Palo Alto planning commission set for a shake-up

As civic debate over growth continues, city prepares to fill seats on influential panel

While Palo Alto prepares to elect new City Council members in November, another heated race is quietly taking place behind the scenes, where 16 residents are competing to fill three seats on the city's influential, and at times controversial, Planning and Transportation Commission.

It's an election with no endorsements, campaign contributions or lawn signs; and one in which only nine Palo Altans -- the members of the City Council -- have voting rights. But if recent history is any guide, those who fill the seats will have a chance -- through votes and words -- to shape the city's deliberations over growth and housing policies.

One of the seats on the seven-member board has been vacated by Kate Downing, who recently wrote a public resignation letter blasting the city's growth policies and declaring that she's moving to Santa Cruz because she cannot afford local housing. The other two seats belong to the commission's longest-serving member, Greg Tanaka, who is seeking a seat on the council, and current Vice Chair Przemek Gardias, who is seeking a fresh term. The council is set to interview candidates on Sept. 27 and make its appointments on Oct. 4.

The new members will join Michael Alcheck, a real-estate attorney who has been the commission's leading advocate for densification along El Camino Real; Eric Rosenblum, a Palantir employee who co-founded the growth-oriented citizens group Palo Alto Forward; and Asher Waldfogel, an entrepreneur who formerly served on the city's Utilities Advisory Commission. Commission Chair Adrian Fine, who like Tanaka is running for council but whose term is not set to expire until 2018, could end up vacating his seat if elected to the council; thus the commission could see four new faces by year's end. (If Fine wins a council seat, the city would start a fresh recruiting process to fill the vacancy.)

The pool of commission applicants is unusually deep this year. Two years ago, when the outgoing council made its last appointments there were only eight candidates vying for two seats. Mayor Pat Burt, who spent several terms on the planning commission before being elected to the council, said Monday that this is the largest group of applicants he has seen in his two decades of civic involvement. Burt, whose philosophical squabble with Downing over growth and housing became a national story earlier this year, said the city is "fortunate to have such a great pool of candidates."

Though its purview is largely limited to making recommendations, the Planning and Transportation Commission is widely considered to be the most powerful of the city's many citizen panels. It reviews all major development proposals, transportation projects and land-use policy changes, and its meetings offer commissioners a platform for challenging the City Council's policies and proposing new solutions to long-festering problems. In the past two years, the commission has at times clashed with the council: Members panned the council's annual limit on new office development and pushed back against the slow-growth policies of the "residentialist" council members.

Last month, the commission took a skeptical stance toward the council's plan to increase impact fees charged to new developments to fund future affordable housing. Even though the council's own Finance Committee had already approved the changes, the proposal has stalled at the commission level in recent months, with members holding two long public hearings on the subject and ultimately deciding to form a subcommittee to further vet the proposed increase.

Commission appointments have mostly been ho-hum affairs, but they have become increasingly political in recent years. Two years ago, the council appointed Downing and Adrian Fine, who currently chairs the commission. Fine was selected over Arthur Keller, a two-term commissioner popular with the council's "residentialists," by a single vote. It didn't help that the vote came just after the November election, which saw residentialist candidates win three seats. Fine's and Downing's appointments were seen by many as a parting shot by the lame-duck council serving out its final weeks.

But just as commission appointments reveal political fissures, they also create political opportunities. Fine, Keller and Greg Tanaka are all now seeking a seat on the council. Burt and Councilwoman Karen Holman had both served on the commission before ascending to the council dais.

This year, the group of candidates is as varied as it is large and includes engineers, architects, school volunteers, attorneys, business executives, civic newcomers and veterans of other local boards. Fourteen people applied before the Sept. 14 deadline; two other applications, including Gardias', were received after the advertised 5:30 p.m. deadline but before the following midnight. The council agreed Monday to interview these candidates as well, raising the number to 16.

Neighborhood activists

Some of the candidates have been involved in the very problems they would be charged with solving, if appointed: Christian Pease, an Evergreen Park resident, has been leading the neighborhood's effort to establish a Residential Parking Permit program, while Frank Ingle became well-versed in the city's review processes after seeing a large two-story house go up near his Eichler home in the Faircourt subdivision.

