Palo Alto set to appoint a slew of commissioners

City prepares to name new members to boards dealing with development, architecture

With the new City Council preparing to take the helm in Palo Alto come January, the existing one will have a chance Monday to leave a lasting imprint on the city's future when it appoints new members to all three boards that review new developments.

Commission appointments, which are generally a humdrum affair, have special significance this year, with residents' anxieties about growth on the rise and all three commissions experiencing turnover at the same time thanks to the council's recent decision to bring the terms into alignment. On Monday, the council will make two appointments to the Planning and Transportation Commission, two to the Architectural Review Board and four to the Historic Resources Board.

The historic board is unlikely to see much turnover, with four incumbents -- Martin Bernstein, Roger Kohler, Michael Makinen and Margaret Wimmer -- dominating the five-member field, along with architect Iqbal Serang. But things could get more interesting on the planning commission, where just one incumbent is looking for re-appointment. Carl King is not seeking a second term, and Vice Chair Arthur Keller, a wonky and deeply skeptical number-cruncher who is known for questioning planners' assumptions and finding flaws in developers' proposals, barely survived his re-appointment the last time around, squeaking by with a 5-4 vote in 2010. Keller joined the commission in 2006 and is by far its longest serving member.

On Monday, he will be one of eight residents seeking a seat on the planning commission, which is responsible for issuing recommendations on new developments, parking programs and traffic initiatives. The field also includes Asher Waldfogel, a tech entrepreneur who has been serving on the city's Utilities Advisory Commission for the past six years; Claude Ezran, a former member of the Human Relations Commission; Kate Downing, an attorney who until recently worked at VMWare and is affiliated with Palo Alto Forward, a nascent citizens group advocating for more housing and transportation options; and James Schmidt, former president of Friends of the Library and member of the 2010 citizen commission that analyzed the city's infrastructure needs.

Downing has been a passionate speaker at recent meetings on the topic of development, telling the council at an August meeting that if we "don't allow for growth, Silicon Valley as we know it today will cease to exist."

Downing told the commission during her interview that she has been busy in recent months meeting community residents and talking about their visions for the city's future. At times they have been surprising. She cited a recent meeting in which several residents in their mid-50s complained about the fact that there's not enough live music in Palo Alto.

"So much of our conversation lately has been problem-focused," Downing said. "We have traffic issues, parking issues. But some of this is opportunities: Here is something we can do for our culture, our city, our community. Something that can bring people together."

Also on the list are Lyn Tillery, a health care worker who noted in her interview that she has no problem with taller buildings and denser construction downtown; Adrian Fine, a Nextdoor employee and College Terrace resident with a master's degree in regional planning; and Jeff Schnebble, an investor at Silver Lake Partners with a doctorate in engineering.

The appointments to the commission come at a time when residents seem to be paying more attention to the bodies. The decision by the council in 2012 to replace the skeptic Susan Fineberg with Michael Alcheck, who is far more lenient on the subjects of building height and density, on the planning commission has been cited by the slow-growth citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning as an example of the council members' "resident-unfriendly" leanings. Tom DuBois, a member of the group who was elected to the City Council this week, concluded his victory speech Tuesday by asking supporters to run for boards and commissions.

The different styles of the candidates were on full display during the interview process, with Keller providing large pockets filled with transportation, census and jobs data and peppering his introductory comments with statistics about transit ridership. He cited his "powerful combination of decision-making based on data and creative problem-solving" and reiterated his often-made argument that placing jobs near transit encourages transit use much more effectively than housing near transit.

Waldfogel also touted his data-analysis skills, which he's exemplified at meetings of the city's utility commission (Councilman Greg Scharff called Waldfogel during the interview "the most data-driven member" on the commission). He also shared the commonly voiced frustration about the less-than-stellar quality of new buildings.

"I don't really have style biases. I have quality biases," Waldfogel said in response to a question from Vice Mayor Liz Kniss. "We get projects that are less good than we deserve."

Fairly or not, some of the blame for this trend has fallen on the Architectural Review Board, which is saying farewell to two veterans. Past Chair Clare Malone Prichard and current Chair Lee Lippert are both concluding their terms this year and not seeking re-appointment.

The board has been at times embattled in recent years, with many critics accusing it of being too lenient about approving design exceptions and supporting boxy, modernist designs. On Oct. 20, as the council was interviewing candidates for the board, Lippert noted in his public comments that in recent months the "thanks have been coming fewer and fewer" from the council. He called the council's decision on new board members "probably one of the most important appointments you'll be making."

