News


Off Deadline: Neighborhood power meets the Comprehensive Plan and 'the Common Good'

 

Next Tuesday (July 14) a group of 20 Palo Altans will meet for the first time as the new Citizens' Advisory Committee on the Comprehensive Plan update, a daunting year-long challenge of tenacity and patience.

The group is heavy on people active in neighborhood organizations. Three members will be non-voting, representing the Palo Alto Unified School District, Stanford University and the city Department of Planning and Community Development.

In the background will echo the voices and opinions of the approximately 350 people who attended a "planning summit" May 30, an astoundingly large number for such an event compared with prior turnouts over many years, and more than 1,000 residents who have asked to be notified on Comp Plan-related items.

"We've received a lot of input, and we have a lot going for us," Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said of the launch of the update process, which over the years and under several prior planning directors has been known for lengthy delays and lack of community awareness and involvement.

Gitelman, who will complete her second year as planning director in October, is upbeat, while acknowledging the challenges.

"The existing plan is very good, and the council has made this a priority, so we're poised to make some real progress," she said.

The first advisory group meeting will feature a review of the existing plan (available online at cityofpaloalto.org, search for "Comprehensive Plan."). Enjoy the read.

Interest in the plan has been fueled by last year's City Council election, in which two members were elected on a strong slow-growth/no-growth platform, changing the political makeup of the nine-member council. Their election was based on the earlier rejection by voters of a 60-unit senior-housing project and 12 market-rate homes on Maybell Avenue in south Palo Alto, criticized as too dense and flawed in the approval process.

That "Maybell" election came on the heels of several years of growing concern about an overflow of commuter parking into residential areas in downtown Palo Alto and California Avenue, caused by allowing office projects to have fewer parking spaces than normally required under the zoning.

That concern helped turn a local neighborhood issue in the Maybell area into a citywide sentiment in the council election, creating a kind of "neo-residentialist" faction on the council (see Off Deadline column of Aug. 1, 2014: tinyurl.com/PAW-fastrise).

But there are other echoes that will resonate in the Comp Plan update in the coming year or so.

One is the echo of many years ago, relating to campus growth intruding into neighboring residential areas, of then-new Planning Director Naphtali Knox -- now editor of a statewide planning magazine.

At the time, the city had a General Plan, an outline of where zones should go. But as with many such plans around the state, it was mostly ignored as specific decisions were made based on current circumstances and, yes, negotiations with landowners and developers.

As I discovered when working for a summer for the Merced Sun-Star, many towns up and down the state had such general plans, usually represented by a multi-colored map hung behind the City Council dais. The plans were often the product of what I called "Have Plan Will Travel" teams of consultants. And the plans, as in Palo Alto, were mostly dust-catchers.

On the city's website is a section titled "How the Comprehensive Plan Was Developed." It notes that the city's planning commission was created in 1916, and master plans were prepared "as early as the 1920s."

One thin plan I stumbled across in the late 1960s said that now that Palo Alto had "come of age" it needed a modern civic center. The plan proposed a Spanish-style courtyard configuration resembling a Mexican military fort at University Avenue and Middlefield Road (current site of the Lytton Gardens).

The city adopted its first General Plan in 1963 -- the era of the traveling planning consultants and at the end of a massive 1950s growth period in Palo Alto, when south Palo Alto subdivisions were built and the Stanford Industrial Park (now Research Park) was created.

The plan sat there as growth continued through the 1960s, and the "residentialists" grew in strength as a growth-opposing force, leading to the famous 6-to-7 split on the 13-member council in 1965.

But the history does not include mention of Knox or the revolutionary change he initiated, leading to the creation of the first Comprehensive Plan.

Knox's innovation stemmed from his perception that general plans were written in a broad, high-altitude manner, rather than being based on what local leaders and residents really wanted. So he turned the process upside down and started with more than six months of meetings on identified real-world issues to be decided.

One such issue was a decision that no commercial or high-density housing should be allowed in the city's extensive foothills region, echoing findings of a 1972 "Foothills Environmental Design Study."

Once the major issues were decided, the results were put into a written document by professional planning staff members, resulting in the Comprehensive Plan.

The theory was that if the plan reflected real-world issues it would be followed. It was updated in 1981, revised here and there, with a major update in the early 1990s.

A second echo in this year's update is the concept of "the common good," promoted by the late Ray Bacchetti, a passionately committed community volunteer and educator who died May 10 at age 81 after years of public service on school and community college boards.

