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."