Palo Alto's priorities: land use, health and infrastructure

Planning initiatives, completion of Comprehensive Plan update to dominate council's attention in 2015

A new year brought a new cast and a new philosophy to the Palo Alto City Council, but the chronically pressing issues of land use and transportation will continue to draw the lion's share of attention at City Hall in 2015 under a strategy that the council adopted at a retreat Saturday.

The two hot-button topics were linked by the council into one priority that after much word-smithing ended up reading: "The built environment: multi-modal transportation, parking and livability." The council's 2015 priority list also includes infrastructure strategy and implementation; healthy city/healthy community; and the completion of the Comprehensive Plan update, with "increased focus from council."

This year's list of priorities has a few key differences from the one that the council adopted in 2014, with "technology and the connected city" dropping completely off and the infrastructure priority getting fresh wording to reflect the city's recent progress in that area.

The council also decided not to hold itself to its recent intention to limit the list to three priorities and agreed to adopt four in 2015.

Held at the newly opened Mitchell Park Community Center, the council's annual event had a decidedly different feel from last year's, which took place in a cold and cramped classroom in Ventura Community Center.

With a new council weighted with a slow-growth majority and a brand-new state-of-the-art meeting room serving as the setting, the council engaged in a long debate about what issues should constitute priorities, a term that connotes "particular, unusual and significant attention" from the council.

Yet one thing remained the same: Land use and transportation topped the list, with the council unanimously adopting the priority of the "built environment."

Vice Mayor Greg Schmid pointed to the recently released National Citizen Survey, which showed residents giving low ratings to city services pertaining to transportation and development and expressing anxiety about new buildings.

"What (the survey) identified is that the three areas of land use, planning and traffic have approval scores half of those of most of the other operating units in the city," Schmid said. "This is an area for key concern and it's been true now for two years in a row. I think this definitely would push for that as a priority."

There was some disagreement over the exact wording of the priority, with Councilman Tom DuBois arguing in favor of replacing "livability" with "land use with a focus on the quality of life for residents." This would mean prioritizing residents over businesses when their interests clash, rather than finding an even balance.

"We just had an election. This was a huge discussion. I was very clear on my position and I really would like to see that being explicit in our priorities," DuBois said.

When his proposal didn't advance, DuBois ultimately voted with the rest of his colleagues to accept the priority with the more abstract concept of "livability."

He and Councilman Eric Filseth also made a case for separating the completion of the updated Comprehensive Plan, the city's official land-use bible, from the other land-use item. The city has been updating the document since 2006 and hopes to wrap up the process by next year.

"I think the focus on the Comprehensive Plan and in particular the need for the council to take a very active role in the process -- I think that's relevant enough that it deserves its own category," Filseth said.

While both priorities relating to land use passed unanimously, other items on the list generated considerable debate and some dissent.

Mayor Karen Holman and Councilwoman Liz Kniss both lobbied hard for the "healthy city" priority, for which Holman has also argued in prior years. This time, the suggestion carried by a 6-3 vote, with Councilmen Filseth, Greg Scharff and Pat Burt dissenting.

"It's about social services; it's about youth programs; it's about a whole bunch of items that deal with mental health as well as physical health," Kniss said.

Councilman Cory Wolbach strongly supported this priority, particularly its inclusion of additional services for seniors, youth and homeless people.

"These are the things the council needs to get its hands on this year, to get the ball rolling and really get up to speed," he said.

The infrastructure priority is in some ways rolled over from 2014, when "infrastructure strategy and funding" was the stated priority. The council hit a key milestone on this front when it adopted a new plan last June that identified the needed infrastructure projects.

Another boost came in November, when voters approved a hotel-tax increase that would help pay for the projects, which include a new police headquarters, downtown parking garages, one revamped fire station and various bike projects.

The new priority, "infrastructure strategy and implementation," aims to both acknowledge the recent progress and publicly declare the council's commitment to staying the course. Councilman Marc Berman, who before joining the council worked on a citizen task force that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs, made the proposal to keep infrastructure atop the council's work list this year. The council unanimously agreed, with Scharff highlighting the city's recent struggles to build the new police headquarters.

"I think it's been 20 years in the community at least that we've been talking about the public-safety building," Scharff said. "For whatever reason, at the last minute it always falls apart. The challenge for us is: Let's not let it fall apart this time. Let's actually get it done."

The council voted 7-2, with Schmid and DuBois dissenting, to support the infrastructure priority. Though everyone agreed that the topic is critical, DuBois argued that it's been a priority for several years and the time has come "to hand off the ball to staff and administration."

The majority, however, agreed that with the plan in place it's critical for the council to keep the momentum going. Burt said accomplishing the list of projects on the list will be "a momentous achievement, and I think we have to not take our eye off the ball."

