Candidate profile: The Organizer — Lydia Kou


Palo Altans generally care about two things: staying alive and new developments (not necessarily in that order).

Recent history suggests Lydia Kou cares about them more than most. A long-time fixture of Palo Alto's growing corps of disaster-preparedness volunteers, Kou has spent years on the front lines of getting the community ready for the next Big One.

Last year, Kou shifted her focus to land-use matters as part of the citizen uprising against an approved Maybell Avenue housing development. Her objective, however, hasn't changed. She still wants to protect the community from the next Big One -- in this case, a zone-busting development that would make the city's already considerable traffic and parking problems even worse. She hates the recent planned-community zone projects that the city has approved in recent years (the College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real and the Lytton Gateway building at 101 Lytton Ave.). Each, in her view, is basically a humongous office building offering insufficient public benefits.

Kou said her decision to run for council was greatly influenced by the Maybell project, which the Palo Alto Housing Corporation proposed last year for her neighborhood, Barron Park. She told the Weekly she became concerned about the approval process during the project's public hearings. Residents were told what would happen but were not listened to, she said. She recalled hearing one of her neighbors tell her after the meetings: "You know what? The city will do what it wants to do. We should just go along with it."

Kou said she felt this type of response was not acceptable.

"I just couldn't sit back and sit through another four years of the same old thing when we are ... beyond the tipping point of a crisis," she said of her decision to run for a council seat. "Parking and traffic are issues now that we have to address, and the only way to address them is from the center point."

A Realtor with Alain Pinel, Kou is no stranger to City Hall, though this is her first bid for a public office. She worked with the city to organize Quakeville, an emergency-preparedness mock event that shifted from a neighborhood exercise to a citywide one. Initially held outdoors, in 2012 it moved to Cubberley Community Center, which for a day became a make-shift emergency shelter for residents escaping the faux disaster.

A former video store owner, Kou was born in Hong Kong and lived in Sudan and Guam before moving to Palo Alto in 1998. She has been heavily involved in the Barron Park Residents Association and recently took the lead in organizing a series of events celebrating cultural diversity, including celebrations of Lunar New Year and the Holi Festival.

Over the years, she's earned plenty of kudos from City Hall for her organizing activities, including an Achievement Award in 2012. Yet with election season in full force, the love is mostly unrequited. In her Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) questionnaire, she had scathing words for city leadership, calling City Hall "negligent" in updating policies for changing circumstances. She accused city leadership of "showing favoritism, especially to developers."

She claimed that City Hall "cherry-picks the sections of the Comprehensive Plan and other policies that support the developer and ignore those to the contrary." The city, she said, has been "cavalier with our money" (she points to the $4.5 million City Hall renovation) and is incapable of managing construction projects (she cites Mitchell Park Library). The list of grievances goes on.

For Kou, much like for the other candidates in the residentialist camp, management of the city's growth is a top priority, though she acknowledges that she has yet to fully detail her strategies for addressing the changes that the city is facing. She has major reservations about planned-community zoning, which she said developers are taking advantage of in winning approval for oversized office projects. She said she is concerned that California Avenue may soon experience the same sorts of growth problems as University Avenue.

"Each development plan that comes in has to be reviewed carefully, conscientiously and skeptically," Kou told the Weekly. "Downtown and University Avenue is the lesson that the city should learn of what not to do in coming here to California Avenue."

Yet solutions at times remain hazy. When asked by the Weekly about actions the council could take to address the fact that many commercially zoned properties on California Avenue aren't built out to their full potential (and thus are likely to be built to greater density in the coming years), she said she still has to study the issue and talk to her colleagues.

Similarly, she said she would like to ensure the "right kind of retail" on California Avenue, including community-serving businesses such as local hardware stores, markets, music shops and other places where neighbors bump into each other and chat. But exactly how will she encourage these kinds of businesses? That is a conversation she said she'll have to have with council members and property owners.

In her campaign, like in her activities, Kou emphasizes community building and neighborhood engagement. In the PAN questionnaire, she said she is depressed by "how much is spent on vanity and hubris." Phrases like "world-class," "first in the nation," "landmark" and "innovative" get used so much that they become irrelevant to many, she said.

"Too many pay attention to only the hype and not the reality of Silicon Valley and innovation: Most first-movers fail, and early adopters incur huge costs (buggy, inefficient, badly supported) and are stuck with technology that is vastly inferior to what came shortly thereafter," Kou wrote. "Taxpayers shouldn't be funding short-term bragging rights for the politically well-connected."

• To read about where Lydia Kou stands on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.

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6 people like this
Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 10, 2014 at 11:24 am

I have worked with Lydia Kou in the emergency preparedness program. This article is pretty accurate as to how she operates. She gets input from residents, thinks hard about how to proceed, sets goals, gets cooperation with volunteers to reach those goals, and is dogged in getting the job done. She is always truthful and will tell you if she doesn't know something. Anyone who has worked with her will say the same thing. As a candidate for city council, she won't know all the details of every issue yet, but you can be sure she will delve into them, listen to residents, think hard about how to proceed, and will get the job done. Isn't this the kind of person we want on City Council?

4 people like this
Posted by Mara Oliver
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 10, 2014 at 11:27 am

Lydia stands for safety, small businesses, the environment and all of us. She would bring diversity in every aspect to City hall. I am confident that our community will see this, and vote for Lydia!

Like this comment
Posted by Margaret Fruth
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 16, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Margaret Fruth is a registered user.

She has more longterm volunteer experience than almost any other candidate. As team leader for the city's Emergency Services Volunteer program, she organized the city's Emergency Preparedness Plan, Quakeville. Many politicians have difficulty feeling urgency about emergency preparedness; it is either some indeterminate time in the future, or needed yesterday. But according to a new geological study in today's news, four sections of the San Andreas Fault system are immobile and overdue for major quakes. Lydia is our own expert in this area.

She also planned and produced a series of "Celebrate Cultural Diversity" events, while active in the PTA, and coaching youth sports.

The candidate with both the largest number of individual donors and the highest total funds raised demonstrates her broadbased support, perhaps because her professional work requires knowing all of Palo Alto's neighborhoods, not just her own. [Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Sea REDDY
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 16, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Sea REDDY is a registered user.

Dear Palo Alto citizens

I endorse Lydia. She has the right attitude and training to be a great council women/lady.

I have worked at Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo and seal beach as regional incident manager .

This experience is not trivial.

I was engaging several LA sites, Arizona, Utah, Texas and other.

Please consider Seelam-Sea Reddy in addition to Lydia.


Like this comment
Posted by Margaret Fruth
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Margaret Fruth is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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