Vying for the two open seats are eight candidates, only one of whom has a name familiar to observers of local politics. Mark Weiss, who has just concluded his third run for the City Council (he finished ninth in a 12-candidate field), is seeking a seat. Also running are Catherine Ballantyne, principal at the firm Ecological Design and member of a leadership committee charged with facilitating public outreach on the city's Comprehensive Plan update; architect Matthew Harris, who wrote in his application that the board should promote a "fairly liberal environment for architectural expression"; Qiming Huang, whose background is in computer science and built several houses in Palo Alto; Kenneth Huo, an architect who has worked for the city; Kyu Young Kim, a member of Palo Alto Forward who wants to bring in "a younger point of view" to the board; Flore Schmidt, an architect who recently arrived to the city from France; and Richard Schoelerman, a Realtor and architect who told the council he'd like to navigate "the middle ground between the concerns of residents and property owners who want to develop their properties."

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9 people like this
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 7, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Let's hope that the Transportation czars named by the old City Council start telling Mr. Rodriquez that frustrated drivers are impatiently awaiting some action on the Embarcadero traffic light mess which is nearing 10 years.

As Diana Diamond pointed out in her recent column, he seems obsessed with bikes and deaf to the issue of traffic and gridlock.

While naming someone from Palo Alto Forward by the current council seems to fly in the face of the election results, let hope that we finally see execution rather than costly studies.

4 people like this
Posted by Baron Park resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 7, 2014 at 3:56 pm

How can citizens prevent the out going council members with staffing these important commissioner positions with pro-development people?

Is there a recall process for these appointed positions?

3 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Aren't you jumping the gun, BP resident. You do not know who will be appointed? Who on the list of potential appointments do you object to? How do you know they are pro development ( and remember that none of the new members are anti development). This practice has been in effect for years, so nothing new happening. Since these are appointed posts, I am not sure they can be recalled.

4 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 7, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Current and past Councils have created problems on the PTC (Planning and Transportation Commission) not just on who they appoint, but who they dissuade from applying.

We have had Councils that repeatedly ignored the PTC, not just disagreed with them. In multiple circumstances, it was very clear that a significant portion of the Council, possibly a majority, hadn't bothered to read the PTC report. Current Council members Pat Burt and Karen Holman went through this when they were on the PTC. So you get a fair number of potential good candidates for the PTC deciding "Why bother?" -- why put in the extensive work required if it is only going to be ignored.

Councils have also made it clear that having relevant experience and expertise is not only no advantage, but often a disadvantage. Witness the choice mentioned in the article between Susan Fineberg and Michael Alcheck.
Or consider Doria Summa of College Terrace who has applied three times and been rejected. She has extensive experience with PC zoning, Residential Preferred Parking Permit programs, Cal Ave development, ... Apparently Council thought it best not to have that experience on the PTC.

As the article indicates, it is likely going to take quite some time to get things back on track.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 7, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Actually I am better known as a concert promoter -- on the cover of PAW for Earthwise Productions - -than for politics: I've received roughly 9,000 votes for Council compared to 10,000 tickets sold for 150 shows at 300 cap Cubberley Community Center, 1994-2001. But go ahead and call me "three time loser" if that's your angle.

I co-published my ARB ap on my blog, Plastic Alto, along with more than 100 other posts about policy, all since pulling papers on the second to last day of filing period, after not being impressed with those who announced -- totally Cory Wolbach, who I am rooting for still but did not vote for, pulled the day after I did.

My argument is that architects are over-represented on the board and log-roll more than work for We The People. I am claiming to be a non-architect design person -- I design site specific cultural experiences -- which is actually a stated composition element of ARB. I say any more than 2 of 5 as actual architects at this point, with this poisoned well of Democracy - and despite your coverage of the so-called shift -- will perpetuate our very real problems with development and brick-culture.

[Portion removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 7, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Do you mean to say that although we voted for change the present Council can block that and perpetuate their agenda?
Can't the new majority fire the ****ING planners who created this mess?
Though the votes show that the present Council was out of touch with the citizens,what does it take to finally actuate the will of the people?
Do we long-term Palo Altans have to "tenir les barricades?" Do we have to physically block bad taste in building and exceptions that seem as though they were a product of collusion or delusion?
Example: When huge numbers of workers commute into Palo Alto and want to park near work, how can you convince them to spend another half hour to park their car and TAKE A BUS TO WORK? How do you expect a forty or fifty year old project manager to bicycle to work from Mountain View or Menlo Park or ...
Livermore where housing is somewhat cheaper?
Can't anyone see that the bicycle emphasis a delusion? Even though I'm liberal I can see that it's simply a attempt to legislate our behavior. In a free society it's no fair to legislate behavior.
That's what seems to have been going on with the Council, and that's what we voted to change!

4 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2014 at 5:48 pm

"Do you mean to say that although we voted for change the present Council can block that and perpetuate their agenda?"
What is the present council blocking? Are they doing anything illegal. Which commission candidates do you object to? Greg Scharf was re-elected. I thought he was part of the " problems"

8 people like this
Posted by Shake it UP
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2014 at 5:57 pm

There needs to be a massive shake-up in the Planning Commission, the ARC, Transportation, and the choice of architects used.

