In theory, the Planning and Transportation Commission serves at the pleasure of the City Council.
In practice, pleasure has been in short supply for both parties of late.
The Palo Alto commission, which advises the council on all major land-use issues, is now under fire from several council members for a string of decisions and comments that, critics have argued, are at odds with the council's directions and the community's wishes. This week, in what may have been the lowest point in the increasingly fractious relationship between the council and the commission, two council members publicly declared they have lost confidence in the commission and attempted to reduce the commission's role in an upcoming discussion about housing.
Councilman Eric Filseth said he was "not satisfied" with the commission's recent work on land-use issues and characterized the commission as a group that is pursuing a vision of "unlimited" growth. Councilman Tom DuBois concurred.
"We have a PTC that wants to create policy," DuBois said. "And I think they've been acting at odds with the council."
The planning commission, for its part, has also been vocal in recent months about its disagreements with the body that it's been appointed to advise. In March, the commission considered reforms to the city's highly contentious "planned community" (PC) zoning, which allows developers to barter with the city in exchange for zoning exemptions. The council suspended PC zoning last year after citizens derided it as "zoning for sale." In considering reforms to this process, the commission decided to re-affirm -- rather than curb -- a developer's right to offer payments to the city.
The commission also took a strong stance in August against an annual limit on new office development in downtown, the area around California Avenue and along El Camino Real -- a cap that was endorsed by the entire council and then referred to the commission for the hashing out of the details (the only split among the commission was whether to vote for a proposal that everyone agreed was a big mistake).
The seeds for the current dysfunctional dynamic between the council and the commission were sown last November, when an election ushered in a City Council with a slow-growth "residentialist" majority. Days after the vote, the outgoing council made a decision not to reappoint veteran commissioner and vocal residentialist Arthur Keller to the seven-member board and to instead bring in two new members: Kate Downing and Adrian Fine, high-tech professionals with visions of a more vibrant Palo Alto -- even if it sometimes means greater building density.
Downing, along with Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, also serves on the steering committee of Palo Alto Forward, a group that advocates for more housing and transportation options. Also on the commission is Michael Alcheck, a real estate attorney who has spoken out against the city's 50-foot height limit and who said he would like to see El Camino Real as a "canyon" of taller buildings and "dramatic increases in density."
Mark Michael, a veteran commissioner whose term ends this year, isn't as strident an advocate of growth, though he too has been critical of the council's recent attempt to limit commercial growth, calling it a "distraction" from the greater task of updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, a foundational document that guides city decisions.
Disagreements between the commission and the council are far from new. In 2009, for instance, the planning commission recommended rejecting a contentious proposal to redevelop Alma Plaza -- now known as Alma Village. The council ultimately gave the project a green light.
And last year, the council agreed not to approve a new vision document for the California Avenue area, a plan years in the making that included as one of its components a new "tech corridor" on Park Boulevard. Despite a unanimous endorsement by the commission, the council rejected the document, with several members taking issue with recommendations to allow more density on Park.
At times, commissioners have advocated for larger roles or louder voices. During a March discussion of planned-community zoning, a number of commissioners -- including Fine, Downing, Alcheck and Chair Greg Tanaka -- questioned the thoroughness of the city's planning staff in transmitting commission feedback to the council. At one point, commissioners insisted that staff draft a separate ordinance on the topic containing all of the commission's suggested wording. Downing said at that meeting that merely summarizing the commission's feedback would give the council just "half" of what the commission created, while Tanaka said that summarizing the commission's feedback would be a "disservice to the council." Tanaka initially considered making a formal motion to have a separate ordinance drafted but ultimately reconsidered.
More recently, during a discussion of revisions of the city's zoning code -- changes that were in most cases meant to clarify language or respond to previous council direction -- Michael suggested that the cleanup process could be a good time to recommend a "process in which the Planning and Transportation Commission will actually have some decision-making authority versus simply being a recommending body."
Under his proposal, appeals of proposed developments would go to the commission for a final decision. The council would only see these appeals if someone were to file a subsequent appeal of the commission's approval. This, he, said would create more efficient process than one that guarantees reviews by both the commission and the council.
"And there may be an opportunity here to inject more substance and responsibility into the duty of the planning commission, which I think would be a good thing," Michael said on Sept. 30.
Such a change is highly unlikely at this time, with the commission and the council clearly at odds about some of Palo Alto's most critical land-use issues. The most recent example of the schism also occurred on Sept. 30, when the commission was discussing the elimination of a zoning-code provision that would offer developers density bonuses for demolishing seismically unsafe buildings and constructing new developments at the site. Under the change, the seismic bonuses would apply only to seismic retrofits and not to new construction.
Downing strongly objected to this change, saying it "doesn't make sense." The city, she argued, wants to encourage people to fix seismically unsafe buildings. This would take away an incentive to do so.
"Is the council really saying that extra square footage and extra parking are more important than the lives of the people who live and die in these buildings?" Downing asked. "I really can't support this."
In an interview, Downing said her main point was to identify this issue as an important policy decision that should be made outside the process of routine code clean-up. Given the high number of aging buildings downtown, any changes to incentives for seismic retrofits should be made at the policy level, she told the Weekly. When asked about her particular quote, she noted that the decision to change these incentive was spurred by the council's focus on parking requirements.
"It was clear this was part of the top priorities of the council when they were making these changes," Downing said.
