Few local residents had heard of Palo Alto Forward before Sept. 30, when Cory Wolbach declared at a City Council candidates' forum that he was a member.
At the time, the group's website had been up for about three weeks, and its core membership included a few downtown residents and high-tech workers, mostly from Big Data analysis firm Palantir. Its activities were limited to meet-ups at Scotty's Bar on Emerson Street or a chat at someone's house. Most of its members didn't spend much time at City Hall or pondering the city's vision for the future.
Unlike Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a citizens group formed in 2013, Palo Alto Forward was not endorsing candidates or lobbying for (or against) particular projects. Its main goals were broad and vague: better housing and transportation options. In his shoutout, Wolbach praised the group as one that "represents an interesting diversity of views on transportation housing" and that is "very open to new ideas."
By November, the nascent group had the city's full attention, even though many residents remained unsure about what exactly it stood for. Kate Downing, a co-founder of Palo Alto Forward, was appointed by the council to the influential Planning and Transportation Commission, which also includes Forward co-founder Eric Rosenblum. Two other Forward members, Adrian Fine and Kyu Kim, also won appointments to the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board, respectively. By month's end, Wolbach had edged out Lydia Kou, a candidate affiliated with Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, by 135 votes to win the fifth open seat on the council.
The group's "membership" (admittedly a loose concept) soared past the 1,000-person mark, with hundreds of people opting into the group's email list. Its steering committee has come to include prominent civic activists, including Human Relations Commission member Mehdie Alhassani, regional economist Steve Levy and environmentalist Sandra Slater.
Despite the group's sudden rise, confusion abounds about what exactly the group stands for. One local newspaper that doesn't have a website routinely characterizes Palo Alto Forward as a group that advocates for high-density buildings. Skeptical bloggers on Town Square, the Weekly's online forum, have derided Palo Alto Forward as a radical group that looks to "fill every available space with high-density development" and is bent on turning Palo Alto into gasp! Manhattan.
Two of the group's founders, Elaine Uang and Rosenblum, reject these characterizations and stress that the main goal of Palo Alto Forward is to bring people in to talk about transportation and housing. Rosenblum, an Ohio native who recently joined Palantir, said in a recent interview that the group's tagline is "Better solutions for housing and transportation" and that its members bring a wide range of perspectives about what exactly that means. Though there are plenty of young tech workers in the new group, its roster also includes long-time civic activists and environmentalists. These include Phyllis Cassel, who has served on the city's planning commission between 1993 and 2006; and Victoria Thorpe, a board member at Partners in Education, a local nonprofit that raises money for Palo Alto schools. Group leaders emphasize that the positions members take on the issue of growth vary as widely as their backgrounds and experiences.
"We're not advocating for accelerated growth," Uang said. "What we want to have is a meaningful conversation around how to do things in a proactive fashion."
Uang and Rosenblum officially launched the Palo Alto Forward website on Sept. 5, though the stage for the organization's debut had been set a month prior. At an Aug. 4 meeting focused on the Comprehensive Plan, the City Council received an unexpected visit from dozens of residents who, in council's parlance, were "not your usual suspects." These were men and women in their 20s and 30s. Some wore T-shirts, many emblazoned with the Palantir logo. Most had not appeared at prior council meetings, though that didn't stop them from addressing the council with the urbane confidence of experienced council speakers. Their message, like their outfits, was fairly uniform: Palo Alto needs more housing.
One Palantir employee, Bob McGrew, called the city's 50-foot height limit a "relic of a different time" and urged the council not to price people out of the city.
"Let's have one or two more tall buildings downtown, but let's have them be tasteful and have them dedicated to housing, which is what Palo Alto desperately needs," McGrew said.
Nick Fohs, another employee of the tech company, asked the council to consider some of the "more growth-minded" proposals when it goes forward with the Environmental Impact Report for the new Comprehensive Plan.
"We are currently going through a very, very severe drought," Fohs said. "Not only in water but also housing supply."
If Palo Alto doesn't add more housing, McGrew said, people will end up moving to neighboring communities and driving to Palo Alto, adding to the traffic problems. Alhassani, the commissioner for human relations, agreed, saying, "If you plan and build correctly, you can reduce traffic by building more housing in transit areas.