He and I once discussed whether it would be possible to get more than three Palo Altans to agree on what such a "common good" would be. Gitelman will be trying hard to achieve that.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

37 people like this
Posted by Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2015 at 10:44 am

Mike-Crescent Park is a registered user.

Our city council ceded selection of the members of this committee to the City Manager. There are already numerous protests from city residents about the skewed makeup and lack of representation for certain geographical areas and/or interests.

There appears to be a large representation of members affiliated with Palo Alto Forward, a pro growth organization dedicated to a future Palo Alto vastly different tan today's or yesterday's.

Finally -there are a number of people who have an understanding of how our city works most of us do not who say it doesn't really matter anyway: the city staff will write the plan they want and it will ultimately prevail- i.e. This committee is all for show.


21 people like this
Posted by Mystified
a resident of University South
on Jul 11, 2015 at 11:04 am

Palo Alto was expensive when I moved here, but it didn't have the highest rents in America. Who now doesn't know a family with a grown child with a professional job living at home, because apartments are impossible to find, much less afford? Palo Alto's housing shortage is clear and present for residents now, not hypothetical like it was two years ago.

It will be interesting to see how the residentialists, who really defined themselves by opposition to affordable housing for seniors, will react now that it's our own children and long-time residents who can't live here. Will housing for residents seem like part of the common good?


18 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2015 at 2:23 pm

@ Mystified: keep telling yourself that story about Maybell. Just ignore the fact that the proposed project was given multiple waivers for exceeding height restrictions, over density for the zoning and significantly under parked.


14 people like this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2015 at 2:38 pm

"There appears to be a large representation of members affiliated with Palo Alto Forward, a pro growth organization dedicated to a future Palo Alto vastly different tan today's or yesterday's."

Palo Alto will be vastly different tomorrow no matter what. Either we develop and improve our infrastructure to accommodate the changes or we stick our heads in the sand and attempt to do nothing. True, which course we take will determine how those great changes come about, but they will happen. I support Palo Alto Forward's agenda, but very strongly disagree with some of the dialogue anomalies surrounding the Comprehensive Plan update.


33 people like this
Posted by Actually...
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 11, 2015 at 2:56 pm

@Mystified,
who really defined themselves by opposition to affordable housing for seniors,

Actually, it was the proponents of that project who defined the opponents that way. As someone who was there from the beginning, it was never a motivation. In fact, many of us thought BV should have been the priority, and luckily, the right things happened -- most of the money returned from Maybell now makes up the bulk of what's available to help at BV now. If the No side hadn't won at Maybell, there's also no way in the world the developer would have pulled out at BV.

in fact, early on, neighbors put together (with a lot of work) contingents of neighbors to meet with each City Councilmember to sell them on working with us so we could all achieve the goals, including the affordable housing, but never got anywhere. The people who wanted to push through that development had other motivations, and found the affordable housing portion a real cudgel to use in the political arena. They never thought in a million years that residents would referend or win if they did.

What is your motivation to keep that nasty narrative going? It seems to me it demonstrates the people in this town supposedly for affordable housing have mostly defined themselves as rigid, ideological, impractical, and preferring ad hominem attacks to leverage what you want rather than working with people who would otherwise be allies. That is in turn very concerning in relationship to the make up of this committee. Up to their old tricks...


24 people like this
Posted by Actually...
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2015 at 3:01 pm

"Palo Alto will be vastly different tomorrow no matter what. Either we develop and improve our infrastructure to accommodate the changes or we stick our heads in the sand and attempt to do nothing."

Or people who want to retain a quality of life in Palo Alto closer to Portola Valley's than San Jose's will realize they have to fight for it in order to win against people spouting such self-serving nonsense.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2015 at 4:16 pm

"@ Mystified: keep telling yourself that story about Maybell. Just ignore the fact that the proposed project was given multiple waivers for exceeding height restrictions, over density for the zoning and significantly under parked."

No sweat. Just amend the Comprehensive Plan so it conforms to the project. It's done routinely for Planned Community spot upzonings.


25 people like this
Posted by Dear PAF
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2015 at 5:22 pm

I wouldn’t be so opposed to new high-density construction if it weren’t so offensively ugly. Alma Plaza, Homewood Suites, that affordable housing prison building on Alma, whatever that grey box thing is by Palo Alto Commons, that proposal for the Marriott on San Antonio. It’s just one architectural tragedy after another.