None of these departments listen to their public; they all have their own, hidden, personal agendas they feel must be fulfilled by foisting them on he residents. It should be a crime.

BTW, the latest Ken Hayes abomination is next door to my veterinarian's office. It is so hideous that I am sorely tempted to change vets so I won't have to park next to the eyesore. Even the construction workers joke about their "ugly project".

2 people like this
Posted by How about regular residents
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 7, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Doria Summa would make a great Commissioner!!! She understands the zoning laws and has stood up to the City Staff and Developers who have set aside zoning to get their pet projects (profits) through. The votes are in, why would the outgoing Councilmembers have their say in the next Commissioners. The whole process should be revamped and more reflect what residents want. Also, any PC if approved by PTC should have to be voted on by the electorate.
10 years or so ago, these seats were not in such high demand. It now seems like the Developers and their proxies see how the process works......and have gotten majorities on these Commissions. I'm tired of all these professionals getting placed on these Boards, then to find out they have a BIG $$$ personal stake in the decisions they make. That is why Doria would make a good Planning Commissioner. She has no conflict of interest..... not beholden to Developers, Architectural Firms, Real Estate Businesses . Perhaps the City Attorney should have some kind of form for potential candidates to sign confirming no conflict of interest, or a resignation clause for Commissioners who are blatantly making money off their votes.

1 person likes this
Posted by The Shadow Knows.....
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2014 at 10:48 am

In politics - and political appointments - the old cliche' still applies"

"It's not what you know, it's who you know...."!

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2014 at 5:09 pm

I think Doria should be on PATC, she has gotten several votes in her previous applications, and besides her Trostskyite participation in Self-Serving Politburo in Sensational Self-Service or what-not has an impeccable though mostly behind the scenes record here in public service.

She worked on the Schmid campaign in 2012, for instance.

Any real change would have to include independent fourth estate.

1 person likes this
Posted by question
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 8, 2014 at 7:06 pm

How much power does the Planning Commission actually have? I'd be appalled if such individuals with no expertise in city planning (some with a clear political agenda) are given any real power over the future of development in Palo Alto.

1 person likes this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "question"
The Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) is widely called the second most powerful body in the City government.

It has the time to focus on development issues and is tasked to shaping the options and debate before it goes to Council. They have considerable influence over what goes into the recommendations that go to Council. If they choose to ignore certain alternatives and viewpoints, residents are stuck trying to make their case in 2 or 3 minutes oral presentation.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was common for people to be appointed to the PTC who had not even bothered to *watch* a single meeting -- their swearing in was the first meeting they attended. A variety of neighborhood leaders started making a stink about this, so applicants were told to attend one meeting before filing.

In the 6 months after new appointments, it is painful to watch PTC meetings because the newbies are stumbling over basic terminology and confused by basic concepts. But as "The Shadow Knows..." said above ...

Like this comment
Posted by JM
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Depending on who is on the Planning and Transportation Commission makes a huge difference in how and how fast Palo Alto is developed. On this list of PT&C applicants I believe there are more who represent the group Palo Alto Forward, or share their goals, than this article tells us.

From Palo Alto Forward's home page:

"We have one year to shape Palo Alto's new Comprehensive Plan, which will set housing and transportation policy until 2030. We invite you to join us as we engage with City Council members and city staff to champion better options for housing and transportation. We need your help to make this vision a reality!"

Although this mostly young, very active and energetic group, believes building dense apartment and condo developments is the answer, to their housing problems, but they underestimate the attraction for families even the smallest units are, and how this affects school enrollment.

When my kids were in school I knew a San Mateo family with five children to educate, who figured it was cheaper to buy a small condo in Palo Alto (later resold) than send their children to private school. They camped out in Palo Alto during the week, depending on after school activities etc,, and were never caught. The school district does attempt to locate these abuses, but don't have the staff to check out every family enrolling their child or children.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm

The idea of having radical organizations like "Palo Alto Forward" in control of key decision making entities, like the PT&C is truly frightening. Given that the Comprehensive Plan is not openly voted upon by the voters, and the residents, in general, have very little say in the process--those of us who don't want to see Palo Alto Manhattanized need to think about a Charter change that would allow the voters to force the Council to terminate a given set of Commissioners, and repanel the Commission with new faces.

Too much power is in the hands of too few people who are not accountable to the residents, the taxpayers and the property owners.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 10, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Joe, I couldn't agree more.

And until our Transportation Director Mr. Rodriquez admits that gridlock and traffic are at least as important as bike safety, we need to keep up the pressure.

Like this comment
Posted by So....?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 10, 2014 at 10:47 pm

So where is the story telling us who was appointed?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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