By contrast, the city's effort to build a citywide fiber-optic network that would deliver high-speed Internet to every home was deemed on Saturday to have enough momentum on its own, without needing to remain a council priority. The council voted 8-1, with DuBois dissenting, to remove technology from the priority list. The vote came after city Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental presented his plan to expand Wi-Fi at city facilities and to proceed with the ongoing business plan for a potential fiber network.

"I think broadband is really the utility of the 21st century," DuBois said in making a case for keeping fiber-optic network as a priority. "It's about providing access; it's about the competitive nature of Silicon Valley. We're really falling behind in terms of broadband."

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5 people like this
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2015 at 4:28 pm

I have advocated for years that the city needs a revenue strategy. At this time when the coffers are flush it's easy to forget that we had serious cutbacks in staffing services for several years I remain disappointed that council has not attempted to come up with a plan to make sure our revenue is under good stewardship indefinitely

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2015 at 9:39 am

I am delighted to see technology and the connected City as a priority.

In the heart of Silicon Valley we should be awash with technology to help us as we live in Palo Alto. We should be able to find parking (an empty space) and pay for it on a daily/hourly basis, find out if there are road construction on local streets, traffic delays due to accidents or other reasons, the time of the next bus/train/shuttle and if it is on time or where it is in real time, power outages, etc. etc.

Real time technological innovations should be a fact of life here.

10 people like this
Posted by PANative
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 1, 2015 at 10:15 am

I appreciate the new focus on residents and I hope the council continues to engage the community. On a wide variety of issues. I agree with Tom DuBois that livability is not a very clear term. What does it mean and what is the City prepared to do to ensure livabilty fo all residents?

6 people like this
Posted by Ken Horowitz
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm

I am delighted to read that one of the priorities is a "healthy city". The City can begin by working with the PAUSD to ensure that health education is a top priority in their K thru 12 curriculums. Education is key to health and happiness. It must be leaned early in life. Too many of our children are over-stressed!
Also there is a need for more recreational facilities for seniors especially in the Barron Park area. Let's get the closed YMCA facility at 755 Page Mill Road reopened as soon as possible. There have been bids made to operate a new gym there but the landlord is refusing to cooperate. The Council needs to get some answers. I have concerns that this 15,000 square foot space is going to be converted to more offices. The City's Comprehensive Plan needs to address more effectively what are the the components of a "healthy city" and recreational facilities need to be included.

6 people like this
Posted by Jeff Hoel
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Resident -- Actually, this year Council voted NOT to make Technology and the Connected City (TACC) a priority again in 2015. But just before the vote, City Manager Keene said that staff would do the same TACC things whether it was a formal priority or not. Time will tell, I guess.

If you would have preferred that TACC be a formal priority, it would be useful to let Council ( know.

1 person likes this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Feb 1, 2015 at 2:41 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks Liz for your passionate support of healthy cities as a priority.

And to the council for supporting this priority.

17 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2015 at 2:49 pm

This whole " healthy city" thing sounds like more nanny state stuff. We already heard liz claim that her and the council are the " guardians of the public health". Are they planning to tell us how to eat and when to exercise? Enough with this micromanagement.

"There have been bids made to operate a new gym there but the landlord is refusing to cooperate"
Why does the landlord have to cooperate. Isn't that his private property? Can he do with it as pleases or does the council as part of "healthy cities" get to tell him what to do?

Anyway, the year will pass and as always these goals will not be realized. There will be a new mayor and new priorities. That is how it works in Palo Alto.

5 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 1, 2015 at 3:55 pm

When working with clients to set priorities, we focus on creating measurable goals and specific actions so we can ensure we are actually taking concrete steps and determine if those steps are indeed leading to real noticeable progress. Otherwise, all we have are generic feel-good statements.

Let's hope our City Council's commitment to the 2015 priorities is methodical and extends beyond Saturday's retreat.

10 people like this
Posted by Misc.comments
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2015 at 5:53 pm

Councilman Wolbach supported Liz Kniss. Not exactly a surprise, she has been mentoring him. As he has said publicly, it was she who encouraged him to run.

One surprise though, the City Manager didn't dominate the meeting as he took over the installation of the new council a few weeks ago.

9 people like this
Posted by mh
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 2, 2015 at 11:15 am

Disappointed that the more explicit wording, "land use with a focus on the quality of life for residents" Tom Dubois recommended was jettisoned for the generic "livability."

Unfortunately "quality of life for residents" has been a low priority for the city manager which is reflected in his and his staff's recommendations to the council. Clearly he and his staff need clear directions that this is part of their mandate.

9 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 2, 2015 at 11:46 am

Evidently having red light cameras is a top priority which isn't a suprise since back in November the old city council authorized spending $2,000,000 for traffic light software that includes video surveillance.

Curious to know what others think of this as a priority.

Here's the staff report on the project:

Web Link .