If we can’t build a 5-story building that doesn’t look like a Soviet tenement project, then I don’t want a 5-story building. Remember, big ugly buildings are a lot harder to ignore than small ugly buildings. Fix that FIRST, then tell us we should build more.


12 people like this
Posted by Freedom?
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 12, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Most of us would object to restrictions imposed on us by government that limit how we make use of our own property. We would find it ridiculous if there was an ordinance that prevented us from painting our homes or cars colors that we choose, even if a given color is "ugly" to a neighbor. That's because it's our property - we should be able to do with it as we see fit.

These residentialists have the audacity to tell others how to use their property, and they threaten to use government to impose their will? That is absurd and offensive. Even if we don't like it, developers should be able to build whatever kinds of buildings that they would like to build. They're not going to build "ugly" buildings, because if they did, no one would rent or buy them. That's the way the market works.

Let's stop trying to control other people's property. That is an infringement on our rights!


8 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 12, 2015 at 4:43 pm

Freedom? --

It seems to me that allowing land owners to build whatever type of development they want is just as extreme as requiring land owners to build exactly the type of development specified by the government.

Like it or not, developments impact the communities on which they sit, effecting schools, infrastructure, etc.

We may disagree on how to achieve it, but there does need to be some kind of balance between individual wants and societal needs.


4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 12, 2015 at 5:21 pm

"Individual wants and societal needs" or "individual needs and societal wants" ??


13 people like this
Posted by (Future) Farmer John Ledbetter
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 12, 2015 at 5:25 pm

"Most of us would object to restrictions imposed on us by government that limit how we make use of our own property... . That's because it's our property - we should be able to do with it as we see fit."

Oh goody! A kindred spirit.

For decades I've wanted to raise boutique pork in my back yard, but my neighbors (NIMBYs all) complain to the government, and it threatens to fine me more than I could make raising and slaughtering those hogs. It seems that everybody preaches localvorism, but nobody wants to face the local supply angle.

Please put an ad in the Weekly when one of your neighbors wants to sell. I'll give you a good neighbor discount on fresh designer bacon.


16 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2015 at 9:36 am

mauricio is a registered user.

There are people who keep posting here with the mantra that Palo Alto's transformation into another San Jose is inevitable, so we should just concede and move on with the program. It's a modern version of 'just close your eyes and think of your country. This is absolutely nonsense. The urbanization of Palo Alto is not inevitable, it's not necessarry and it's not a good thing. It's saying that a preferred lifestyle and quality of life is irrelevant if self serving narcissists don't approve and want in no matter what. If the residents of this town wanted a San Jose lifestyle, they would live in San Jose. Maintaining our chosen quality of life means that Palo Alto should remain much more similar to Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills than San Jose or San Francisco.

Try telling the residents of Florence they should give up their preferred lifestyle and become more like Milan, and see how fast they kick you out of their town.


13 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Jul 13, 2015 at 11:55 am

In case you haven't noticed, Palo Alto never has been and never will be like Portola Valley. Most people who live here don't want it to be anything like Portola Valley.
If somebody loves Portola Valley, he/she should consider moving there for the real thing.
You can probably find a place to live for the same or less as in Palo Alto.


4 people like this
Posted by portala
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 13, 2015 at 12:22 pm

If you wanted Palo Alto to be more like Portola Valley, maybe you shouldn't have allowed so much office development that we now have 3.5 jobs for every housing unit in PA. Like it or not, the people of PA have made PA a jobs center and have been flush with all the money that comes with it. Cat's out of the bag. We're not a quiet, residential neighborhood. We are the innovation capital of the entire planet and failing to provide housing for the tens of thousands of people who drive in to work in this city doesn't make it a "residential" town any more than putting lipstick on a pig makes it a woman.


3 people like this
Posted by Florence
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 13, 2015 at 1:23 pm

We have a long way to go before we even mildly resemble Florence. Florence has 9,600 people per sq mi. Palo Alto has a mere 2,500. To do the math - they're nearly four times as dense as we are. Florence is eminently walkable and bikable; there are hardly any cars in the city center. The city is filled with large, beautiful plazas, artwork, and tons of street cafes. It is a beautiful, wonderful, and fun place to be that doesn't have the parking or traffic issues that PA has because they've built a walkable city with densities that allow people to easily walk from home to work to restaurant. We can only hope to one day resemble Florence.


6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2015 at 1:24 pm

What a relief that no one from Portola Valley (or Woodside or Los Altos Hills) works in the ever-growing Palo Alto offices and office parks, certainly not the executives.