"With prices being so high, it takes a lot of customers to make a profit. I think expanding the customer base downtown would be good for University Avenue," Alhassani said.
Among the most passionate and eloquent speakers at the meeting was Downing, an attorney who at the time was working for tech company VMWare. Striking a stridently anti-NIMBY note, Downing posited that a "community filled with nothing but very 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."
Several of those workers at the meeting said they couldn't afford downtown Palo Alto but instead live on downtown's periphery or in a neighboring community. One young person finished his comments with a plea for more development.
The presence of young speakers advocating for growth was an unusual and largely welcome development for council members who have long been calling for more residents to get engaged in the public discourse. The city's effort to encourage public participation has been a story of high hopes and mild disappointments. In 2008, the council designated "civic engagement" as one of its top priorities, a term that morphed into "civic engagement for the common good" in 2009 before fading from the list in 2010. Though no longer an official priority, the council still routinely talks about the need to get the younger contingent involved in the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan, with Councilman Larry Klein usually leading the charge.
"I really want to see new people participate," Klein reiterated during a May 5 meeting. "People who can reach out to areas of our community who don't come down to City Hall."
Since 2013, the level of public participation has soared, though this has had more to do with the council's land-use decisions than with its outreach efforts. The decision by the council in June 2013 to approve a housing development on Maybell Avenue angered hundreds of residents and led to the establishment of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. In November 2013, the group marked its influence by overturning the council's June decision through a successful referendum.
Given the recent developments, council members were delighted with the turnout Aug. 5. Here were people who fell into at least one and in many cases two of the three under-represented categories (renters, young people and Asian residents, whose population has gone up by 73 percent between 2000 and 2010). They were there not to complain about new developments or accuse the council of being tone deaf and non-transparent. And they came voluntarily to express their views on the city's future.
Two days after the young speakers made their case, Klein said he "very much welcomed" the participation of people under 40 and stressed the need to reach out to other voices in the community that the council hadn't been hearing from. Councilman Marc Berman cited the comments of the priced-out techies and bemoaned the fact that so many people have to commute from afar because of inadequate housing.
The council's appetite for younger people getting engaged spilled over to last month's commission appointments, a triumphant night for not-your-usual-suspects. Fine, an employee of the social-media site Nextdoor, introduced himself during the interview for the Planning and Transportation Commission as a "young citizen ... just starting out on my career and life here."
Fine, whose involvement in Palo Alto Forward is limited to being on the group's email list, beat out eight-year veteran Arthur Keller, Utilities Advisory Commissioner Asher Waldfogel and former Human Relations Commissioner Claude Ezran for his seat.
Kim emphasized during his interview for the Architectural Review Board that he would bring a "younger point of view." Being more youthful, he told the council, he is into traveling and "observing many different kinds of architecture and buildings across the Internet." He also noted that he has completed school more recently than some of the older applicants, which may help.
"There are many things we learn in school that are very applicable to duties in serving on the Architectural Review Board," Kim said.
Mayor Nancy Shepherd observed that he is of her daughter's generation and called such a point of view "valuable." Karen Holman, who was one of three council members to support Kenneth Huo, an architect who has worked for the city, was more skeptical.
"If good design is ageless and good buildings stand the test of time, what difference does it make what age you are?" Holman asked. "I'm trying to figure out what you're going to bring in a design sense to the city."
Kim responded that different generations have different opinions about what "ageless" means.
"I think, being of the younger generation, any new buildings that are built with younger generation's input, those are the buildings that are going to last," Kim said.
Many of the speakers who advocated for more development at the Aug. 4 meeting were listed on the Palo Alto Forward website in its early weeks of existence (the membership list has since been taken down from the website, for reasons having to do with "website functionality," Rosenblum said). Given that fact, it's easy to see why many Palo Altans view the organization as pro-development. Its founding members argue this is not exactly accurate.
As Palo Alto Forward has become better known, the tent has widened to welcome a wider array of views, Rosenblum said. He noted that many people simply "like" the group on Facebook or join it to receive email updates. Some, he said, believe Palo Alto already has all the development it can handle and would like to focus on improving transportation options and better managing the parking problems caused by recent growth.
Downing told the council in her interview for the planning commission that she sees no need to mess with the city's 50-foot height limit, a position not shared by other members of the group. Levy, an economist who joined Palo Alto Forward in September (and a blogger for the Weekly), said he is primarily concerned about retaining housing for local seniors.
