State of the City: Mayor invokes past to address challenges of the future

Holman cites city's legacy of stewardship, entrepreneurialism in discussing ongoing challenges

Palo Alto should harness its rich legacy as a steward and entrepreneur to strengthen its neighborhoods, support local youth, address the challenges posed by new development and make civic participation more enticing to residents, Mayor Karen Holman proclaimed in her State of the City speech Wednesday night.

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the new Mitchell Park Community Center, Holman touched on the many themes of last November's election, in which City Council candidates favoring slow-growth policies won three of the five open council seats.

Holman, who won the most votes before ascending to the mayor's chair in January, used her new visibility to encourage more transparency, promote citizen involvement and foster greater diversity.

In an address peppered with statistics, philosophical aphorisms and references to Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, William Shakespeare and the Velveteen Rabbit, Holman laid out the council's plan for addressing some of the city's pressing problems: retail preservation, traffic reduction and more support for the city's disadvantaged population.

She cited the examples of C.D. Marx, a former mayor who led the city's push to establish its own utilities system, and Apple's Jobs in making her case for Palo Alto to be a bastion of both stewardship and innovation.

The city, she said, has "an inheritance and an endowment," and it is "incumbent on us to care for it and manage it."

"Whether it's C.D. Marx, or Steve Jobs, whether the visionary or the pragmatist, the scientist or the artist, they are at home here," Holman said.

Both attributes -- stewardship and entrepreneurialism -- will be needed to address the challenges that will dominate the city's attention in the coming year, she said. These include the rapid pace of commercial development and the replacement of beloved retail establishments with offices. As examples, she pointed to recently departed businesses such as Jungle Copy, Zibbibo, Bargain Box and Avenue Florist.

Since 2008, she said, the city has lost 70,514 square feet of retail space. The city has also added 537,144 square feet of office and research-and-development space since that year, she said.

The city has seen retail space converted to offices and "local businesses leave Palo Alto for Los Altos, Redwood City and Menlo Park," Holman said.

"This is for reasons anticipated and never contemplated," she said. "It's the market forces, and markets work much faster than does government, so it's our job to address this as soon as possible."

She also spoke about the city's ongoing efforts to address parking shortages and traffic congestion. The solutions will come in many forms, including incentives to use public transit and encouraging bicycling to local schools.

"Whether it's Caltrain, transportation-demand management programs, Transportation Management Association, expanding of shuttles, bicycle facilities -- it's going to take everything we have and everything we can conceive of to address these problems. They are the price of success," Holman said.

She also returned to her common theme of improving the city's architectural-review process. Residents, she said, don't think about technical things like density or floor-area-ratio when they look at new buildings. The city's buildings, she said are "the most pronounced, the most long lasting outward expression of who we are." Therefore, the city should evaluate the review process with a goal of providing architecture that enriches our daily experience, Holman said.

"It is a more emotional reaction to how they relate to the building and cityscape ... and a reaction to impacts such as traffic and parking," she said.

Holman also used the half-hour speech to strike a personal and often idealistic tone as she recalled the people who inspired her and urged people to become more involved in their government and volunteer to improve the community.

Referencing civil-rights leader King, Holman told the crowd that "ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things."

"Find your place," Holman said. "And you do have a place. We all do. We all can make this a better world. Whether it is standing up to someone bullying another or leading marches, it all matters.

"Act as if the world is watching. Because it is," she said.

Watch the State of the City address here.

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19 people like this
Posted by The-State-Of-Palo-Alto??
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 9:28 pm

Hard to see much of substance in this speech. It’s certainly not a “state of Palo Alto” review, as it is something to fill up 30 minutes of airtime.

It would really be nice to have a mayor actually address the topic “the state of Palo Alto”, or change the name of the speech to: “the Mayor’s annual address to the public”.

Palo Alto has financial issues with the $300M in unfunded pension obligations. Palo Alto has recently asked CalPERs to disinvest in fossil fuels, but has never asked CalPERs to act within the laws, and to rid itself of any actors whose behavior might be illegal. Palo Alto has also never asked CalPERs to rethink the exit costs for a city to leave the fold. These issues are far more important than some ridiculous symbolic request to attack the energy sector that fuels our modern society—which the Council has foolishly done.

The failure of City management where the Mitchell Park Library is concerned should have been a topic for this year’s address. Clearly it didn’t make Holman’s list of important issues.

A review, albeit short, of the finances of the City for the coming year should have been included. Little evidence of that in the Weekly’s review of Holman’s presentation. Additionally, any regional issues, such as Palo Alto's opposition to ABAG would have been appreciated.

