In the past decade, A.C. Johnston has lived in Tokyo, London, Washington, D.C., and -- for the past two years -- Palo Alto.
When the Weekly contacted him in August to ask about his decision to run for City Council, the phone interview was conducted while he was in a car on the way to New York's La Guardia Airport.
Johnston lived in Palo Alto in the 1990s and, after various work assignments, returned to the city in late 2012. He readily admits that he hasn't had a chance to study "every issue" and that he hasn't looked at the details of recent planned-community zone projects.
But while Johnston may not know all the nuances of Palo Alto's recent land-use wars, he has friends who do. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Larry Klein, who between them have more than two decades of council experience, are both supporting his campaign. Also in his corner are former Palo Alto mayors Betsy Bechtel and Sid Espinosa and veteran environmental activist Walt Hays. Somewhat paradoxically, the globe-trotting political newcomer who has never served on a local commission has become the one non-incumbent most closely associated with Palo Alto's political establishment.
Johnston told the Weekly he's been thinking of running for office for many years. He grew up outside Chicago, son of a precinct captain who served as a city attorney and a state legislator. He has spent 39 years in law and in 1985 was asked by his firm, global giant Morrison & Foerster, to open its Palo Alto headquarters. As a managing partner at the firm, he has focused on disputes involving patent infringement, theft of trade secrets and technology licensing, according to the firm's website.
Now, the veteran attorney hopes to bring his negotiating skills to bear on Palo Alto's ongoing challenges. When asked what difference he thinks he would have made had he been on the council during the last few years, Johnston said he thinks he would have helped the city avoid some of the friction that has arisen.
"Clearly, I was not involved in it at the time, but the Measure D battle has created a division in the community that I think, had it been handled with a little more discussion and finesse, it needn't have," Johnston said.
In talking to residents at farmers markets and coffee shops, Johnston said he's been hearing people say two things. Some say the city is changing too fast and that growth has to stop. Others say the city can't stop and shouldn't be as opposed to change.
"I'm in the camp of the people who believe that given where Palo Alto is and how it's in the center of the most economically vibrant area in the world, and given our reputation for innovation, Palo Alto can't stop, can't say 'no' to everything," Johnston said. "But I think we need to be a lot smarter about how we move forward."
On growth, Johnston said he doesn't believe the city needs more office space. He would, however, like to see a broader range of affordable housing for Palo Alto residents.
"I think there are people who are priced out of Palo Alto who should be members of our community -- our teachers, our policemen, our firefighters, our seniors who are currently living in homes but would like to downsize, and to do it they have to move out of the community," Johnston said.
He said he would support ensuring that zoning is correct for sites that would be appropriate for additional housing. He also believes in using specific-area plans to "make sure we get the kinds of housing we want." He points to work done in and around his own neighborhood, University South, as a good example of the council collaborating with residents to create a vision for development: the two South of Forest Area (SOFA) plans.
He is less keen on planned-community zoning, through which developers propose projects that violate regulations in exchange for providing benefits to the public. He said he can't comment too much on recent PC-zoned projects because he hasn't studied the details, but he has a general view that the zoning designation has been used for "hodgepodge, ad hoc development." He doesn't advocate tossing out the zoning designation entirely but believes it should be used rarely.
"I think we should be much stricter on what are the public benefits that the developer is offering in return of variances he or she will get as part of a PC zone and make sure the public gets the benefits it was promised," Johnston said.
To read about where A. C. Johnston stands on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.