Despite its disagreements with the council, the commission has invested a considerable amount of time and energy in its work. Its discussion of PC zoning, for example, stretched for two long meetings and featured a laundry list of issues and concerns. It applied similar rigor to the new office cap; the recent proposal to regulate chain stores on California Avenue; and the current code cleanup.
Commissioners also often disagree with each other. Rosenblum and Downing, for instance, opposed Alcheck's proposal to allow developers to pay for zoning exemptions as part of the PC process, a practice that Alcheck argued would spur creativity. And while the commission ultimately supported a package of reforms by a 6-1 vote, Commissioner Przemek Gardias dissented.
Yet the commission's wide-ranging discussions and unflinching criticism of council policies have also puzzled and frustrated some councilmembers. In August, when the council rejected the commission's proposal for reforming PC zoning, Councilman Pat Burt marveled at the "very strong disconnect between what the commission recommended or even considered and what the council gave as guidance." In some cases, Burt said, the commission proposed steps that directly contradicted the council's desire (such as when commissioners proposed relaxing the city's height limit for PC projects).
Commission Vice Chair Fine concurred there is "some disconnect" and said that the commission did not feel that the council's guidance (which called for the commission to focus its discussion on particular elements of the ordinance, such as public benefits and geographical areas where projects would be allowed) was "the correct way" to consider the reforms.
This week, the rocky relationship was shaken up further when Filseth made a motion to have the council's Policy and Services Committee consider ways to encourage construction throughout the city of small in-law apartments -- also known as granny units or accessory-dwelling units -- before the item goes to either the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) or the full council. Filseth, who was elected last November as part of the residentialist movement, said that he does "not have confidence that sending it to the PTC will be productive."
"There are clearly alignment issues between the council and the PTC on policy," Filseth said, before characterizing the commission as advocating for "unlimited commercial growth and unlimited housing growth."
"It is to move from an expensive suburban environment to an expensive urban environment -- and that's not where the majority of the voters want to go," Filseth said.
DuBois, who also leans toward slow-growth policies, said he thought likewise. He then alluded to Downing's comments about the seismic-rehabilitation exemption.
"Two meetings ago, one commissioner said that we care more about square footage and parking than people's lives," he said. "Three other commissioners (Rosenblum, Michael and Tanaka) agreed with that statement. I take serious issue with that."
Other council members quickly jumped to the commission's defense and chided their colleagues for criticizing citizen volunteers. Councilman Greg Scharff said it's "really inappropriate to bash the PTC like we just did" and argued that the criticism "makes it very difficult for them to do their job." Reasonable people, Scharff said, can disagree.
Councilman Marc Berman said he was surprised that the council is choosing to "impugn the motive and integrity of one of our commissions, with citizens volunteering their time on it."
"I wouldn't serve on one of our boards and commissions if I thought my work and opinion is going to get impugned at a time when I'm not in the audience to have the opportunity to reply," Berman said.
Other council members took more moderate views. Councilman Cory Wolbach said he appreciates hearing from the commission, especially if he disagrees. Wolbach said the council should be grateful to the commission for getting the council out of its "cognitive bubble." He also said he thinks members of the planning commission "have not been appreciated by the council and that they are doing the best they can."
"There is a feeling of distrust from both sides," Wolbach said.
Mayor Karen Holman and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid both supported Filseth's proposal to send the housing item to the council committee for vetting and shaping of direction before the planning commission considers it, though Holman acknowledged that she doesn't recall such a process taking place in her 14 years of experience as a planning commissioner and council member. In this case, she said, the commission would benefit from some council guidance before it tackles the subject of accessory-dwelling units.
"Too much of the things I've seen from the PTC are based on personal perspectives and not grounded in the Comprehensive Plan and our zoning rules ... the history of what the community has done and looked at before," Holman said.
She also agreed with Scharff's suggestion the council and the commission need to "clear the air." They will have a chance to do that in late November during their annual joint study session. That's when each side will have a chance to directly address the other, whether to offer suggestions or air grievances.
The Filseth proposal ultimately fizzled by a 4-4 vote, with Burt absent. This means the normal process will occur: The planning commission will get to review the housing issue first, before it comes to the council committee and, ultimately, the full council.
Downing said one problem with the conversation that has taken place thus far is the "disconnect" in people's minds about the role of the planning commission. Its mission is to review new ordinances in their entirety, she said, though special focus can be given to those areas identified by the council.
The commission isn't meant to be ideological or to "necessarily support the council's decision." Its role is to offer more opportunity for more community feedback, whether from residents speaking publicly at commission meetings or from commissioners themselves.
"We're not an elected body. We're not elected by the people. It's up to the council members to make the right decisions and make them based on what they read as the demand of the community and what the voters want. Our body is more technical in nature than that."
Tanaka, the commission's longest serving member, likewise emphasized in an interview this week that the commission is a purely recommending body. His job, he said, isn't to simply consider whether issues are pro- or anti-growth but to make decisions based on data and diligent analysis. Even though the council at times rejects the commission's recommendations, Tanaka said he doesn't see that as a problem.
The commission, he noted, has a specific focus, a limited purview and a narrow lens. The council, which is an elected body, sees things through a different lens, which makes some disagreements inevitable.
"Our job is to help the council make better decisions," Tanaka told the Weekly. "We don't make decisions. We make purely recommendations. I think what's important is for us to look at different sides, dig in, analyze the issues as much as possible and, based on that kind of process, make a recommendation.
"It's not our job to make policy. That's not what we're trying to do."