When 2014 kicked off in Palo Alto, the city was wrestling with a problem most communities would envy: Too many people wanted to be here.
The local economy was in full bloom, with revenues from every tax category surging and downtown's commercial vacancy rates at a historic low. The city's quality of life was ranked as "good" or "excellent" by more than 90 percent of residents who took part in a survey, and its efforts to be the nation's greenest, most bike-friendly and digitally savviest city in all the land were proceeding apace, bringing with them a host of prestigious trophies and laurels. To an outsider, this may have seemed like a funny time for the residents to rise up and shout out, like Howard Beale in "Network," that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take this anymore.
Yet rise up they did. In the defining act of 2013, residents rebuffed elected officials by rejecting Measure D in the November election, effectively shooting down a proposal to build a dense housing development on Maybell Avenue.
The effects of that election didn't just spill over into 2014, they in many ways defined it. If 2013 was the year in which the voters signaled their frustrations with the old way of doing things, 2014 was when a new way began to take shape one that emphasized capping commercial growth, eliminating zoning exemptions and applying more scrutiny to new developments.
The biggest tension point, as in the past, was on the topic of growth and development. Mayor Nancy Shepherd summed it up in February during her "State of the City" speech.
"We are successful, prosperous and constantly changing," Shepherd said. "But, there are those who may perceive this change is fundamentally altering some of the reasons why they chose to live in Palo Alto. While the university or tech-sector jobs may have brought many of us here for a great adventure, it is our neighborhoods, open space, and the quality of our schools that have been at the heart of what defines Palo Alto. And we want to protect and maintain all of these things."
The drive to protect neighborhoods from the problems of growth characterized Palo Alto's political life in 2014 and created a rupture in its political establishment. By the time the year ended, two members of the Measure D opposition were elected to the City Council. Incumbent Councilwoman Karen Holman, whose deep skepticism toward new development has long made her an outlier on the council, received more votes than any other candidate in a 12-person field. Shepherd, who in early 2013 had beat out Holman for the vice mayoral spot and whose re-election campaign included endorsements from a litany of former mayors and civic leaders, was voted out of office. Her main ally on the council, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, no longer seems like a shoo-in to continue the local tradition in which the vice mayor assumes the mayor's chair.
The year was also the swan song for Larry Klein, who in December concluded a council career that included nearly two decades behind the dais (he served for two terms in the 1980s before returning in 2005), three stints as mayor and leading roles in just about every major city effort, from environmental initiatives and opposition to high-speed rail to infrastructure fixes and library projects.
Also leaving is Councilwoman Gail Price, the council leading proponent of urbanization. In November, when the council unanimously adopted its new Housing Element, Price expressed some reluctance when she cast her vote, saying that the city is being "extraordinarily timid" by not including zone changes or other policies that would encourage more housing. Price chose not to seek a second term.
More than anything else, 2014 was a year of transition, with the old political establishment making way for a fresh wave of civically engaged and energized residents.
The 2014 election tipped the City Council balance, ensuring that at least five council members in 2015 will share the slow-growth leanings of the residents group that stopped the Maybell development in 2013, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ). Joining Holman and council members Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, who hold philosophical leanings similar to Holman, will be Councilmen-elect Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, members of PASZ.
Yet by the time the year came to a close, a backlash to the backlash had also begun to emerge. A new citizens group, Palo Alto Forward, formed with the intent of fostering discussion about adding housing options in the city. Several affiliated with the group won seats to local boards and commissions in the waning months of the year, and one, Cory Wolbach, snagged a council seat after a nail-biter conclusion to the election.
Besides the power shift witnessed in the election, 2014 was a year of deep political frustrations. Council members confronted an embarrassing county Grand Jury report and publicly apologized for their secret (and ultimately doomed) negotiations with developer John Arrillaga in 2012 and also were forced to backtrack on their 2013 ban on people living in their vehicles.
Perhaps connected to that, the city's on-again-off-again debate about shrinking the size of the City Council from nine to seven members finally landed on the ballot this year after simmering for decades. Even without much in the way of a campaign for Measure D, voters readily approved the move to a smaller council, with 53.7 percent voting in favor.
The year was also a game-changer in arenas outside of politics. From waste management and parking policies to the city's takeover of its namesake airport and the completion of Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, Palo Alto finally saw some results on efforts that have stymied city officials for years.
The city's infamous "planned community" zoning, which allows developers to exceed zoning requirements in exchange for public benefits (and which for decades has been derided by local land-use critics as "zoning for sale"), was suspended in February and is now being reformed.
After years of talking about fixing up the city's sagging infrastructure, which is estimated to need hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of work, the council in June approved a plan for doing so. In November, a hotel-tax hike to help fund the improvements gained sufficient voter support to pass.
The city's takeover of Palo Alto Airport, an effort launched seven years ago, also came to a conclusion in 2014, when both the council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors signed in August the needed transfer agreement. And stalled negotiations over the city's lease of Cubberley Community Center saw a breakthrough in November after two years of bureaucratic bickering. The city and the school district finally agreed to a five-year lease that will lead to a joint vision for the sprawling, dilapidated south Palo Alto hub and a commitment of public funds toward the needed repairs.
The city's long-simmering dilemma over the of future organic waste also marked a milestone in 2014. After years of acrimony between environmentalists who wanted to keep composting local and conservationists who wanted to protect the Baylands, a hard-won truce emerged on Dec. 8, when the city decided not to pursue a composting facility near Byxbee Park at this time because of high costs. Earlier in the year, both sides in the green-versus-green debate supported the city's decision to move ahead with a plan that would retire its toxic, sludge-burning incinerators in the Baylands and pursue a waste-to-energy facility for processing food waste near the water-treatment plan.
Perhaps no action embodies the game-changing spirit of 2014 more than the council's Dec. 2 vote to establish a Residential Parking Permit Program downtown and to create a framework for similar programs in other areas of town. Designed to provide downtown residents relief from commuters who have long relied on neighborhood streets for free all-day parking, the new program is also seen as the tip of the spear for the myriad parking and traffic initiatives that the city will be launching in the coming months. The council approved the program after years of complaints from residents, nine months of meetings by a stakeholder task force and reluctant buy-in from the business community.
Councilman Marc Berman reflected the view of the entire council when he called the result "a good and necessary step in setting up so many other transportation management issues and programs that we're going to be implementing in this coming year." These include an expanded shuttle program, implementation of technology at local parking garages and a new nonprofit that will work with downtown's employers to shift commuters from cars to public transit or other modes of transportation through a range of incentives.
"I think this is a really, really important night for starting to address the concerns that residents have been expressing to the council for years about decreasing quality of life in the neighborhoods," Berman said.
Normally, there would be nothing newsworthy about a councilman talking about the need to protect residential neighborhoods. But the fact that Berman's comment was backed up by a unanimous vote that was years in the making and that will have a lasting effect on residents, employees and visitors further underscores the year was truly a game-changer for Palo Alto.