Land use tops Palo Alto council members' concerns for 2015

New Palo Alto City Council set to adopt official 'priorities' at January retreat

Names and faces will change but Palo Alto's official priorities should remain largely fixed when the new City Council convenes for its first meeting in January, with land-use and transportation leading the way.

According to a survey of current and future council members, the update of the city's Comprehensive Plan and the progress on a wide array of transportation initiatives should dominate the council's agenda in 2015, much like they did this past year. All council members and council members-elect except Councilman Larry Klein (who is termed out this year), Mayor Nancy Shepherd (who concludes her council term this year after failing in a bid for re-election) and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss took the survey, which asked for their top civic concerns.

The submitted lists in many ways reflect the wide spectrum of opinions and styles that current and new council members will bring with them to the dais next year. Councilman Greg Schmid, an economist whose musings on development trends often border on the abstract and academic, submitted a list of priorities that include identifying "big picture" issues that will influence the city over the next 15 years; making sure that "the right data is identified" to foster a public discussion of these issues; and scheduling public meetings that will allow "a robust discussion" of these priorities.

Councilwoman Karen Holman, who last year lobbied to include "healthy city" initiatives on the priorities list, is renewing her request this year. Gail Price, who is concluding her term and who did not seek re-election, also proposed including in the priorities list "collaboration and partnerships to promote a healthy community." Newly elected member Cory Wolbach made a pitch for "social services" as a priority, a term that encompasses new services for the homeless, youth, seniors and disabled community members.

Land use, however, emerged as the common priority on various lists. Councilman-elect Eric Filseth listed two priorities: updating the Comprehensive Plan, the city's official land-use bible; and the land use and transportation items that would be completed before the city finishes this update. Filseth notes in his list that the latter is a "huge topic that touches on a lot of things such as traffic, housing, the future of Cal Ave., etc.; but one root issue is that many recent development projects don't meet standards called for by many residents." The priority, he said, should include adjusting codes to "produce projects and outcomes more in line with residents' wishes."

For Tom DuBois, who like Filseth and Wolbach will be making his council debut in January, land use issues also loom large in 2015. He also includes "new land use and transportation initiatives" as a top priority, by which he means "immediate and short-term changes that will impact the quality of development and traffic," such as an annual cap on commercial development. A second priority for DuBois is the Comprehensive Plan update. The third is "technology and connected city," which includes implementation of a citywide fiber-optics network known as "Fiber to the Premises."

Land use and transportation also top the priority lists of council members Pat Burt, Greg Scharff and Marc Berman. Both Scharff and Berman also suggested leaving the existing priority of "infrastructure" in place for 2015.

Palo Alto's process of setting official priorities has changed in recent years, with members eschewing well-meaning but abstract items such as "civic engagement" and "youth well-being" in favor of more actionable priorities with a limited horizon. While priorities are officially adopted during the council's annual retreat, the city recently changed its practice to allow council members to submit their proposals far in advance of the retreat. In prior years, members would hold long brain-storming sessions and then mark their favored priorities by placing stickers next to them. Those with the most stickers would make it to the list.

Also, whereas in the past the list included as many as five items, the council now tries to limit it to three. The 2014 list includes "comprehensive planning and action on land use and transportation"; "infrastructure strategy and funding"; and "technology and the connected city."

The city defines a priority as "a topic that will receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year."

"The purpose of establishing priorities is to assist the council and staff to better allot and utilize time for discussion and decision-making," a report from City Manager James Keene states.

The city also solicited input from the public and received 112 responses on its Open City Hall forum, with many calling for the council to adopt "airplane noise" and "increasing housing supply" as a priority. Other proposals from the public included "fight crime," "street beautification" and "bathrooms in the park."

The responses prompted Klein to observe during a Tuesday discussion of the topic that "the public hasn't quite gotten the difference between what is a problem and what is a priority." For example, he said, he was "distressed by the number of people who suggested that airplane noise should be a priority."

