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.
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.
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 Kiva.org, 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.
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."
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.