In their applications, however, candidates focused on the big issues facing the city, rather than parochial priorities. Pease, a film producer, cited as his top concern the adoption of an updated Comprehensive Plan. That's because "the level of consensus, with respect to its outcomes, impacts the commission, as well as council governance, not to mention public confidence in how Palo Alto addresses its problems and opportunities."

"Zoning and effective land use within the 'rules of the game' is paramount in our city where land is so scarce and in such high demand, while we are at the same time both blessed and challenged by unprecedented private sector economic success and expansion," Pease wrote. "The Planning and Transportation Commission must exemplify effective city government, which furthers Palo Alto both as a good place to live as well as one of on-going commercial opportunity."

Ingle made a case in his application for reforming the Individual Review process (the method used by city planners to review single homes that are two stories or higher) by defining the rights of the new property owner versus those of nearby residents. The existing guidelines rely too much on subjective interpretation, at the expense of clarity, he wrote.

"The decisions made by the Planning Department should become precedents which are retained in a list to guide the department in making future similar decisions," Ingle wrote. "This list should be made available to the architectural community, so they can know what design features might be disallowed. And the permit application should be top down, so that the difficult issues such as height and privacy can be decided before the complete design is done. This will minimize friction, cost and delay."

City Hall veterans

Improved clarity is also an important objective for Doria Summa, president of the College Terrace Resident Association, veteran land-use watchdog and member of the Citizens Advisory Committee that is now working to update the Comprehensive Plan. In her application, Summa wrote that "clear and precise language in the Municipal Code benefits all users and leads to a more efficient and fair approval process." Recently, she worked with planning staff on a broad and still ongoing effort to "clean up" the zoning code, an endeavor that she would likely have more influence over if appoined to the commission.

Like Summa, commission candidates Ed Lauing and Claude Ezran have plenty of City Hall experience. Lauing currently serves as chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, where he has spent seven years (including three as chair). Ezran is a former member of the Human Relations Commission, which oversees issues involving social justice and helps to manage the program that allocates grants to local nonprofits. He is also the founder of Palo Alto's annual World Music Day event.

In their respective applications, Lauing and Ezran each pointed to the recent divisions in the community over growth. Lauing wrote that the planning commission should address concerns around land use, housing and traffic more directly by "providing fuller context to council about the pros and cons of various courses of action as well as articulating rationales behind PTC recommendations."

The commission "should provide reasonable, balanced recommendations to council after rigorous thought and debate," wrote Lauing, who also cited the "thousands of interactions" he's had over the years with city staff, council members and community stakeholders.

Ezran said he would try to find a compromise between the city's slow-growth "residentialists" and its housing advocates.

"They both have valid concerns," Ezran wrote. "I believe that sharp divisions are not healthy especially if they continue to linger for too long because they might not lead to the best decisions and the best long term outcome for Palo Alto. I will do my best to be a peacemaker.

The attorneys

Gabriek Kralik, an engineer-turned-attorney, also aims to bring his professional mediation skills to bear to local land-use debates. His law practice is affiliated with the Santa Clara County's Office of Human Relations, where he serves as a mediator, and he was also recently nominated to join the Palo Alto's mediator program.

In his application, Kralik wrote that he is interested in the new 60-apartment development proposed for the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road "because it gives hope that the Palo Alto community can attract technology workers to both live and work here." He also wrote that he favors scorecards that would measure things like "safety, security, livability and quality of life."

Business attorney Rebecca Eisenberg, who volunteers at local schools and serves on the board of directors at Craigslist Foundation and board of advisers at, wrote that she is interested in pursuing road improvements along Embarcadero Road, near El Camino Real, and in addressing the city's dearth of affordable housing. The shortage, she wrote, "harms our community by pricing out our families, seniors and public servants, and reducing diversity." She supports researching the feasibility of allowing second homes on lots and reconsidering requirements for off-street parking.

To reduce traffic and parking problems, she wrote, the city should increase the accessibility of bike lanes and public transit and consider prohibiting overnight parking on streets.