Slater, an environmentalist who also sits on the organization's steering committee, has as her top priorities promoting carbon reduction. She grew up in Palo Alto and, after a stint of living elsewhere (including Manhattan), returned in 1988.
"I want to live downtown, close to services and where I can do everything without a car," Slater told the Weekly. "So I came to this effort through the angle of environmental impact of parking and cars."
For Rosenblum, a key issue is economic vitality. The term often pops up in conversations with Palo Alto Forward members (in the same way that members of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning tend to talk about the city's quality of life). Rosenblum grew up in Steubenville, Ohio "a dying steel town," he said and learned the hard way to respect, rather than fear, economic growth.
"When my dad was a kid, it was a 30,000-person town with two steel mills," Rosenblum said. "When I was a kid, it was a 20,000-person town with one steel mill. Now, it's a 13,000-person town with no steel mills."
After college, Rosenblum spent 12 years living in China, where he said he was exposed to unfettered growth and over-exuberant planning. He came back to the Bay Area, and after stints at Google and Drawbridge recently joined Palantir.
Rosenblum said he and his wife decided to settle downtown so that his son, whose vision is impaired, would be able to get around without driving.
Around that time, Rosenblum who said he's immersed himself in Palo Alto's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan began to notice that the conversation around growth and development was getting increasingly toxic. Following last year's successful Maybell referendum, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning put pressure on the council to reform the city's controversial "planned community" zoning (used to allow the Maybell development), which led to a moratorium; rethink its process for updating the Comprehensive Plan; and explore new density restrictions in commercial zones. The group endorsed four council candidates this fall, three of whom were successful. Council members-elect Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth rarely pulled punches when bemoaning the recent growth and criticizing the current council for insufficient transparency and untoward deference to developers. Running under the "residentialist" banner, the candidates vowed to restore the citizens' trust in its leaders and slow down growth.
Rosenblum, who lives downtown, said he was struck by what he considered to be a negative tone of the discussion.
"In my mind, I saw a lot of good in some of the development. I thought, 'Oh great, we'll get a new restaurant here,' or 'There's this dead space, and now I can get from there to Stanford on a bike.'
"And all I saw was a lot of negative discussion about how it's going to cause a lot of traffic and parking issues. I just sent a note into the ether basically asking, 'Am I the only one who sees a different side to this? Because, I feel like I'm really lonely here,'" Rosenblum recalled. "And before you know it, about 14 people wrote back: 'Thank goodness. I thought I was the only one.'"
Rosenblum also received an email from Uang, who also lives downtown and who's been actively engaged in the city's efforts on housing, parking and traffic management. This includes memberships on committees that worked on downtown's just-approved Residential Parking Permit Program; the new Housing Element; and outreach for the Comprehensive Plan update. Rosenblum and Uang met for coffee and began to lay the foundation for a new citizens group.
Uang, who has two daughters, has also been meeting with Slater since summer to discuss urban policies and designs. The two have a shared interest in promoting a pedestrian-friendly downtown and a passion for learning about best practices in urban design.
Slater said she was particularly drawn to the educational component of Palo Alto Forward. She hopes that holding meetings to exchange ideas and hear from leading experts in urban design could help bridge the gap between the two sides in the growth debate.
"I felt the discourse wasn't helpful," Slater said. "I felt it was polarizing. I think most residents in Palo Alto kind of want the same thing. I don't think we're that far apart. We want a delightful safe place to live and work, by and large."
When asked to explain what she means by "delightful," she said, "Something that kind of stops me and gets me out of my head and into something else."
Shortly after the Aug. 4 meeting, Rosenblum reached out to Levy, who lives in a five-story building downtown ("You won't see me quoted as describing a five-story building as 'stack-and-pack,'" Levy said) and who is commonly cited by media sources on topics of housing and job projects. In early September, he attended a Palo Alto Forward event and said he was surprised to find "all these passionate, energetic folks."
"I saw all this energy," Levy said. "I read on the blog that these are just a bunch of techies begging for housing."
Wolbach, like Levy, said he joined Palo Alto Forward after realizing that its stated priorities more housing and transportation options mirror his own. So do its emphases on public engagement and civility, a concept that was the theme of his council campaign.
