They came to the Mitchell Park Library from different neighborhoods, backgrounds and ideological corners to work toward a shared goal: figuring out what Palo Alto should look like for the next 15 years.
Composed of 20 members, 17 of whom have voting powers, the city's newest citizen task force opened a new chapter on Tuesday in the city's nearly decade-long update of its official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
Over the next year, they will be reviewing the existing Comprehensive Plan, recapping the revisions proposed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and making recommendations on what new goals, policies and programs the city should pursue between now and 2030.
The Citizens Advisory Committee, as the group is called, includes many familiar faces as well as newcomers to Palo Alto's civic debate about the future. Some, like former planning commissioners Daniel Garber and Arthur Keller, have spent years debating these issues and becoming intimately familiar with local zoning laws and land-use vision. There was little surprise when the committee, in its first two votes, elected Garber and Keller as its chair and vice chair, respectively.
Other members became involved in the process because of recent experiences with the city's development pressures. For Jared Jacobs, a resident of Evergreen Park, the growth hits close to home. He lives next to a proposed development at 2555 Park Blvd., a project that the council approved last month despite concerns from Jacobs and other residents about the building's mass, density and shadow impacts. Jacobs noted that he has three children under the age of 6.
"I'm kind of interested in their future, and I want to contribute to future of the city," Jacobs said.
Barron Park resident Lydia Kou, a longtime neighborhood volunteer and a City Council candidate in the last November election, was also drawn to the update by the city's recent growth. A critic of recent development trends, Kou has been aligned with the "residentialist" camp that believes growth should be slowed down.
"I've seen how the city has changed," Kou said. "I'm here today because I'd like to be a voice in how we're going to articulate what kind of vision we want our city to have for the next 15 years or so."
For some members of the group, preservation of the existing quality of life is the top priority. For others, like Elaine Uang, an equally important goal is to accommodate different generations of residents by encouraging more housing and transportation opportunities.
Uang, an architect who co-founded the citizen group Palo Alto Forward, said she believes Palo Alto is a "phenomenal place" and said she would like to see what can be done to keep it that way.
The council first directed that the Comprehensive Plan be updated in 2006 and since then the process has seen more resets than an NBA shot-clock. For much of the decade, the update has proceeded with very limited participation from council members. While the planning commission has painstakingly edited every section of the document, the council agreed that more citizen participation is needed to give the document legitimacy.
Last year, the council declined a proposal by planning staff to move ahead with an environmental analysis that would evaluate four different growth scenarios, with members arguing that the document wasn't "ready for prime time," in the words of Mayor Karen Holman.
Now, the goal is to have the new citizens committee vet all the work that has taken place to date and help the council adopt a new city vision. Though the plan would officially have a horizon of 2030, Keller noted that its impacts will likely extend way beyond that.
"Whatever is built for the next 15 years will be there for 50 or more," Keller said. "We are setting patterns for Palo Alto for generations to come, which is why I think what we are doing here is very important."
Among the group's most critical and potentially contentious tasks will be updating the plan's Land Use and Transportation chapters. Other chapters, known as "elements," focus on the natural environment, safety, business and economics. In addition, the council asked staff in 2006 to come up with "concept area plans" for two dynamic areas: the neighborhood around East Meadow Circle and the area around California Avenue, which today stands at the epicenter of the city's growth.
The group will meet monthly, with each meeting open to the public. On Tuesday, each member received a daunting homework assignment: a gigantic binder filled with the existing Comprehensive Plan and the planning commission's recommended changes. Yet as important as the update is, the citizens committee was also encouraged by Planning Director Hillary Gitelman not to try to do too much. Its time will be limited, she noted, and it's important not to "try to reinvent the wheel and try to rethink every decision that's been made before."
"We have a blessing in Palo Alto that the existing Comprehensive Plan is darn good," Gitelman said. "It's a very good plan that's still very current. ... We can make use of all the thought that's come before. My hope is we will all use the mantra, 'If it isn't broken, don't fix it.'"