Redirected candidates

Two other candidates, Michelle Kraus and Srinivasan Subramanian, decided to apply for the commission after briefly flirting with seeking election in November. Kraus, who briefly considered a run for the City Council this summer, is a technologist who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party and serves as head of global affairs for the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. She wrote that she believes Palo Alto should "lead Silicon Valley in terms of planning and the future of transit." Her priorities include advanced transportation, rental units across generations and affordable housing for purchase and rental.

Subramanian, a computer scientist and former school board candidate this fall, wrote of his interest in bringing "a different perspective to the issues based on my background and experiences but still rooted in community values."

The architects

Jessica Resmini and David Hirsch, meanwhile, come from architecture backgrounds. Resmini is a project manager at FS3Hodges who wrote in her application that she is "interested in the symbiotic relationship between housing, public transportation, bicycle/pedestrian safety and vehicular traffic." Hirsch, who had spent much of his professional life designing affordable-housing complexes in Brooklyn and the Bronx, cited in his application Brooklyn's transformation from a place where children can play ball on the street to one in which the streets are congested and filled with double-parked cars. Comparatively, he and his wife find "Palo Alto to be a traffic nirvana, except when forced to use 101."

"Traffic and parking issues seem reasonable and manageable here for us as residents. Admittedly the commercial users and certain neighborhoods have a problem, which appear to be recognized and solutions are being considered," Hirsch wrote.

He also lauded University Avenue for what he called its "fantastic buzz" and credited tech workers for creating the buzz by "dreaming away at their business adventures."

"It is exhilarating to see them in their open plan offices tucked into every available loft space," Hirsch wrote in his application. "I'm not convinced they need the glitzy office buildings, however. They do better when they take a more ordinary loft space and play with it. I would wish Palo Alto could control this development more without letting the developer out-price these precious startups."

Gardias, the sole incumbent and the commission's current vice chair, is also an architect. In his application, he wrote that a "proper partnership with the City Council needs to be assured."

"Focus needs to be maintained on professional discussion resulting with identifying, developing and recommending to the council the best option," Gardias wrote.

Technology and business execs

Brian Hamacheck points to his experience in business as a qualification for the position. The CEO of the social network Nearby, Hamacheck wrote in his application that his "professional experience as a technology executive," along with his "deep affection for our city" would make him a valuable addition to the commission.

"Ultimately, I would like to see the commission continue to preserve the unique character of Palo Alto. This city is at a critical point in time, and the decisions made by this commission will determine the type of city Palo Alto becomes."

Natasha Kachenko, an engineer who volunteers with the school district, also believes her professional background will help her deal with complex planning and transportation issues. She wrote that she is particularly interested in collaborations involving the city's new Transportation Management Association to developing a "realistic" approach to shifting commuters from cars to other modes of transportation.

"Work commute is an indefensible practice and it is vital that Palo Alto partner with business commuters and community to engage with TMA's to making Palo Alto mobile," Kachenko wrote.

Reshma Singh, whose background is in architecture and technology and is a program manager at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, is more interested in the bigger picture. Her current professional work is in "smart buildings and cities, particularly around building energy system and energy efficiency," according to her application. She also wrote that she enjoys "scenario planning" and brings experience in "working across public and private sector partners on building technologies, design, lifecycle performance, and building industry trends."

The final applicant is retired economist Tracy Herrick, who didn't list any specific goals that he would focus on but who vowed to act "in a fair, legal and compassionate manner" if appointed.

The vast pool of applicants leaves the council with a wealth of options for filling the commission. It also left council members with a minor logistical dilemma: how to get through all 16 interviews in a timely manner. Normally, each interview for the planning commission takes 15 minutes (for other commissions, it's generally 10). But in recognizing the large stack of applications, the council voted to reduce the time to 10 minutes per applicant (Holman proposed keeping it at 15 minutes but received no support). Councilwoman Liz Kniss lauded the quality of the applications and said Palo Alto is a "very fortunate city."

"I think we have an embarrassment of riches in many ways, to have 16 people who want to serve on our Planning and Transportation Commission," Kniss said.


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52 people like this
Posted by Grrrr
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Grrrr is a registered user.

Palantir employees should never be allowed on the Planning Commission, nor the Architectural Review Board!

