Days after Palo Alto voters elected three slow-growth proponents to the new City Council, the existing council took a step in the opposite direction and appointed two high-tech professionals with a passion for urban revitalization to the city's influential Planning and Transportation Commission.
In a convoluted process featuring a sequence of votes and a procedural gaffe, the council on Monday appointed Kate Downing, an intellectual-property attorney affiliated with the group Palo Alto Forward; and Nextdoor employee Adrian Fine to fill two seats on the planning commission. In doing so, the council opted not to reappoint Arthur Keller, a number-crunching commissioner who has long distinguished himself as one of the commission's staunchest skeptics and persistent critics of new developments.
Keller, who has served on the commission since 2006, on Monday followed in the footsteps of Susan Feinberg, a commissioner who was also popular with the "residentialists" and whom the council also chose not to reappoint in 2012. The council had replaced her with Michael Alcheck, a real estate attorney who has routinely spoken out in favor of tall building and density.
Like Feinberg, Keller routinely challenged developer's assumptions about traffic impacts and wasn't shy about voting against development applications. But on Monday, he found himself on the losing side of the vote when all three lame-duck council members voted not to grant him another term. Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who fell short last week in her quest for a second term, joined Councilman Larry Klein and Councilwoman Gail Price in supporting Downing and Fine. The two will fill the seats previously held by Keller and Carl King, who opted not to run.
Marc Berman and Greg Scharff joined the three departing council members in each vote, as did Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, though her votes were later discarded because of a procedural violation.
In appointing Downing and Fine to the commission, the council opted for new blood over established veterans. Asher Waldfogel, who currently serves on the Utilities Advisory Commission, and Claude Ezran, a former member of the Human Relations Commission, both applied for the job but did not get the five needed votes. Keller, for his part, managed to get support from three council members most closely associated with neighborhood preservation: Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt.
The three residentialists are expected to take a more dominant role on the council next year, when slow-growth proponents Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth join the council. Lydia Kou, who is also affiliated with the slow-growth movement, is currently locked in a tight race for the final opening with Cory Wolbach, who is affiliated with Palo Alto Forward and who was leading by 172 votes as of late Monday.
But if Election Day belonged in large part to the residentialist minority, on Monday night it was the council majority that claimed victory. Downing, who until recently worked for VMWare, has not been shy about challenging the popular notion that the city's commercial districts are overbuilt. In September, she told the council that when she visits California Avenue at 8 p.m., the strip is "dead."
"There's nothing going on at 8 p.m. There's nothing to do. It's not a thriving community," Downing said.
At another meeting, in August, Downing made another case for growth, arguing that a "community filled with nothing but ever-rich millionaires isn't the way to go.
"If we don't allow for growth, Silicon Valley as we know it today will cease to exist," Downing said. "We will have priced out all the young workers in all the new companies."
In her commission interview, Downing said she would like Palo Alto to become a more diverse place, with a greater variety of ages. When asked about whether she supports scrapping the city's existing 50-foot height limit, she said she sees no reason to make any changes at this time and stressed that any change would require great community outreach.
Downing was appointed with six votes, with Kniss phoning in from Hawaii to cast her vote and Klein, Shepherd, Greg Scharff, Price and Berman adding their votes to Kniss'.
Fine, a College Terrace resident with a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania, is a newcomer to Palo Alto's land-use scene. In his application, he noted that even though he's not yet 30, his background in planning is "diverse" and he "thoroughly enjoy(s) this type of work."
He also stated that the commission has "an opportunity to increase visibility into the planning process for the public, developers and other partners."
"The perception of an opaque planning process is driving dissatisfaction and causing the City as a whole to miss out on genuine opportunities," Fine wrote. "Through a mix of streamlined decision-making, information sharing, and meaningful engagement, the commission could turn this perception around. The community needs to understand that planning is a partnership for shared growth."
The council had to vote twice after Shepherd realized that Kniss' vote, taken by phone from Kauai, Hawaii, conflicted with the council's procedures. The council's rules state that "telephonic attendance shall only be permitted in the event of extraordinary events such as a medical, family or similar emergency requiring a council member's absence." The votes had already been cast and tallied when the council realized that Kniss' vote should not be counted and Shepherd encouraged her colleagues to vote again.
While Downing's appointment was never in danger because she had six votes, the procedural mix-up required Fine, who received five, to go through a second round of votes. With Kniss' vote discarded, Scharff threw his support behind Fine, giving him the needed fifth vote. Shepherd, Price and Berman also voted to support Fine.
Keller, for his part, did not go down silently. He thanked the council for allowing him to serve for the past eight years and indicated that he will remain engaged in local issues.
"One positive thing about not being reappointed to the PTC is if I should decide to run for one of your seats, I'll be able to do that with a lot more free time," Keller said.
In addition to appointing the two new planning commissioners, the council also reappointed the four incumbent members Martin Bernstein, Roger Kohler, Michael Makinen and Margaret Wimmer to the Historic Resources Board. The council also appointed Catherine Ballantine and Kyu Young Kim, a member of Palo Alto Forward, to the Architectural Review Board. Just like Fine, Kim won his seat on the architectural board after Kniss' vote was discarded, forcing a second round. Again, the five council members not affiliated with the residentialists voted to support him, giving him a seat on the board.
The three council members who favor more caution on growth, Holman, Schmid and Burt, all voted for Kenneth Huo, an architect who had worked for the city.