It's no secret that the rift between the Palo Alto City Council and its main land-use advisory panel, the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC), has widened in the past year, with each body pointedly criticizing the policies favored by the other.
On Nov. 30, the council and the commission will try to mend the frayed relationship and discuss better cooperation moving forward when they meet for an annual joint session. The discussion will include a recap of the commission's accomplishments in the past year, discussion of its role in Palo Alto's planning process and consideration of reforms to make cooperation between the elected council and the appointed commission more functional.
Normally a perfunctory hearing, the meeting has special significance this year as land-use issues continue to dominate City Hall discussions and as the two bodies continue to clash on policies for addressing the city's recent growth spurt.
In October, four council members proposed downgrading the commission's role in an upcoming discussion of accessory-dwelling units, also known as in-law units. The proposal fizzled by a 4-4 vote, with the four council members associated with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy all voting to have the council's Policy and Services Committee vet the issue before sending it to the commission.
Councilman Eric Filseth, who made the proposal to delay the planning commission's participation in the process, said he had not been impressed with the commission's recent deliberations and accused the commission of pursuing a vision of "unlimited growth" and urbanization.
Councilman Tom DuBois concurred and said that the commission has been trying to set its own policies and acting "at odds with the council."
Other council members defended the commission, noting that the group of volunteers and their input are valuable, even if their conclusions are different from those of the council. But even Cory Wolbach, one of the council's most diplomatic members, acknowledged at the October meeting that "there is a feeling of distrust from both sides."
The policy clashes between the council and its main advisory body have become routine. The planning commission earlier this year vociferously criticized the council's effort to institute an annual cap on office development, while the council has summarily dismissed the commission's proposals to reform the city's controversial "planned-community" (PC) zoning process.
In rejecting the commission's recommendation as inadequate, Councilman Pat Burt cited a "very strong disconnect between what the commission recommended or even considered and what the council gave as guidance."
Commission members, for their part, haven't been shy about critiquing council policies. At a Sept. 30 meeting, Commissioner Kate Downing blasted a council-favored proposal to remove a zoning rule that gives developers density bonuses for demolishing seismically deficient buildings and replacing them with new structures (they would still get a bonus for rehabilitating the buildings).
"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.
Three of her colleagues signaled that they agreed with her sentiment. At the October meeting, DuBois said he has "serious issues" with that statement.
According to the Nov. 30 meeting agenda, the biggest chunk of the meeting will be a discussion of the commission's "purview and expectation." The discussion will also include a review of the commission's 2015 work and examples of the commission's "value add" in the process.
The commission's annual report states that the commission has, over the past year, "provided input on a range of important land use, zoning, transportation, and related topics, improved the efficiency of our meetings, and engaged citizens through our regular meetings."
In 19 meetings it has held since October 2014 (when the last annual report came out), the commission has reviewed numerous designs for bike boulevards, vetted the city's Residential Preferential Parking Program (RPPP), discussed the Downtown Development Cap and spent several long meetings wrestling with the planned-community process and with proposals to cap growth and support local retail.
"The PTC had a productive 2015 due in large part to the commission's current leadership which proved to be very effective in encouraging thoughtful and concise discussions on the numerous topics reviewed," according to the memo, which is signed by Chair Greg Tanaka.
The memo also makes numerous recommendations for things that the city can do better. This includes encouraging more involvement from the public by offering more digital venues for citizen input. The city, according to the memo, "can lead the nation in digitization of involvement; we are missing a tremendous amount of input from the community."
The commission's memo also calls for the city to continue encouraging pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces; increase opportunity for "entrepreneurial and resourceful entrants, starting with living units, affordable commerce and enterprise space"; and explore synergies between the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board. The memo also states that the commission "sees potential in crowdsourcing and open competitions to lure space planning and public structure design to develop the city's unique identity."
In its final paragraph, the memo acknowledges that the commission "serves at the pleasure of the council, but it also plays an important role by providing analysis of planning and transportation topics, suggesting alternative avenues for staff, and furnishing a public record that befits the development and planning issues facing Palo Alto."
"Planning and transportation issues are not always attractive or interesting, but we are a group that has volunteered our time to thoughtfully explore them we hope that our time and recommendations are appreciated, and if the council has recommendations on how we can improve, we are open to all suggestions," the memo states.