner of Lytton Avenue and Alma Street that is now the home to Survey Monkey, the Chamber of Commerce and Gelataio. The building was approved under planned-community zoning, with the developer providing the public benefits of space for a nonprofit (the Chamber) and a cash payment to the city.
Filseth had urged the council at the May 2012 meeting not to make the trade.
"It's never too late to walk away from a bad deal," Filseth told the council. "This, for Palo Alto residents, is a bad deal."
Early in 2013, Filseth and his neighbor Neilson Buchanan tackled downtown's parking problems with a computer model that maps out the expansion of the overflowed parking over the coming year. While his neighborhood and nearby Professorville were already inundated by commuters' cars during weekdays -- depicted by the color red on the map -- Filseth's model showed the redness spreading like a rash toward University South and Crescent Park in 2015 and 2016, as more approved developments come online.
In the months prior to his December 2013 speech, Filseth had expanded his range of civic participation. He became involved in opposing Measure D and joined the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which promotes slower growth and opposes changing a site's zoning to enable denser developments.
It was good timing for him professionally, too. In 2012, the software company of which he was CEO, Ciranova, was sold.
This past July, with a few years of civic involvement under his belt, Filseth decided that he wanted to run for council and to make decisions that he believes will address the misalignment he sees between residents and City Hall over land use. He is very critical of the Association of Bay Area Governments, an organization that assigns a housing mandate to each city and requires each to zone for its allocation.
Filseth told the Weekly he believes the city should do more to challenge these regional mandates. This means exploring legal options, partnering with other communities that are similarly concerned about housing mandates and considering trading allocations with communities that actually want more housing.
Filseth said he believes Palo Alto can adequately accommodate the current allotment, which covers 2014 to 2022. The problem comes after 2022, he said. If the next round of allocations requires the city to zone for significantly more growth, this would further strain the city's infrastructure.
Filseth is one of a few candidates who supports a ban on car camping. He said he's had people living in their cars on his block, which has caused problems with sanitation and with "people wandering around drunk," he said.
He is also critical of the planned-community zoning. In addition to opposing Lytton Gateway, he said he would have voted against College Terrace Centre. The project's chief public benefit was the preservation of JJ&F Market, but its owners left shortly after the project was approved. The city, he said, consistently overestimates the value of the public benefits offered as part of these deals.
"We get outgunned by the other side on the benefits all the time," Filseth said.
His answer? Have every planned-community project go to a referendum so that voters can decide whether the benefits offered are commensurate with the exemptions sought.
"If the benefit to the community is so great and so clear, then the voters of Palo Alto will see that and approve it," Filseth said.
In his interview with the Weekly, Filseth stressed that the city is now "making decisions in real time that will have an effect on Palo Alto for years and years to come," especially with the Comprehensive Plan update in full swing.
"It's really important that residents and City Hall get back in alignment. That's why I'm running."
To read about where Eric Filseth stands on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.