Candidate profile: The Pragmatist — Greg Scharff


In February 2013, as he addressed a crowd of dignitaries assembled at Tesla Motors headquarters in the Stanford Research Park, newly elected Mayor Greg Scharff offered one of the boldest and most sweeping "State of the City" speeches in recent memory.

After celebrating the city's role as -- in his words -- a place with ideas that change the world and where the future continues to be invented, Scharff proposed a series of initiatives ranging from expanding the city's smoking ban and its public-art program to bringing wireless Internet to local parks and building a long-awaited citywide fiber network. He referred to the year as "Lucky '13" and said Palo Alto should be the "leading digital city of the future."

By the end of the year, 2013 no longer seemed so lucky. Residents unhappy about pace of growth spearheaded a referendum that shot down a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue. Parking and traffic problems remained prominent and unsolved. And Scharff -- who has been the council's leading voice for building new garages; who led (along with Karen Holman) the push to protect downtown shops from converting to offices; and who proposed reducing the number of homes in the Maybell development -- was increasingly, and at times unfairly, criticized for being too cozy with developers. The fact that just about every initiative that Scharff unveiled in his February speech came to fruition became a parenthetical note in the aftermath of Measure D.

When people talk about "two visions" for Palo Alto and frame the election in terms borrowed from the 1960s (a pro-development "establishment" against slow-growth "residentialists"), they often lump Scharff in the former category. A recent survey by the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning gave him one of the lowest grades in its scoresheet of "pro-resident" votes.

From Scharff's perspective, this is grossly unfair. Residentialists may complain about his support for 101 Lytton Ave., a four-story planned-community zone development near the downtown Caltrain station. But he would point out that the project provides full parking for its tenants; its developer provided a $2 million payment for a new garage downtown; the site was appropriate for more density because it's right next to a transit hub; and the developer was required to put in place a transportation-demand management program that would ensure traffic generated by building workers and visitors would be 20 percent lower than normal.

An alternative, he points out, would have been a two-story, suburban-style office building with a sprawling parking lot instead of the underground parking ultimately approved. He noted that he personally made the project more suitable by shifting some of the offered funds from affordable housing to parking and by specifying in the motion that the ground-floor tenant will be a restaurant or a coffee shop, not a bank. The end product, he believes, is the best the city could have gotten from a planned-community zone project.

"If you're going to build office space in Palo Alto, this is the best location of any place in Palo Alto to build it," Scharff told the Weekly.

On the Maybell Avenue proposal, by contrast, Scharff has some regrets. In the days before the City Council was scheduled to vote on the project, he moderated a summit between the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (the project developer) and the organizers of the opposition in hopes of reaching a compromise. Though no deal was reached, Scharff came away feeling like he understood the residents' major concerns: keeping traffic impacts minimal and preserving the neighborhood character. To address these concerns, he proposed (and his colleagues agreed) to trim the number of single-family homes from 15 to 12. In retrospect, he wishes he had trimmed the number to eight, a number that residents said they could have lived with.

Scharff told the Weekly that he had focused on the fact that the four extra homes wouldn't significantly affect traffic. He also felt that the site's existing zoning would result in a development with more severe traffic problems than the proposed development. His error, he said, was not paying enough attention to the feelings in the community about the way the project was approved.

"The huge mistake I made personally was looking at the technical details, rather than community sentiment," Scharff said.

While his overall feelings about the two planned-community developments haven't changed since he cast the votes, his opinion of the zoning process that enabled the projects has undergone a transformation. Scharff told the Weekly he now believes that the process is broken and that, rather than be reformed, it should be eliminated entirely. The process has been routinely criticized for years by residents complaining about the zone-busting developments it enables and the supposedly insufficient public benefits it offers to the community (the list includes everything from public plazas and sculptures to cash payments and grocery stores). All the residentialist candidates, including Councilwoman Karen Holman, said they believe the process should be reformed. Scharff, who in December made the motion to put a moratorium on planned-community zoning, no longer believes that this is possible.

"What happened here is that the community has no faith in the PC process whatsoever," Scharff told the Weekly. "I don't really see how we can reform it. And if we can't reform it, we need to eliminate it.

"I'd completely support eliminating the PC process," Scharff said.

Scharff also regrets the council's secret negotiations with developer John Arrillaga in 2012, calling them a "horrible process," and acknowledges that the council should have done better. He now supports having the council vote publicly on whether to go into a closed session before every such session.

Yet he also believes the council doesn't get enough credit for its accomplishments. When he joined the council in 2010, the budget was a mess and the council was involved in a tense battle with its labor unions over pension and health care reforms. The city's infrastructure had an estimated backlog of more than $300 million, and officials were struggling to come up with a plan to build a new police headquarters.

Scharff helped lead the council in repealing the binding-arbitration provision in the City Charter for public-safety unions so that the city is no longer forced to accept labor-contract terms imposed by a third party. He also took part in the Infrastructure Committee that came up with a financing plan to pay for the needed fixes (Measure B, which would raise the hotel tax rate by 2 percentage points is part of the solution). And city workers now contribute toward their own pensions and health care

As for parking and traffic, the two issues that everyone is talking about? Scharff points out that the council has 14 initiatives in the works to address these issues, including new garage technology, a downtown Residential Parking Permit Program and a new Transportation Management Association that will provide incentives for downtown companies whose employees switch from using cars to other modes of transportation. Land use may continue to dominate the election debate, but Scharff believes that when it comes to being responsible stewards of public finances and the city's infrastructure, he and his colleagues have performed their job well.

"This is the first time that we actually have a plan to solve the problem and actually get on track where we maintain our infrastructure and we keep up with it," Scharff told the Weekly. "It was a long haul. We did it in an open and transparent way. Those two things alone are huge."

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

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