Web Link

Palo Alto has a problem with motorists blowing through red lights, according to one elected official who sees red-light cameras as the solution.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss raised the prospect of installing the controversial devices around town at a council priority-setting meeting Saturday at the newly opened Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. She acknowledged that it was probably "about as popular as gum on your shoe."

9 people like this
Posted by Rainer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 2, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

Ah, the good old Palo Alto $100M Central Police Station: on life support, but still making noise.

But there is a movement underfoot nationwide, supported by technology, to get away from Central Police Stations to Mobile Command Centers, integrating Fire and Police Departments on the way, Web Link.

The fast way to start this in Palo Alto is to expand the 8 fire stations to house the police as well. Whenever citizens brought this idea up to the city council in recent year’s meetings, individual councilors found it appropriate to ridicule the speakers. Very embarrassing to watch! On whose payroll are they?

The impending operational fusing of local fire districts shows the way. This makes sense for Palo Alto as well. “The effort to build a central police station has been going on for decades" we hear --- maybe there is a reason for it: it is an idea whose time has passed. Made outdated of all things by this thing Palo Altan: an iPad, Web Link

Emergency magazines have detailed articles on an iPad based systems, here is one from “9-1-1 Magazine” Web Link for Tiburon.

Another interesting case may be the City of Redlands, because of its similar size to Palo Alto Web Link

To boot, Japan, among other countries, has shown the world that the Koban based system leads to much faster reaction times, and better community policing with the patrol officers on foot, bicycle , or bike, but also cars being present in the neighborhood. In an emergency, do you want the police or fire equipment come from a central fire station 30 minutes away, slowed down by rush hour traffic?

Central police stations are mainly used to increase the self-worth of the police chief, who insists on the need? With fewer people in his/her direct view the Chief will do what David Packard and Bill Hewlett prescribed many years ago: walking around.

And here is the space and financial solution for the Palo Alto police stations problem: add a police floor, or two, to the fire stations. No need to commit $100Million all at once, and you can do one at a time as finances allow, or earthquake retrofitting demands.

8 people like this
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Feb 2, 2015 at 4:23 pm

> “When working with clients to set priorities, we focus on creating measurable goals and specific actions so we can ensure we are actually taking concrete steps and determine if those steps are indeed leading to real noticeable progress. Otherwise, all we have are generic feel-good statements.”

AMEN to that! The council and staff prefer generic feel-good statements because they are NOT measureable, thus everyone can claim success. If you want to see the staff’s list of fuzzy goals and objectives, just go to the budget and you’ll see a long string of “actions” like “encourage,“ “enhance,” “improve,” “continue to …”

“Healthy city” is as vague as “youth well-being.” How was that ever measured?

And remember Yoriko Kishimoto’s 10,000 steps challenge in 2007?
Web Link

Speaking of measureable progress, Kishimoto was touting fiber back in 2004:
Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Total Vague
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 2, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Why can't they ever choose clear objectives such as: finish comp plan, fix board walk at baylands, disband planning and transportation committee. The council goals are so vague that they could cover anything they do.

6 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Monroe Park
on Feb 2, 2015 at 6:06 pm

@online name wrote
"Evidently having red light cameras is a top priority which isn't a suprise since back in November the old city council authorized spending $2,000,000 for traffic light software that includes video surveillance."

and according to today's Daily Post, Jaime Rodriguez will be coming back as a consultant until that traffic light software is installed - est. date September.

9 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 2, 2015 at 6:09 pm

This red light camera issue is another attempt by liz to remain relevant by " discovering" problems that need solving. Wasn't there an issue a little while where she claimed that thee was a need to address and she had received e- mails about the problem. When asked for the emails she could not provide them.
Let's see some real data that cars are running traffic lights at a significant pace and not rely on kniss' claims or heresay evidence that she claims to have received. Last time this came up pat Burt was drooling over the opportunity to use red light cameras as a revenue steam for the city ( more money to spend on consultants).

And don't worry totally vague, in another 12 months there will be a new mayor and there will be new vague goals to not accomplish during the year

Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 2, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Why was gigabit fiber deemed "to have enough momentum on its own" when we seem to be no closer to getting gigabit fiber? Not having broadband in our community is just crazy when you can have gigabit fiber in Europe for the equivalent of $40/month. Even Chattanooga Tennessee has better internet connectivity than we do.

Like this comment
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 3, 2015 at 11:52 am

Some might think the response to "long wait times at traffic lights" might be to use the $2,000,000 to fix the wait-time problem, others like Ms. Kniss, not so much according the article cited above.

"Some motorists appear to be running red lights because of long wait times, according to Kniss.

Kniss said she would propose the idea in a memo later this year if it isn't included under the priority."

Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2015 at 4:42 pm

"Some motorists appear to be running red lights because of long wait times, according to Kniss."

I think we need more than kniss' claim before we proceed on the " problem" that kniss has discovered. Too often, we her from about " problems" that are not backed up with any real evidence.

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

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