The College Terrace Residents Association, one of the most visible and effective neighborhood groups in Palo Alto, is facing a leadership crisis and could disband or change if residents decline to step into leadership roles.
The association for the neighborhood that lies adjacent to Stanford University formed in the 1970s and has long been the driving force on issues as diverse as crime, traffic, parking and construction. It rescued the College Terrace Library from closure by raising funds and petitioning the city, encouraged Stanford University to keep Kite Hill as open space when building the Peter Coutts housing development, instituted a traffic-calming program that spread throughout the city and initiated a residential-parking permit program that has become a model for other neighborhoods, to name a few accomplishments. Most recently, members met with Palo Alto police and Stanford officials to encourage additional security measures after a series of burglaries at the adjacent Stanford Research Park.
But board members, some of whom have been at the helm for years, say that it's time for others to take over their watchdog efforts. Last month they held a community meeting to discuss CTRA's future.
"Maybe the organization has to be modified. To disband it would be to the detriment of the neighborhood. We need people to take care of us because we don't have any advocates," a resident said.
"I personally appreciate CTRA," Erika Enos added. "We do not have trucks driving up and down our streets (during Stanford's ongoing 180-unit Mayfield housing construction). CTRA has done a lot about that."
College Terrace's dilemma is shared by many other neighborhood associations. The same people stay in positions of leadership because no one else seems willing to do the work. They're tired, but they can't see walking away and leaving their neighborhoods without a voice against over-development and other issues, they have said.
Now, more than ever, the corridor of neighborhoods adjacent to El Camino Real is under increasing traffic and development pressures, as the city struggles to right a jobs/housing imbalance and faces mandates from the Association of Bay Area Governments to plan for thousands of additional homes, leaders and residents said.
In addition to acting as a watchdog, the neighborhood group has played a social role, convening picnics and other gatherings.
But some College Terrace residents don't believe that the association is necessary.
"The time has changed," said a resident who wants to remain anonymous. "Things like Yahoo Groups and (the website) Nextdoor have taken its place. Nextdoor doesn't require management."
Others are suggesting a more pared-down organization. In the old days, residents galvanized around particular issues as they came up, but then momentum faded away when the pressures receded, they said. The neighborhood came together in 1999 to develop a parking-permit program that took eight years to get in place. In 2001, residents formalized the association for the first time with bylaws.
Current President Brent Barker said there is a need for a small cluster of people to remain on the board to inform the community when things come up. But the responsibility for acting on those issues could fall more to residents, who would be alerted to the issues through social media and asked to join a group that would address the problem.
Stewart Carl credited CTRA with helping him galvanize residents to form the group Sky Posse, which advocates against airplane noise.
"I found it (CTRA) to be a very responsive organization. It all started with CTRA when Brent invited me to a board meeting to discuss the problem. The board can serve as a catalyst. That's one of the most important functions it has. CTRA is the envy of other neighborhoods," he said.
Enos agreed that residents might not see the value in joining a larger organization but would galvanize around particular issues. Normal self-interest is also a factor in people's lack of participation, she added.
"It all goes back to the myopia. You'll do it for you, you'll do it for your kids, but you won't do it for others," she said.
At the board's Jan. 21 meeting, members discussed the value of social-media sites like Nextdoor to boosting participation in neighborhood associations, and how to engage folks through social media.
"On Nextdoor, I'm getting 12 responses in an hour," event coordinator Ingrid Shu said.
"What were you asking for?" Margit Aramburu, Stanford Research Park observer, said.
"A recommendation for someone to repair the heater," Shu said.
"But if you ask for someone to be a party coordinator volunteer, you get crickets chirping," Aramburu said.