A new senior center in south Palo Alto. A completely redeveloped Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. Also, more action, better financial management and increased community trust.
Those are some of the things that 10 City Council candidates proposed and promised during a Thursday afternoon forum, in which each was given a minute to solve the city's housing problem and another minute to describe their plan for a strong budget. All 10 (candidate Danielle Martell did not attend) hope that they will have the opportunity to delve far deeper into these subjects next year, as elected representatives.
Leonard Ely III
Liz Kniss, a former two-time mayor and county supervisor, is the lone incumbent in the race for four seats. She was joined at the forum by candidates Stewart Carl, Leonard Ely III, Adrian Fine, John Fredrich, Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, Don McDougall, Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka.
One challenge that each candidate faced Thursday was differentiating himself or herself from the other nine. Each praised Palo Alto as a great place to grow up and live and each vowed to protect the city's quality of life -- positions that are hard to argue against. Even on the contentious topic of housing, they offered some common themes. Most agreed that new housing is needed, though candidates differed over how much and what kind.
Fine and McDougall both said the city should strive to provide a diverse stock of housing, including dwellings for the city's workforce, below-market-rate units and market-rate housing.
This exploration will "require a council that is considerate of all people" and a process that brings everybody into the conversation, said McDougall, who serves on the city's Library Advisory Commission.
Fine pointed to a collaborative process that Palo Alto used to create the two South of Forest Avenue, also known as SOFA, plans, which resulted in a new community vision for a downtown area after the relocation of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Other prominent areas can benefit from similar visions, with the goal of creating housing for people of all ages and circumstances, he said.
"I believe that's a good model for the city to use in areas like University Avenue, California Avenue and El Camino," said Fine, who currently chairs the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.
Tanaka, who serves on the planning commission and preceded Fine as chair, concurred that more collaboration is necessary.
"You have to see all sides to truly solve the question," Tanaka said. "The key is to try to minimize impacts through smaller units, to have multiple transportation modalities, as well as to make the infrastructure investments necessary to allow that to happen."
Kniss focused her answer on diversity. The city needs to not provide just housing, she said, but units that aren't available only to the extremely wealthy.
"I have a fear of someday just driving down the street and seeing nothing but houses that are multi-million housing," she said. "We have to provide something that's an alternative."
Others focused on the effects of building too much. Kou said the city is under no obligation to provide housing for everyone, a task that demands a regional solution. And while Palo Alto can build more housing, it has to do so in a way that is well thought out, she said.
"It does need to take into consideration all the cumulative impacts that come along with overbuilding, just like what we've seen in the past decade with overbuilding of office space without taking into consideration the cumulative negative impacts," said Kou, a longtime neighborhood organizer and emergency-preparedness coordinator, who was heavily involved in the 2013 referendum to overturn the City Council's approval of a housing development planned for Maybell Avenue. A prior candidate, she was edged out for a council seat in 2014.
Carl, who like Kou leans toward slow-growth policies, was similarly skeptical of the city's ability to accommodate the masses of employees who commute to Palo Alto every day.
"We cannot possibly build that much living space in Palo Alto without compromising our quality of life," said Carl, a College Terrace resident who co-founded Sky Posse, the citizens group that is working to address the issue of airplane noise.
Stone also expressed some caution about growth. He pointed to the city's high ratio of jobs to employed residents (which is higher than 3 to 1) and said the city "cannot possibly add enough housing to keep pace with that without distorting the very fabric of Palo Alto and overrunning our clogged streets."
Stone, who chairs the city's Human Relations Commission, suggested placing new housing units near transit hubs and partnering with the Palo Alto Unified School District to see if housing sites can be identified on school property for teachers or other district employees, much like what the City of Santa Clara did with its 70-unit House of Teachers.
For Keller, a computer scientist who served two terms on the city's planning commission, the question of what kind of housing to build was as critical as the number of units. He noted that about 60 percent of the city's households are composed of one or two people, while only about 20 percent of the city's housing stock is studios and one-bedroom apartments. Clearly, he said, the city should focus on small units.
He also noted that while the city can provide housing for Palo Alto workers, it can not possibly accommodate all employees. The city should also be particularly careful about building large units because it's important to make sure schools are not overtaxed, he said.
Fredrich, a retired Gunn High School civics teacher, had a bolder proposal: redeveloping the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Barron Park to create a modern apartment building with affordable units. He pointed to the nearly $30 million that the city and the county have already committed to preserving the mobile-home park and avert its closure.
"I think we can do something significant at Buena Vista, but $30 million in public money will demand a development, not just trailers," Fredrich said.
Candidates were also asked to offer their thoughts on how they would help small businesses, maintain a strong city budget, support local youth and meet the needs of the city's growing senior population.
On the lattermost question, Stone said that one of the most critical things the city can do for seniors is provide them with more transportation options. His commission had recently assessed the needs of seniors and identified transportation as the "No. 1 concern for senior citizens," he said.
"They need to be able to get from the front door to the grocery store," Stone said. "We need to increase our shuttle services so that they can have that opportunity."
Keller said he would support evaluating a senior center in south Palo Alto. Ely, a commercial real estate broker, concurred and said that, if elected, he would work toward making the new facility a reality. Kniss and Tanaka both said housing was the most important issue when it comes to seniors and indicated that they would favor more senior housing near transportation areas.
"I doubt we'll build a Channing House again, but we need to look at many more options than what we currently have," Kniss said.
On some issues, the candidates were in full agreement. When asked by Simitian to rank Palo Alto's traffic on a scale of one to 10, all answers fell on the narrow band between 6.9 (McDougall) and 8.5 (Keller and Kou). Candidates also agreed that airplane noise is a major issue, though they had different proposals to address it.
Carl said the city should urge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create flight paths that make planes descend over the Bay. Stone urged more regional cooperation on the issue while Fine said the city should harness the power of its citizen experts (including those in Carl's group) to solve the problem.
Ely, whose wife is a private pilot, said there may not be much that the city can do on this topic and he would not be in favor of pursuing a lawsuit to address it. Keller disagreed and cited the example of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which sued the FAA over airplane noise.
"If we band together with other cities and towns affected by this, it wouldn't cost very much to deal with that," Keller said.
On traffic, candidates uniformly opposed a plan by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to cut local bus services, including the line on Middlefield Road. Just about everyone said the city should fight to preserve the bus line and oppose regional plans to reduce local services.
When it comes to traffic, Keller also proposed a new arrangement with Stanford Research Park, which is currently exempt from the city's annual limit on office construction. To maintain this exemption, he said, Stanford should agree to a measurable and enforceable program for reducing traffic. He cited this as the type of "aligning incentives between the business community and the city" that he supports.
Other candidates also cited the importance of partnerships, whether regional or with local nonprofits. Ely, who served on the boards of Stevenson House and the Junior Museum & Zoo, and Fine both said the city should do more to support local nonprofits.
"I think the nonprofits who work with a lot of our city services should be given a little more leeway in building things and doing things that they in turn give back to the city," Ely said.
Regional cooperation was also a continuous theme during the forum, particularly when it came to solving traffic and housing problems.
Kniss, who has served on the VTA board, cited her experience with regional agencies as an important attribute that sets her apart as a candidate.
"Having that regional influence makes a big difference in Palo Alto," she said. "We don't exist on an island. We must exist with our neighbors and we must exist in a regional way, as well as in a small-city way."
TUESDAY, Sept. 20 Weekly to host school board candidates debate