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.