All-in-all, it would appear that Palo Alto was shortchanged by this year’s “state of ..” speech.

3 people like this
Posted by a res
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 9:46 pm

"Since 2008, she said, the city has lost 70,514 square feet of office space. The city has also added 537,144 square feet of office and research-and-development space since that year, she said."

Was this a 70, 514 loss in retail space? Or two losses in office space.

5 people like this
Posted by I came
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 18, 2015 at 9:47 pm

Talisman is a super student a cappella group from Stanford who performed wonderfully after the speech. They were the breath of fresh air. Their presence reinforced the importance of Stanford to Palo Alto and the breadth of diversity in our combined communities, both points that were made by Holmann.

8 people like this
Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Feb 18, 2015 at 9:51 pm

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

@a res: Thanks, the 70k referred to retail, not office space. We've corrected the article.

2 people like this
Posted by a res
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Overall sounds like a breath of fresh air and good move to engage Stanford.

5 people like this
Posted by 1983
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 18, 2015 at 10:27 pm

Holman is driving while looking in the rear view mirror.

6 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 5:33 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

There was some aspects of the activities surrounding the speech that could be regarded as telling from various perspectives.

First was a small camera that took pictures of people as they wandered in front of it (with the camera waiting until they got into focus) and then automatically uploading those pictures to the cloud. After the speech the camera(s?) were hung around people's necks to wander through the crowd. This might not be a problem who don't have "over-sharing" in their vocabulary, but for some of us it was a reminder of tech needlessly eating away at privacy (and obliviousness to the widespread public reaction to people with Google Glasses ("glassholes")). This was commented on by various people in attendance.

The second probably went unnoticed by many, and that was the choice of the group "Talisman", or rather a disconnect in their repertoire. That repertoire is primarily anti-apartheid songs, that is, from an era before the performers were born, but treated as if relevant to the current audience (Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994 = 21 years ago and the release of prisoners that one of the songs called for had happened 5 years before that). From how the songs were introduced, it seemed that the performers' interest in that political content (however outdated) trumped the selection of songs much better representing that musical tradition. One of the interesting aspects of Palo Alto is that there are many people like me for whom such details immediately register, and many who cannot comprehend that it does.

3 people like this
Posted by Jill Matzke
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Feb 19, 2015 at 7:42 am

First time listening to one of these, and was surprised at the lack of 'state of the city' observation. Seems like a lost opportunity to really pull folks in and engage on our issues rather than just giving them a name, associated quote from famous person and one snapshot stat.

Singers where really good - I would go to a performance - but that's not what I came to hear.

Next time, let's please hear more about the 2 or 3 most concerning trends and specific calls to action for both our leaders and citizens.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2015 at 8:06 am

Can we have some updates on some real issues in the state of our city.

How are the new shuttle routes?

How are we doing getting some sensible parking solutions in downtown?

Two libraries reopened, and what sort of issues have the patrons raised?

El Camino park and sports field still not open.

Still no affordable, useful shopping.

Still very little family style restaurants with kids menus, and what we have had is becoming less as family favorites close.

Still traffic gridlock on many cross town routes at commute times, traffic is not moving efficiently.

5 people like this
Posted by a res
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2015 at 8:31 am


I got the part about market forces and about getting involved. For every resident that watches in expectation, there are probably 20 office developers with maps.

I like your point about the disappearing kid menus and family style restaurants, there must be something that can be done about that. But don't count on the chamber of commerce or whoever is in charge of that kind of stuff.

The way I see it, it's a colossal disaster after the last few years of zero interest in resident concerns. Getting out of it is hard, and it will be up to residents to step up in one way or another.

What I don't understand about the speech is that more kids bicycling is a strategy for solving traffic when school kids already have the highest average for not using cars. Credit should be given where credit is due, and PAUSD kids do bike to school in large percentages. Also actually motorists complain about the bikers, and biking is becoming unsafe with all the traffic. Is biking down because it's less safe?

Weekly, some numbers about kids biking would be a good story and what is the trend as it relates to safety.

7 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 9:46 am

I don't think the city can/should legislate or force a restaurant to be kid friendly and/or offer kid menus.

I don't know what affordable or useful means. If it means bring in a Walmart...good luck with that. Ross left downtown about 10 years ago...rents and lack of revenue.

7 people like this
Posted by Downtown worker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 10:03 am

"Resident", I'm curious about your worries about the lack of family-friendly restaurants. I have two children, and we eat downtown all the time. (We live in the Willows and I work downtown, so it's a short bike ride or a modest stroller ride downtown.)