"A lot of people involved in Palo Alto Forward have never really been involved politically, whether in Palo Alto or anywhere else," Wolbach told the Weekly. "I've always been a fan of getting people involved."
He lauded the fact that more people are now engaged, not just in seeking commission appointments, but on a "more fundamental level of being involved in policy as a citizen paying attention to what's happening in the community and participating in the civic discourse.
"I like the fact that it's a group of open-minded people who are very serious about having in-depth discussion about how we can improve when it comes to transportation and housing issues," he said.
The August meeting in which the Palantir workers made their case to the council was "a big impetus for launching the organization," he said. Coincidentally, it also occurred on the same day that Wolbach declared his intention to run for council.
In recent interviews, Palo Alto Forward's leaders have emphasized that the public isn't as split over the issues of growth to the degree that's been portrayed in the media. Yet it's hard to deny that even if the views of Palo Alto residents fall all over the map, the two groups seem to occupy two distinct continents.
The economic vitality that Palo Alto Forward founders espouse isn't exactly the top priority of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning members, who are more focused on protecting their neighborhoods from dense developments. If the former focus on improving their city, the priority for the latter is protecting their town. Though there are many exceptions, the former skew younger and tend to be clustered in the downtown area while the latter tend to be longtime residents, many from the Barron Park, Green Acres and Midtown neighborhoods.
Even if some overlap exists, the differences are stark. The vision statement of PASZ, for instance, notes that the group advocates for a "moratorium on all major projects (larger than 10,000 square feet) in all zoning districts" until an overarching land-use and transportation plan is completed. It also calls for a "reduction of the maximum development volume in certain zoning districts."
Such policy would probably meet at best a mixed reception from members of Palo Alto Forward. Even Wolbach, who believes that the city's philosophical split is a myth, acknowledged that there is a difference between the two groups.
"I'd say the average median position of who is in Palo Alto Forward is different than in Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning," Wolbach said.
Palo Alto Forward's platform contains plenty of concepts that are seemingly designed for mass appeal: park preservation, better data collection and reducing the demand for parking. Others are slightly more controversial, suggesting that those who associate Palo Alto Forward with growth aren't entirely wrong. The platform includes "add more housing clustered near services and transportation options in Downtown, El Camino and California Avenue" and building "mixed-use buildings that combine housing, retail, and commercial uses." For the thousands of residents who defeated Measure D in 2013 and the slow-growth "residentialists" who affiliate themselves with Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, neither of these is necessarily a good thing.
Clustered housing, for instance, was used to justify the Maybell development (whose proponents, somewhat unconvincingly, cited proximity to services and transportation on El Camino Real as the project's selling point). Mixed-use buildings could be used as an apology for recent developments like 2180 El Camino (College Terrace Centre) or 101 Lytton Ave. (Lytton Gateway) zone-busting developments with outsized commercial components and benefits to the public that critics have decried as insufficient.
The inherent tension between the two groups was in full display during the commission appointments and in the weeks that followed. All three of the council members whose philosophies align with the slow-growth "residentialist" camp Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt voted to reappoint the ultra-skeptical Keller to the planning commission. The rest went for youth and enthusiasm and appointed members affiliated with Palo Alto Forward. This displeased some members of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, who accused the council of ignoring the mandate of the voters who had just elected two slow-growth candidates and emphatically re-elected a slow-growth incumbent.
In a post on Town Square the day after the commission appointments were made, PASZ founder Cheryl Lilienstein spoke for many in her group when she wrote, "I am not surprised that the establishment majority on the council did exactly what they have been accused of: overriding the will of the majority."
Levy and Rosenblum both believe that the differences between the groups are overplayed and can be bridged. In a recent interview, each focused on what the two groups have in common, including the desire to uphold the Comprehensive Plan and to see new housing placed in strategic locations and parking congestion alleviated. Levy stressed that even though he sits on the Palo Alto Forward steering committee, he endorsed DuBois and Holman in the November election two candidates who were endorsed by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning.
Levy also noted that the two PASZ members who won seats on the council in November both stated they are not against growth per se; they just want to focus it at more appropriate locations. Levy said he will take their word for it.
"It's just starting from the positive tone as opposed to the negativity. Because there are lots of problems but why not start with ones that can be solved with agreement?" Levy said.