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."