It is a conflict of interest-- just as if they were running for school board or city council. No one who works for a large company in Palo Alto has any business running for a seat on the Planning Commission-- or Palo Alto Forward, for that matter!

13 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on Sep 24, 2016 at 10:08 pm

@Grrr: Of course, Palantir is not even one of the top ten employers in the city. (Check wikipedia - they are all much larger than Palantir.) It's notable only because it leases a reasonably large amount of office space downtown (about 15%), and the downtown has so little office space that any medium-sized company will take up a decent chunk of all the space.

18 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2016 at 10:45 pm

@Grrr, by that logic only people who are renters should be allowed to serve on the committee. Anyone who owns a home has a "conflict of interest" because they would potentially stand to financially gain/lose directly as a result of the policies the committee decides on. Similarly, nobody employed by an entity in Palo Alto, period, should be allowed as they too would fit your definition of "conflict of interest".

Now, if you assert than "nobody with a controlling interest in a company in Palo Alto, large or small, should serve on the committee" then I'd say you are closer to something reasonable, but still needlessly restrictive.

30 people like this
Posted by Raising the Bar on PTC Members
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 25, 2016 at 9:50 am

Raising the Bar on PTC Members is a registered user.

Hopefully the City Council can raise the bar with their choices for PTC members this time. The recent PTC was very ineffective and even getting a quorum was a challenge. The two most recent PTC members (both Palo Alto Forward steering committee members) were on a mission to urbanize downtown Palo Alto and the remaining one is currently endorsing Mike Greenfield's article saying Palo Altan's who don't agree with his vision for significantly upzoning and densifying downtown are anti-imigrant and Trump supporters before going on to endorse Fine & Tanaka.

4 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2016 at 2:58 pm

This all brings to mind the classic Laurel & Hardy quote, "Well! Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into!" More slapstick humor from City Hall. It's a wonder anyone apllies for these posts since the way the applicatons are written everyone, and I mean "everyone" has a conflict of interest for the planning commission.

24 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Jessica Clark
a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 25, 2016 at 8:13 pm

Once again not enough discussion about housing for the wonderful hardworking families being displaced and uprooted that have been here for decades on decades. My community is dissolving before my eyes. I know people on all sides of this discussion and it is frustrating. Stop blaming Palantir, stop blaming residentialists, just stop it! The only people who suffer from it are families like mine and less those fortunate.

29 people like this
Posted by ResidentP
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 25, 2016 at 8:57 pm

ResidentP is a registered user.

@Jessica -- I think that everyone who lives in Palo Alto suffers from the lack of diversity, not just the folks who are struggling to afford to live here.(*) And so, AFAIK, all of the candidates want to maintain Palo Alto's historically diverse and vibrant community. No one wants to become Atherton (apologies to those readers who live there).

The question is -- how do we restore Palo Alto to its more diverse roots, without destroying the other aspects of Palo Alto that we all know and love. We have already overbuilt on the commercial side, which is arguably the cause of much of this strife. How do we correct the imbalance and ensure that many types of families can continue to thrive here? It would be a bad idea to race ahead and overbuild on the residential side to compensate, piling error upon error. Instead, we should do planning. What do we want Palo Alto to look like in 50 years, wrt demographics, parks, schools, industry, taxes, revenue, and so forth? Before we build more housing, and grow the population of Palo Alto, we should evaluate infrastructure needs, understand costs and how we will pay for them, look at converting commercial to residential, and so forth.

Yet several of the candidates claim to know the answers already, and urge us to densify Palo Alto immediately, without much consideration for capping and converting commercial development, assessing the costs of building infrastructure for any new population, understanding how to keep much of the new housing truly affordable and occupied by a diverse work force, etc.

Think carefully. Do you love Palo Alto? Then advocate for those candidates who want to take the time to think about how to maintain a diverse and thriving culture and community, while keeping the essential aspects of Palo Alto intact. It is not an easy problem, despite what some people may claim.

(*) Just to add a note. It is tough to be move ("uprooted" as you say). But I know many folks who have moved to other areas, and are thrilled with their new homes. They are more affordable, less busy, less stressed. Many of us stay for some reason -- a job, to be near family, etc. But those who can move and do move are often the more fortunate ones these days.

