Lydia Kou, a longtime neighborhood volunteer who in recent years has emerged as a leading critic of Palo Alto's land-use policies, announced Friday that she will be seeking a seat on the City Council in November.
In declaring her bid for council, Kou became the first candidate to enter the race. A Barron Park resident with a long history of organizing emergency-preparedness exercises and events promoting cultural diversity, she is philosophically aligned with the city's slow-growth "residentialist" camp and has been deeply critical of recently approved commercial developments.
This will be Kou's second council bid in two years. In the 2014 election, which featured 14 candidates vying for five council seats, Cory Wolbach edged out Kou by 135 votes, or 0.18 percent, for fifth place. Since then, she has remained active in the political scene, regularly attending council meetings to voice her concerns about new developments and the city's long-term planning efforts.
Other slow-growth candidates performed well in the 2014 election, with Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth (who, like Kou, were endorsed by the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning) each winning seats and residentialist standard-bearer Karen Holman leading the field in votes received. Now, the council's four staunchest residentialists -- DuBois, Filseth, Holman and Greg Schmid - are the honorary chairs of Kou's council campaign.
Kou's engagement in Palo Alto's land-use debates deepened in 2013, when she became one of the leading opponents of a housing development that the council approved for a former orchard site at Maybell and Clemo avenues. She was also active in the citizen referendum that struck down the development (which included 12 single-family homes and 60 apartments for low-income seniors) and that shook up the composition of the council, handing the majority to the candidates favoring slower growth the following year.
Last month, Kou joined other Barron Park residents in supporting a starkly different housing project for the Maybell site: a 16-home development proposed by Golden Gate Homes. During a May public hearing in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, she lauded the developer for "working diligently and transparently with the community" on designing a project that everyone can support. The commission and, ultimately, the council approved the project.
Her enthusiastic support for the new Maybell proposal was, in some ways, a departure from script for Kou, who has been generally skeptical about new developments, particularly ones largely composed of office space. In her view, recently approved commercial projects (including College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real and 101 Lytton in downtown Palo Alto) add traffic to local streets, put stress on local infrastructure and lower the city's quality of life. She is also skeptical of the city's projections of the potential traffic resulting from new development, which she believes understate the cumulative impacts.
In a statement announcing her candidacy, Kou argued that the current planning process "not only indulges flights of fancy, it encourages it.
"Much of the development that is approved doesn't take into account long-term side effects and consequences," Kou said in the statement. "Each project is reviewed in isolation. The result is too much development without much thought given to the cumulative negative impacts."
She struck a similar tone in March, when the council was discussing ways to increase the city's housing stock. Kou said her greatest concern is the kind of "schizophrenic approval of development" that the city is engaging in in the name of providing housing. While many speakers at that meeting touted the need for more housing, Kou warned that residential growth has its own impacts on schools, parks and community centers.
In announcing her candidacy, Kou called Palo Alto a "wonderful place to live" and lauded the city's arts community, schools and an "unparalleled" system of parks and open space. But living in this region, she said, comes with its own challenges.
"Housing, traffic, burdens on infrastructure and a decline in the quality of life are just a few of the issues that our city is facing today," Kou said in a statement. "That is why I am announcing that I am running for City Council."
Kou was born in Hong Kong and lived in Sudan and Guam before moving to Palo Alto in 1998 and opening a video store. A Realtor with Alain Pinel, Kou has been an enthusiastic participant in Palo Alto's civic scene for many years. In 2010, she coordinated Quakeville, an emergency-preparedness event in which a tent city was established at Juana Briones Park. Her leadership earned her an Achievement Award from the city. She has also been involved in organizing neighborhood events, including a Lunar New Year celebration and a Holi Festival.
Kou said in the candidacy statement that if elected, she will work to establish a "more robust" system for gathering data about local businesses and "work very hard at not only streamlining the planning process but also making sure that the final results are a good fit for our city."
Kou will be vying for one of four seats that will be up for grabs on Nov. 8. Mayor Pat Burt and Schmid are each terming out. Councilman Marc Berman, who is concluding his first term, is now running for a seat in the state Assembly, having prevailed in the June primary election. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is also concluding her first term (she had also served on the council between 1989 and 2000) and has not announced whether she will seek a second term.