Arthur Keller, a former Palo Alto planning commissioner with a long record of scrutinizing new developments, challenging prevailing assumptions about traffic impacts and promoting transportation improvements, announced Thursday that he will be seeking a seat on the Palo Alto City Council in November.
Long affiliated with the slow-growth wing of the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) -- a group that also includes former planning commissioner Susan Fineberg and current Councilwoman Karen Holman) -- the computer scientist is known as much for his wonky, detail-oriented approach to new development projects as for his staunch criticism of commercial growth.
Keller, who holds a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University and works as an advisor to startup companies, served on the influential commission between 2006 and 2014 and spent the final two years as its vice chair. He left the commission just days after slow-growth “residentialist" candidates won a majority on the City Council. Days after the November 2014 election, the outgoing council voted 5-4 not to reappoint him, with all four slow-growth candidates supporting Keller.
Just after the council's vote, Keller indicated that his next move might be to seek a seat on the council.
“One positive thing about not being reappointed to the PTC is if I should decide to run for one of your seats, I'll be able to do that with a lot more free time," Keller said at the Nov. 11, 2014, council meeting.
A month after the council voted not to reappoint Keller, members unanimously passed a special resolution, recognizing his contributions and thanking him for serving with “distinctive energy, passion, dedication, intelligence and good humor."
In explaining his decision to run, Keller described Palo Alto as a city “at a crossroads" and said the council should do more to prevent excessive commercial development that he says contributes to traffic and parking impacts. Keller said he supports having an annual cap on office development and adjusting it every few years based on traffic levels, available parking spaces and other “quality of life" metrics.
“One of the things at stake in this election is the future of the city," Keller told the Weekly. “Do we want a city in which growth is managed, or do we want a city in which we have as much growth as the landowners want to have, while externalizing all the impacts?"
Keller said he supports creating more affordable housing, particularly studios and one-bedroom apartments that would have minimal impacts on the local school system. He noted that only about 20 percent of the city's housing stock currently consists of studios and one-bedroom dwellings. He also said he would support zoning changes that would encourage such units.
In announcing his decision, Keller joins a race that will feature at least two, and likely three, planning commissioners. As the Weekly first reported Wednesday, Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka, both of whom currently sit on the commission, have pulled candidacy papers. Fine, who chairs the commission, confirmed by Twitter on Thursday that he is running for City Council. Tanaka has not made a formal announcement, though his candidacy has been widely expected for some time.
In recent years, Keller has been actively engaged in updating the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. As a planning commissioner, he led an effort to revise every chapter of the document. Today, he serves as co-chair of the Citizen Advisory Commission, a panel that is advising the council on possible revisions to the city's goals, policies and programs for future development.
A Brooklyn native who has lived in Palo Alto since 1987, Keller has also been active in the city's efforts to promote electric-vehicle infrastructure (he served on a task force charged with promoting electric vehicles) and to revamp the city's website. He was also a founding member of the Adobe Meadow Neighborhood Association and a member of the Gunn High School Facilities Steering Committee.
In a statement announcing his candidacy, Keller emphasized the need for the city to “think carefully about the type of housing we zone for and its impact on the schools, so we do not reduce the quality of our schools through overcrowding, increased class size, increased competition for playing field space, and decrease in per-student spending."
He also said the city needs to “get rid of rules that lead to the unpopular and incompatible commercial buildings" and to “ensure clarity by replacing vague guidelines with clear requirements."
“We need to correct code violations with the conviction and speed that befit a competent and committed public agency," Keller said. “And we also need to enforce traffic rules, particularly those that affect safety."
Keller joins a gradually expanding field of candidates vying for the four council contested seats. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is the only incumbent seeking re-election. Slow-growth proponent Lydia Kou, former council candidate Danielle Martell and Fine (who, like Keller, serves on the Citizen Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan Update) had also announced that they will be seeking a seat. Tanaka; John Fredrich, a retired Gunn High civics teacher; and resident Michelle Kraus has also pulled candidacy papers, suggesting that they are considering a council run.