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 email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.