Candidate profile: The Preservationist — Karen Holman


Many City Council members claim the "residentialist" label these days. Karen Holman pretty much owns it.

She is the incumbent most championed by those who oppose the incumbents. She has just about every neighborhood organization and land-use critic on her side. She knows the Comprehensive Plan and the city's zoning code backward and forward and has a record of civic service that includes eight years on the Planning and Transportation Commission.

Yet rarely does a leader with so much community support look as alone as Holman on a Monday night as she casts, one more time, the council's lone dissenting vote.

That's what happened in March 2012, when she voted against the redevelopment of Edgewood Plaza; and in November of that year, when she voted "no" on the flood-control project near the San Francisquito Creek (because the relevant environmental documents weren't provided to the council, she explained); and in December 2013, when she opposed a ban on amplified sound at downtown's Lytton Plaza.

Her dissent may be rooted in quibbles large or small. As a planning commissioner she voted against the College Terrace Centre development because she felt it was too massive. She also voted against the Tree House Apartments affordable-housing project on West Charleston Road because it didn't include private open space (both projects won council approval despite her opposition).

Of the three incumbents on November's ballot, she has the longest and most consistent record. Occasionally, a colleague or two have joined her in opposition. She and Greg Schmid voted "no" when the council approved the Lytton Gateway building at 101 Lytton Ave. She and Marc Berman were the only naysayers when the council approved a ban on people living in their vehicles last year.

Though she slipped out of character in 2010 to support a development by Harold Hohbach at 195 Page Mill Road, she pointed to it last week when asked which vote, if any, she regrets from her five years on the council.

Well-versed in local land-use laws, she is a crafty editor who is known to chisel away at a motion until the words are just right, a tendency that occasionally exhausts her colleagues. Yet whether she is peppering staff with questions or proclaiming, in regards to downtown's growth, that "Rome is burning," it's a fairly safe bet that her votes will tend toward minimizing the impact of change rather than effecting it.

There have been some exceptions. In June 2013, Holman voted with the rest of the council to approve a housing development on Maybell Avenue, which included 12 single-family homes and 60 apartments for low-income seniors. Though city residents later overturned the development by defeating Measure D, Holman believes now as she did then that it was a good project.

She doesn't take this position often, having voted against every other planned-community zone proposal that has recently come in front of the council. About 101 Lytton Ave., Holman argued that the intersection of Alma Street and Lytton is not really downtown's gateway and that the zoning exemptions sought by the applicant weren't justifiable.

"They've been through a long process with this, but that doesn't justify what I consider not the right project with not the right public benefits for the neighborhood," Holman said.

She had similar misgivings about another downtown proposal -- John Arrillaga's ill-fated plan to build an office-and-theater complex at 27 University Ave. Like her colleagues, she met privately with Arrillaga in 2012 to hear his pitch. Unlike them, she expressed concerns about the process while it was happening. That June, when staff was arranging meetings between consultants and Arrillaga's team, Holman wrote an email in which she said that with the additional meetings she has "even greater concerns about transparency."

"Please help me understand what causes the need for private meetings with City Council members rather than meetings that could be held in public," she wrote in the email to city staff, which the Weekly obtained through a Public Records Act request.

Last month she was one of several council members to offer regrets and apologies about the Arrillaga discussions. She said she wishes she acted upon her concerns.

"I felt I also let the community down and should've been more forceful in my objections," Holman said at the Sept. 9 meeting.

She also said she could have better handled the recent flap over her ties to Realtor Steve Pierce, who owns a property on Arastradero Road. At an April hearing of the Regional Housing Mandate Committee, Holman advocated for having staff explore the concept of creating housing on Arastradero, a proposal also championed by Pierce. Several of her colleagues, including Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Greg Scharff, suggested that she had a possible conflict of interest because of her past financial ties to Pierce. An anonymous complaint was filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, which discarded it as unworthy of investigating.

Holman believes the attack against her was political and points to her status on the council as a colleague who is "not unliked, but unpopular" because of her votes. It took her some time to decide whether she wanted to run for office again and possibly spend another four years in the council minority. It was only after two other residentialists -- Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois -- joined the race that she began to see a glimmer of hope that her minority status might change.

"There is a possibility of having a different council majority and to make the role I can play more impactful and more meaningful," she said.

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

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