8 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2015 at 2:04 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

-Most people who live here don't want it to be anything like Portola Valley.-

Most people who live here would love for Palo Alto to be much more like Portola Valley than San Jose.


7 people like this
Posted by PA or PV?
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 13, 2015 at 2:34 pm

@mauricio, now that would be a good survey to ask.

Would you like to get rid of thriving Downtown and Cal Ave areas, and replace them with a little strip mall with a restaurant or two?

Would you like to not have any walkable neighborhoods where people can socialize and run errands without having to get in a car (not to everyone's taste, of course)

Would you like to not to have access to Caltrain, for commuting and other opportunities to avoid 101/280 traffic?

Would you like to have fewer resources for libraries, art, theater?

Would you be happier to have access to these resources within a 30 minute drive, and instead have a larger estate on a quieter street?

Surely some people would say yes. Don't know about a majority of Palo Altans.




9 people like this
Posted by long view
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2015 at 2:44 pm

long view is a registered user.

San Jose has a wide range of neighborhoods and housing. So does Palo Alto. I'm sure that Palo Alto's beautiful single family home neighborhoods will remain in the next Comp Plan. I also hope the coming Comp Plan will provide many opportunities for more and denser housing near transit. We need a lot more housing for our common good.


Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:12 pm

"I'm sure that Palo Alto's beautiful single family home neighborhoods will remain in the next Comp Plan. I also hope the coming Comp Plan will provide many opportunities for more and denser housing near transit. We need a lot more housing for our common good."

In plain language: "Stick them in ghettos over by the tracks, away from my neighborhood."

[Portion removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by where to add housing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Palo Alto is one of the richest places on earth. We do not have any ghettos. Palo Alto Forward actually put together a great compilation of ideas of where to put housing, none of them involve ghettos ;) Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:41 pm

"Palo Alto is one of the richest places on earth. We do not have any ghettos."

Nice non sequitor.


Segregating housing by density creates de facto ghettos. I reject that. It's naked NIMBYism in New Urbanist jargon.

The best place for adding housing is where our land use is least efficient -- in Palo Alto's beautiful single family home neighborhoods.

Densification is not the evil that our suburbanites imagine and fear. I live in the densest neighborhood in town. It's a beautiful, leafy, walkable neighborhood of mixed housing tyoes from single-family to RM-40+, with a highly diverse population. Come look. Bring your walking shoes.

Why do you fear that?


2 people like this
Posted by where to add housing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:45 pm

Curmudgeon, are you advocating that single family home neighborhoods be rezoned for higher density residential uses?


Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:47 pm

"Curmudgeon, are you advocating that single family home neighborhoods be rezoned for higher density residential uses?"

Yes, why do you ask?


Like this comment
Posted by where to add housing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Well, because you generally seem to oppose all growth.
But I'm intrigued. Where would you upzone? Have you talked to anyone in the community about this before? Would you prefer upzoning single family neighborhoods over adding more housing to our downtowns? I'd like to know your thoughts.


9 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2015 at 3:57 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

No, we don't need any more dense housing. We need people to realize that not everybody can live in Palo Alto, just like not everybody can live in Malibu and Beverly Hills. If you can afford to make an acceptable offer on an existing house that's up for sale, great. if you can't, look for places that have available and affordable housing for your budget. Our lifestyle is sacred, this is not a big urban city, this is a suburb with still a few rural qualities left. The politicians who collaborated with, and enabled the developers tried to turn Palo Alto into something it isn't and shouldn't be.


2 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm

"Well, because you generally seem to oppose all growth."

Not really. But my vision of "Smart Growth" is way different from the local conventional notion. And, as a bonus, it's actually practical and therefore achievable.

I've observed many times that we inhabit a suburban environment that was built around the automobile. You have to drive to get even your necessities. My neighborhood just lost its last neighborhood store, for example.

In these circumstances, concentrating new housing "near transit" creates the perfect traffic storm of urban dwelling density and surburban driving necessity. You cannot grocery shop for a family using transit in this area. If we think traffic is bad today, just let these suburbanite salon urbanists have their way.

Those are not desirable living conditions. Undesirable living areas tend to ghettoize naturally.

So I have concluded that we must distribute our growth throughout the city, and offer my own neighborhood as an example of how workable it can be.


5 people like this
Posted by COI
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

I’d like to know if the members of the panel associated with PAHC will be excusing themselves from any conversation relating to the stretch of land along El Camino Real. I believe PAHC owns property around there and they would have a professional/financial conflict of interest.