6 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 6:59 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

@curmudgeon, would you care to elaborate on what, in your mind, constitutes a "grown up"? I think I have an idea and I think it's kind of offensive, but maybe I'm wrong.

9 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 7:25 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Since @grrr is throwing out unreasonable and ridiculous criteria for excluding certain residents, I'd like to suggest two equally silly (but no more ridiculous than @grrrs) of my own:

1: You can't be older than 60 years old because it's not fair that younger generations should have to live with decisions of residents who might not be here as long.

2. You can't have a base property tax value that was set before 1990, because you are not paying your fair share of taxes. Why should your opinion matter?

31 people like this
Posted by Employee?!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 26, 2016 at 10:33 am

Eric Rosenblum, is not just a Palantir employee; he is an executive who influences the company's longer term strategy, and stands to gain significantly (a lot more than the "regular" employee) from the company's financial success.

I do not feel that his contribution to the decisions and actions of the commission will not be free from bias due his "daytime" job. He has a significant conflict of interest: personal gain versus residents of PA.

10 people like this
Posted by grown-ups
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 26, 2016 at 10:50 am

[Post removed.]

31 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2016 at 10:57 am

Don't let Palo Alto become a company town! Palantir has been exerting undue influence by packing the planning commission, and running stealth city council candidates. This is the election where we can finally stop corporate control of our city.

2 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 11:35 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 11:43 am

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 26, 2016 at 11:43 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

Whether or not an applicant or candidate has a conflict of interest is determined by legal language in the Municipal Code. You can look it up - it's in Title 2. There are rules about how far away from a subject project you live or own property, whether you have had financial dealings above a certain amount with the applicants within a certain period of time, etc.

It's ironic that some people want their representatives to be completely neutral, when the whole idea of local government is that elected officials have a stake in their communities. Otherwise, we'd have San Carlos residents running our town, and we would be applying for the planning commission in Santa Cruz.

1 person likes this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 12:05 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 12:17 pm

[Post removed.]

22 people like this
Posted by Wishful thinking
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm

I am for affordable housing. But how to achieve reasonably priced housing in a market that has been driven sky high by commercial developers wanting big profits is the real question. We obviously have plenty of office space now--more than enough if work/housing balance is important. Not sure why Palo Alto has to be urban anyway. There are cities north and south of us for those who want urbanized surroundings.

3 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 12:46 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2016 at 2:47 pm

[Post removed.]

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Rather than discuss who shouldn't be on, how about looking for some qualities we think those on the committee should have.

Here's my list - no special order and not exclusive.

1. Be a homeowner or renter in Palo Alto for a minimum of 5 years.

2. Be employed, self employed or retired, or married to someone who is.

3. Have at least a high school diploma.

4. Be able to answer simple questions about the town e.g. where are the approximate town boundaries, are PAUSD and City of Palo Alto the same thing and what are their differences? and the same about Stanford.

5. Understand where are property taxes go, and what they cover.

6. Understand what our utility bills include.

7. Be able to do basic a - b route finding around town without using Google.

It is amazing to me how so many people seem to not know the answers to these types of questions and then expect to be on a position of authority in local government.

8 people like this
Posted by Chuckle of the day
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 26, 2016 at 6:04 pm

Observer defending Palantir says "downtown has so little office space that any medium-sized company will take up a decent chunk of all the space."

Fortune says"Palantir, currently valued at about $20 billion" Web Link

To Observer, a TWENTY BILLION DOLLAR company is medium-sized. Thanks for the laugh, Observer.

Like this comment
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 26, 2016 at 7:10 pm

I suppose Resident also wants a property ownership requirement to vote.

Also, by Grrr's logic, all property owners have a conflict of interest because restricting development increases the value of property. So, no property owners.

11 people like this
Posted by One more about Palantir
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 26, 2016 at 11:44 pm

Here's one more piece of news about Palantir if you are wondering who they are and their practices. They are being sued by the Labor Dept due to discriminatory practices. This is one of the big supporters of Palo Alto Forward and the grow-at-all-costs initiatives.

Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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