He also observed that many of the important things that the council deals with every year do not technically qualify as priorities precisely because of their recurring nature.

"It's hard to imagine the budget as a priority because you've got to do a budget every year," Klein said during the meeting of the Policy and Services Committee.

Otherwise, the committee was largely pleased by the heavy overlap among the lists from council members and members-elect. So was Keene.

"I think it's good that priorities are, for the most part, flowing out of the conversation and focus and work that the council is already doing," Keene said. "I'd be disturbed if everything was from Mars or something."

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1 person likes this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm

By the City's definition of a priority - a priority would "receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year."

I would want to see the full context of the discussion, but when Mr. Klein says the "public hasn't quite gotten the difference between what is a problem and what is a priority"

I wonder how else a problem get solved, if not by giving it "particular, unusual, or significant attention."

It may be that the problem the public has identified is not a problem for leadership, but that does not mean it's not a priority for whoever would like to see that particular problem addressed.

2 people like this
Posted by Pegasus
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Quality of life in Palo Alto should be one of the top priorities of our City Council. Quality of life in this town is quickly diminishing.

One of the main problems affecting it is noise, particularly airplane noise. It is an ongoing problem and a big issue for sure. However, City Council needs to tackle it. Palo Alto receives 40% of SFO's inbound traffic. Palo Alto also regularly gets very low flying, extremely noisy inbound SJC traffic, and finally Surf Air flights also impact our town. We have numerous noisy flights transiting our sky until late at night (midnight) and they resume quite early (around 5 AM), without completely stopping in between, as some loud flights are interspersed through the night.

When residents cannot sleep without being woken up by airplane noise, we do have a big problem and solving it should be made into a priority by our City.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Asking people what they think the biggest problem in Palo Alto you will receive a different answer from each one.

I personally don't think the noise problem mentioned above is the biggest problem, although I acknowledge for some it is a big problem, but not necessarily the one that should be the biggest priority.

For anyone who lives or works in Palo Alto, we can't ignore that traffic, parking, doesn't need a lot more emphasis. We need to get those who bring their cars to Palo Alto to park their cars. Not all of them will be able transfer to bikes, or Caltrain, at least not every single day. Our school commutes are a big problem so getting students to their respective schools in ways other than parental cars has to be worked out by providing alternative methods of transportation which can't just be a school issue. Shopping for affordable household items and weekly groceries generally means driving out of town, causing more traffic.

The next item on my priority list would be getting a new elementary, middle and high school because we can't have all this increasing development flood our over capacity schools any more. The present system of not taking any accountability for what housing does to our school district has to change. Saying that they aren't allowed to take this into account is a wrong attitude and if that is the law, then the law is an ass.

Quality of life is what we have to do every day to live our lives. Being stuck in traffic and our children feeling lost in mega sized schools is definitely a negative in our quality of life. Having to drive out of town for affordable household shopping and decent sized full service grocery stores is another.

1 person likes this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2014 at 10:56 pm


The three items you mention seem to have to do with internal planning. Failure to plan for parking, failure to plan for affordable household shopping, and failure to plan for enough schools.

In the case of schools, everyone has been sounding the alarm that big schools are not a good idea, but school size has failed to be a priority for many, until now.

I wonder if the issues that you listed were a priority for some residents a few years ago and they had been taken more seriously, if they could have enjoyed better solutions.

2 people like this
Posted by Pegasus
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Schools are not an issue that the City Council can do much about. Decisions regarding schools, including opening new campuses, rest mostly on the school district, PAUSD, its board and its management.

However, it is true that the City should not allow new housing without very carefully considering its impact on our schools.

1 person likes this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 18, 2014 at 1:21 am

California mandates the following basic issues to be addressed in local general plans:

Land use
Traffic circulation (must correlate with land use element)

Our community has seen a great deal of change, yet Safety, Noise, Open-Space, and Traffic Circulation Elements have been neglected. We even have a separate Business element, not required by the state, yet our Safety Element is rolled into the Natural Environment Element, is too general, and hasn't been updated for the new urban realities. We should have a separate Safety Element. The development of one would rightly focus our attention to Job One for any city, the safety of the residents.