Of course, this would take away two panel members from the south Palo Alto side leaving the North-South balance at 12 to 3. Yes, James Keene did such a good job creating a balanced panel that when they discuss an important strip of land located in south Palo Alto, they will be doing so at north:south ratio of 4:1.


11 people like this
Posted by long view
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm

long view is a registered user.

"Our lifestyle is sacred"? Our local and global ecosystem is sacred. When Palo Alto, and other cities don't balance jobs and housing, we make all the poorest workers commute the furthest distances and we are designing for greenhouse gas emissions that our planet cannot afford. Yes, I am open to keeping single family home neighborhoods intact, but choosing parts of Palo Alto and other cities to add dense housing is a moral and environmental issue.


9 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2015 at 5:30 pm

This is a REGIONAL problem, not just a Palo Alto problem.

If our population practically quadruples with workers during the day, where are the workers coming from? Portola Valley? Woodstide, Los Altos Hills? Fremont? SF? Gilroy? Hayward? Foster City? Santa Cruz?

Check out the Google bus routes! Where's everyone coming from and do you expect us to absorb the population of those cities into PA?

What are they doing to absorb their fair share? And of course there's the 33% of home purchases by foreign buyers pushing up rates. What are you going to do about that? Absorb entire countries?

Read up on San Francisco and what's happened to their "affordable" housing? They get it built as "affordable" and then in several years they let the rule lapse and the affordable housing becomes MARKET rate, not below market rates. 75% of their new "affordable" housing has been reclassified!

Nice scam. Do your research before destroying PA!

This whole "high-density" "affordable" housing is a massive developer scam.

PS: I'd leave to take the dog to the dog park since he can't ride buses but MIddlefield's too jammed to think of backing out of my driveway!


6 people like this
Posted by fair share
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 13, 2015 at 5:43 pm

It'll be appropriate to discuss other cities' fair share when we meet our own. We have more than 9% of the county's jobs and 3% of the county's housing. We are in no position to be saying that other cities aren't contributing when we're not either. Not only are we not contributing, but we haven't even recognized fixing this as a goal. This IS a regional problem. It means everyone has to work towards adding more housing, INCLUDING Palo Alto.

You also pose a straw man - like the only choice we have is to build all the housing one can imagine or none at all. How about we start by building some?? How about a goal of reducing our jobs housing imbalance by some percentage? We currently have the biggest imbalance in the entire country. How about we start with a goal of not being the worst in the country anymore?


6 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm

It is past time for thinking people to speak the obvious.
We have global warming - so stop the development and growth that is the cause.
Sea levels will rise - so we talk of building walls to keep it out rather than deal with the issue. Facebook and Google build millions of square feet of office and home space in the area that will flood and will demand that the government pay to protect their buildings.
We don't have enough fresh water for everyone- so stop adding more people. Instead we spy on each other and turn one another into the government for using water while the government helps developers build millions of more square feet of office space and homes that in 10 years will use all the water we are saving.
We wish to have a good quality of life in Palo Alto with quiet streets, good schools and uncrowded parks, public facilities and pools - so stop the development and growth. Instead we get more office space and people telling us to be like SF or SJ.
It requires a new way of thinking and a new economic system. A system that is not based on constant, unsupportable growth an is instead based on a steady state system that takes into account the entire system. Palo Alto is beyond full. Why are we building more? Support population control, limit growth, design for the carrying capacity of the environment. Stop the insanity.


10 people like this
Posted by smothered
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2015 at 10:15 pm

Some years ago a prominent techie from NYC was here for a conference
and when he saw The Cheesecake Factory on University Ave he said to me he was surprised, he "thought a place like Palo Alto would have design control". Anybody visiting Palo Alto today, similarly reacting to what they saw, would say "I thought a place like Palo Alto would have land use planning", as well as design review. No, we have had neither the last dozen years.

The role of the City and Planning Dept has been to enable, assist, expedite,
subsidize local developers/architects/builders as the market strengthened
so the damage has been enormous to this unique and historic city. The balance, character and sustainability of Palo Alto are being destroyed,
smothered and suffocated under a blob of development and more and
more street signs and paint while traffic grows worse and the streets
become more dangerous. Palo Alto is transitioning to something which will
be barely recognizable and a profound loss.





4 people like this
Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 16, 2015 at 6:09 pm

How about some of those jobs move out of town? The workers will follow and we can get some breathing space and keep some of our human scale, retail and usable streets.


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

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