With just days to go until the filing deadline, the race for the City Council in Palo Alto is suddenly heating up, with four residents confirming this week that they will vie for a seat in November and each pointing to the city's housing shortage as a key area of concern.
In addition to the four --- Adrian Fine, Greer Stone, Don McDougall and Michelle Kraus -- several other residents have pulled papers, suggesting that they are considering a run. This includes planning commissioner Greg Tanaka; Stewart Carl, a member of the group Sky Posse, which focuses on airplane noise; and retired civics teacher John Fredrich, who also ran in 2014.
If all of them run, there would be 11 candidates vying for four seats on the nine-seat council. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is the only incumbent who is seeking a re-election. In addition, there will be three open seats: one vacated by Marc Berman, who is running for the state Assembly, and two vacated by Mayor Pat Burt and Councilman Greg Schmid, who are terming out.
The list of newly confirmed candidates includes two native Palo Altans who currently chair local commissions: Fine and Stone. Fine, chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, confirmed this week that he will seek a seat on the council. In an interview, Fine said he is running because he wants to work toward making Palo Alto an "inclusive, walkable, multi-generational city in the future." He rejects characterizations of himself as either pro- or anti-development, but stressed the importance of building more housing through community collaboration.
"We have a bit of a monoculture here where we have these amazing single-family neighborhoods and it's great, and they need to be protected and preserved," Fine said. "But I'd like to see the community come together to do specific area plans for places like downtown and California Avenue, which might support more housing."
Fine also said he supports experimenting with things like "micro-units" and housing in Residential Parking Permit zones where permit restrictions would force new residents to bike, walk and take transit.
Fine is one of several past and sitting planning commissioners expected to run for a seat in November. Arthur Keller, who served for two terms on the commission and who was well known for challenging developers and questioning prevailing planning assumptions, announced last month that he will seek a council seat. Keller lost his commission seat in November 2014, after the council voted 5-4 not to reappoint him (this was just days after the slow-growth "residentalist" candidates won council majority and two months before the newly elected members were set to be sworn in). At the same meeting, the outgoing council voted to appoint Fine, whose educational background is in urban planning and who currently works at Nextdoor.
Keller has remained deeply involved in civic affairs since leaving the commission and currently co-chairs the citizens group that is working to update the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
Planning Commissioner Greg Tanaka, who preceded Fine as commission chair, is also expected to join the contest. Tanaka, the commission's longest serving member and former president of the College Terrace Residents Association, has not formally announced his candidacy but he has pulled papers and told the Weekly that he is "very likely" to run.
A consummate moderate with no clear ideological leanings, Tanaka is known for his detail-driven approach toward analyzing development proposals and traffic projects. Though he joined the rest of the commission in opposing the city's office cap earlier this year, he has also been at times critical of new developments and had voted against the Lytton Gateway development, a controversial "planned community" project at 101 Lytton Ave. that was ultimately approved by the commission and the council.
But it's not just the planning commissioners who are joining the fray. Greer Stone, who currently chairs the Human Relations Commission, also announced this week that he will run for council. Since joining the commission, Stone has participated in Project Safety Net, the community collaboration that focused on youth well-being. As a commissioner, he has also focused on issues that affect the homeless population, the senior population and residents with mental health issues.
"I think I'll see the city from a completely different point of view," Stone told the Weekly. "I talked to people who feel invisible."
In announcing his candidacy, Stone said he recognizes the need to address the city's "housing crisis" but said it's important to do so in a way that will minimize traffic congestion and impacts to local schools and neighborhoods. He told the Weekly that he supports raising the percentage of below-market-rate housing units that new developments must provide, from the existing level of 15 percent to 25 percent (same as in San Francisco). He also told the Weekly that he would support doing away with rules that allow developers to pay in-lieu fees instead of providing housing on site.
"Clearly, Palo Alto and the entire Bay Area region is in a housing crisis, and we have an affordable-housing crisis," Stone told the Weekly. "I don't think we can just advocate responsibility and then completely put our heads in the sand. But at the same time, Palo Alto doesn't have to look like downtown Redwood City, which all the development in the last 15 to 20 years, or Mountain View or Sunnyvale."
Don McDougall, a member of the Library Advisory Commission, calls housing the first, second and third priority. A former CEO of software companies with a passion for data crunching, McDougall on Wednesday confirmed to the Weekly he also will be running for a council seat in November. McDougall, who grew up in Calgary and who lived in Amsterdam, Boston and Portland before moving to Palo Alto 13 years ago, became deeply immersed in local planning in recent years, first as a member of the library commission and then as part of the Citizens Advisory Committee that is updating the Comprehensive Plan.
Through his work on the citizens committee, he said, he had come to realize that the problems that the city is facing around housing, transportation and land use are "tremendously complex" and that his experience in evaluating data can be an asset in addressing these challenges. Though he said he is not espousing any particular proposals to add housing (doing so without community buy-in, he said, would be "premature") he supports evaluating solutions like accessory-dwelling units, "cluster houses" and higher density near train stations.
McDougall also advocates strong collaboration between residential and commercial interests, which he said are currently opposed to each other. Recent efforts at Stanford Research Park and with the downtown Transportation Management Association to promote new transportation alternatives suggest that local companies can have an important role to play in solving problems like parking shortages and traffic congestion, which are important to local residents.
"I think there is room and opportunity for aggressive negotiations and coming together with good ideas," McDougall said.
Downtown resident Michelle Kraus also comes from a technology background, though her focus to date has been on the national level. As managing director at Technology and Politics Group, Kraus said she looks at "trends for transportation and infrastructure in this country and around the world." Currently, she serves as head of global government affairs for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
In an interview, Kraus said she would like to see more creativity in addressing Palo Alto's transportation and housing challenges. Living in Palo Alto, she said, has become cost prohibitive for most people. The city needs "affordable alternatives," she said.
"We need housing for the young professionals; we need housing for young families; we need housing for the tech workers who are here in their 50s and 60s, because nobody retires now," Kraus said. "It's got to be more affordable."
The new candidates are joining a field that already includes Kniss, Barron Park resident Lydia Kou and Keller, all of whom had previously announced their candidacy. Of the 11 candidates, Kou is the only one who was actively involved in the 2013 campaign to overturn a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue, which included a 60-unit complex for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. She ran in 2014 with the endorsement of the slow-growth citizens group, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning but was narrowly edged out for the fifth seat by Cory Wolbach.
A longtime community volunteer who coordinated emergency-preparedness events and cultural festivals, Kou also serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee that is working to update the Comprehensive Plan.
Residents have until Aug. 17 to file their candidacy papers.