Palo Altans generally feel rosy about their hometown, but attitudes tend to sour when the conversation shifts to housing, land use and the quality of new developments.
And things get particularly testy when you mention these subjects to someone in Barron Park or Crescent Park, according to a newly released survey.
The National Citizens Survey, an annual poll conducted by the National Research Center and the International City/County Management Association, asked residents throughout the city a range of questions about Palo Alto, touching on everything from parking and safety to land use and street conditions. Much like its predecessors, the twelfth annual survey showed more than 90 percent of the respondents grading the overall quality of life in Palo Alto as "excellent" or "good" (the two highest rankings). The figure stood at 91 percent, with virtually no variation between the northern and southern parts of the city.
In other bits of good news for the city, 93 percent gave Palo Alto the thumbs up as a "place to raise children" and 86 percent gave it high marks as "a place to work." An overwhelming majority in every section of the city also feels safe at night and has great things to say about the "overall appearance of Palo Alto." People love their neighborhoods (93 percent) and they sort of like their neighbors (64 percent lauded the "neighborliness" of local residents). And in the areas of shopping opportunities, affordable quality health care and availability of preventive health services, the city did well above other benchmark cities and saw an improvement of about 10 percent over its 2013 numbers.
Everything, in short, is peachy, as long as you don't mention development or transportation. Because if you do, things go downhill really fast.
While the survey breaks down responses by neighborhoods, results suggest that land use, planning and zoning remain thorny subjects in just about every part of the city. Only 43 percent of the respondents ranked the city as "excellent" or "good" in this area. The proportion is, however, an improvement over 2013, when the number was 36 percent. Similarly, while only 51 percent of the respondents in 2014 gave the city the top two ratings on "overall quality of new development," this is higher than in 2013, when only 44 percent did so.
Though Barron Park tends to be more critical of the city's land use policies than College Terrace, land-use rage is a citywide issue. In the northern neighborhoods, 46 percent gave the city high marks for land use, while in the southern neighborhoods the figure was 42 percent.
City Auditor Harriet Richardson, whose office coordinates the annual survey, said in a statement the city released more surveys this year than in the past (3,000 compared to 1,200) and received responses from almost 800 people (a 27 percent response rate). Though the survey has been conducted for 12 years, the neighborhood breakdown is a new part of the analysis.
"This year we were able to distribute and tabulate the survey results on a more specific geographic and neighborhood level, providing insights into how different areas of the city view community life," Richardson said in a statement.
In some cases, the differences between how northern and southern Palo Altans view the city are jarring. The former, for instance, tend to think higher of Palo Alto as a place to retire than the latter. In the area that includes Downtown North, University South, Professorville and Old Palo Alto, 75 percent of the respondents gave the city "good" or "excellent" marks for retirement. The figure plummeted to 56 percent in the area around Midtown and St. Claire Gardens and to 44 percent around Ventura, Charleston Meadows and Barron Park. Overall, 68 percent of the respondents in north Palo Alto neighborhoods gave the city the top two marks in this area, compared to 54 percent in the south.
That's not to say that the north doesn't have its own problems. While insufficient parking is a citywide phenomenon, the survey suggests that subject gets sorer in the north, where only 32 percent gave the city high ratings for "ease of public parking," than in the south, where the figure was 42 percent (citywide, the number was 38 percent). Northern responders also were less generous to the city when asked about "ease of travel by car," with only 45 percent giving the city good grades in this category. In the southern neighborhoods, the number was 56 percent.
Transit options also didn't score well, though there was significant variation among different parts of the city. Only 36 percent of the respondents citywide rated "ease of travel by public transportation" in Palo Alto as good or excellent, though the judgment was far harsher in the eastern sections of the city. In the area that includes Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis, only 22 percent gave public transportation high marks. Just south of these neighborhoods, in Midtown, the number was 24 percent. By contrast, 43 percent of the respondents in the area that includes the south Palo Alto neighborhoods of Charleston Gardens, Fairmeadow, Palo Verde and Greenmeadow were satisfied with local public-transportation services, as were 43 percent of the respondents in and around Downtown North, which includes the city's busy transit center. Not surprisingly, when the survey asked about one change that Palo Alto can make that would make residents happy, the top three answers citywide pertained to (in order) transportation, development and housing.
Neighborhoods also offered starkly different opinions about their faith in the Palo Alto government, with the leafy northeastern enclaves near U.S. Highway 101 being a particularly tough crowd. In the area that includes Crescent Park, Community Center, Duveneck/St. Francis, Embarcadero Oaks, Leland Manor and Garland, only 39 percent of the residents said "very" or "somewhat" when asked about the "honesty" of local government. Just 35 percent gave high marks when asked for "overall confidence in Palo Alto government" and 37 percent did so when asked about "overall direction that the city is taking" (though the City Council shouldn't take this too personally; the federal government fared even worse in this part of the city, with only 29 percent of the respondents in this area giving Washington, D.C., positive ratings).
Things look much sunnier in the western neighborhoods of Evergreen Park and College Terrace. In the area that includes these neighborhoods, along with Southgate and Palo Alto Hills, 72 percent gave local government high marks for honesty; 64 percent expressed "overall confidence in city government"; and 61 percent praised the "overall direction the city is taking" (citywide, the percentage is 58 percent, 52 percent and 50 percent, respectively).
When it comes to feeling welcomed by the local government, opinions were also all over the map. Though 54 percent of the respondents citywide gave city government high grades for "welcoming citizen involvement," the proportion who felt that way in the area that includes Barron Park and Green Acres was 38 percent. By contrast, in the section of the city that includes College Terrace and Evergreen Park the share was 71 percent.
In releasing the results, city officials lauded the fact that Palo Alto continued to rank high above other jurisdiction in the broad categories pertaining to neighborhoods and the overall quality of life. City Manager James Keene said in a statement that the Palo Alto community "continues to rate Palo Alto as a top place to live, work and raise a family."
"We experience and enjoy a high quality of life in Palo Alto, and the survey results reinforce this sentiment across the neighborhoods of our community," Keene said.
In addition to the neighborhood breakdown and the usual broad questions about things like schools and parks, the new survey also asked a few "custom" questions pertaining to controversial housing, transportation and parking. Of the various options presented, respondents chose east of Highway 101 near the Baylands as the best option for new multi-family housing, with 69 percent favoring it, followed by San Antonio Avenue (68 percent).
The survey also showed 93 percent supporting more bicycle/pedestrian improvements and 84 percent supporting more shuttle services. Road widening and grade separation along the rail corridor also proved popular, with 75 percent and 74 percent support, respectively.