Our housing element has been used by development interests to justify a great deal of development that is decidedly unfriendly to existing low-income residents and the disabled. I would like to see us develop policies of UNIVERSAL DESIGN, so that Palo Alto becomes a place where the opportunities of Silicon Valley are equally accessible to all. Universal design means the disabled are considered equal and we don't just shoehorn them in as an afterthought or segregate them with the excuse of special programs that are "accessible" but not really very realistic. Many of those same principles of universal design are consistent with maintaining a high quality of life for everyone. The standard for new housing in Palo Alto in recent years has been not just inaccessible, but couldn't better shut out the disabled if it had been designed to.

I hope Greg Schmid, Eric Filseth, and supporters will be able to bring a more systems intelligence to our understanding of our town and our problems, so we can say, If we do this here, then that happens over there and that happens in the future. And provide tools that will last through future Councils full of lawyers and others who don't understand things like systems and cumulative impacts.

I also hope the Council will bring us into the 21st century when it comes to civic communication.

2 people like this
Posted by Listener
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 18, 2014 at 5:28 am

Larry Klein's logic that the public has not quite gotten the difference between a (steadily recurring) problem and a priority, with the latter presumably being more urgent, is quite telling. I has to be understood that addressing airplane noise concerns is, in fact, unusually urgent:

Airplane routes (e.g. path, procedures, and altitude) are all being re-set (e.g. the process has already begun, and will continue gradually and continuously in the next few years, with an uncertain time schedule) due to the incremental and highly disorganized introduction of a FUNDAMENTAL and unprecedented change to the system (the introduction of the so-called NextGen system). The system is indeed generational, and Palo Alto will have to live with the decisions that are now being made for decades (the last re-setting of routes occurred about 26 years ago, and the last time this issue rose to a level where a lasting change was actually made was more than 14 years ago).

Further, the gradual re-routing of SFO planes and other planes over our area also has to be treated as an imminent priority, which should not be dealt with simply as a recurring problem. SFO's deceitful step-by-step dumping tactic has worked for them, because politicians like Larry Klein have not quite gotten the difference between a problem that needs to be an urgent priority, and one that doesn't.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 18, 2014 at 9:25 am

The recent passage of the smoking ban is what good government looks like.
A unanimous Council acting in the public interest. It's a breath of fresh air so to speak. In land use control and the physical environment what we have had the last dozen years is the opposite -shockingly bad government. The difference could not be more stark. With this perspective the smoking
ban looks even better and the last dozen years in the City's development
looks even worse. Mr. Klein - the public gets it.

1 person likes this
Posted by Hal
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 22, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Listener's comment is referring to Larry Klein's statement during the Policy and Services Committee meeting on December 16th, 2014 (video starts with Klein's comment):

Web Link

Klein: "I think we're gradually getting there. But I'm a little distressed, frankly, about the number of people who suggested that airplane noise be one of our priorities."

Scharff: "But no council member."

(General laughter).

Klein: "But no council member. Not that there's not been noise but the public still has not quite gotten the difference between--"

Unidentified speakers offscreen: (unintelligible comments, multiple speakers)

Klein: "--what's a problem and what's a priority."

1 person likes this
Posted by Hal
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 22, 2014 at 5:00 pm

I keep trying to figure out why Larry Klein was "distressed" that a significant number of people have answered "airplane noise" to the question:

"What are the three priorities you would like to see the City Council adopt for 2015?" Web Link

"A Council priority is defined as a topic that will receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year." Web Link

Is noise pollution in the city of Palo Alto a topic inherently unworthy of "particular, unusual, and significant attention?" Mr. Klein agrees that airplane noise is a problem, but seems to find it upsetting, even laughable, that "the public" might consider noise abatement important enough to warrant prioritization.

I would welcome explication on this matter from anyone who understands Mr. Klein's comment better than I.

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

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