Pluto's is healthy food with a traditional children's menu. Mediterranean food is very kid-friendly - you don't need a children's menu for that! My son loves Cafe Taxim's chicken kabobs and rice. And there are many others.

Downtown is a very friendly place for children to eat as long as broaden your definition of what your kids may like!

1 person likes this
Posted by a res
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2015 at 10:35 am

Crescent Park Dad,

Who said legislate?

and Downtown Worker, I love Pluto's but variety would not hurt.

How about looking at things in a new way. Analyze the spending power of residents and their children. Especially, take a look at spending power of teens. Last I looked, it's one of the healthiest markets.

Then ask retailers who they would rather sell to. People who work so much they can barely get a coffee or a yogurt or people with more time to spare. Then, take a look at Town & Country which so far has not yet been overtaken by offices (beware), at the Stanford Shopping Center and take a look at all the people who are there and are not downtown.

For retail to succeed, it needs to be attractive, and your usual type of "transit" type developments planned for downtown (not family friendly) are not attractive to what is factually a good market.

I bet someone would rather have a tiny retail space in T&C then half a block downtown.

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 19, 2015 at 12:37 pm

We have a lot of problems to solve in this town, but variety in children's restaurant offerings is not one of them. Was that in the speech or am I just picking up on an off-topic comment?

5 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm

It was a slightly OT comment...where a poster was complaining about the lack of "family friendly/kid menu" restaurants and that it wasn't addressed in Holman's address.

The city is not responsible for meddling in how a business decides who they'd like to market and sell to - including restaurant offerings. If a restaurant owner thinks he/she can re-create "Taxi's" in DTPA or on Calif. Ave....and make a profit, then they'll do it. But obviously that's not happening for a reason.

1 person likes this
Posted by a res
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Crescent Park Dad

"The city is not responsible for meddling in how a business decides who they'd like to market and sell to - including restaurant offerings."

Oh yes please let's not meddle in how business does their business!

Why would they want to even know what a Palo Alto resident has to suggest. How dare we even think that family friendly and kid friendly businesses could be something any business could consider.

We have such bigger problems. Did I hear 70K square feet of lost retail space?

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 21, 2015 at 10:30 am

The presence of Talisman at this event is not coincidental. They cited Nelson Mandela however Desmond Tutu is the originator of Divestiture as a political tool in South Africa regarding the Apartheid movement. Born in 1931 - South Africa - he won the Nobel Prize in 1984 and is a Bishop in his church. He has continued his social activism in many listed social causes, including the Israeli-Palestine conflict which produced controversial results.
The Divestiture of Fossil Fuels is not noted as one of his concerns, probably because he has ended his public life in 2011.
His information is available on Wikipedia.

Since the PACC voted to divest fossil fuels citing the Apartheid movement then it is probably worth your time to review his activity as a social activist. The strategy of divestiture is being applied to any number of topics of concern.

Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Typical speech. Full of platitudes. No addressing of the real issues facing the city. 1983 is right-- looking through the rear view mirror. Holman is out of touch. What does this statement mean:
" Therefore, the city should evaluate the review process with a goal of providing architecture that enriches our daily experience, Holman said."
Who decides what " enriches our daily experience"?
I only hope the city survives the year of her " stewardship" without too much damage.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 22, 2015 at 10:05 pm

State-of-the Art regarding CALPERS - it is worse than that. Putin is the fossil fuel energy czar who is trying to rebuild his kingdom using fossil fuel as one of the hammers. He is in trouble now. Fossil fuel right now is a very political issue.

The SF Chronicle has a Sunday feature called Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet which recaps all of the highlights of the week - "Fiery fallout" - fires in Ukraine are spreading the contaminated soil as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant breakdown - spreading across Europe. This event happened 30 years ago and the impact still is contaminating through the spreading smoke and wind. Very detailed description which I cannot duplicate here. This does not enhance Putin's position.

If Putin is trying to gain more control of fossil fuels then why is this segment of Americans working to release control of fossil fuels. Must be a lot of Babushkas / grandmothers out there. And why are the church(s) try to be the enforcers / police in this matter.

Why are we harking to heroes of South Africa - we have our human rights heroes here that we honor. The Oscars tonight - movie Selma. Hollywood has it right. Hollywood provides movies of the great biblical events as well as the key historical events of the world. We have our American history, current key events and key historical people.

We need to keep our eye on the world events and attempts to undermine our ability to control our events. We need to keep control of our fossil fuel.

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

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