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Arthur Keller

'We need to be careful about our experiments'

Arthur Keller, a data-crunching veteran of Palo Alto's land-use battles, officially announced his run for City Council on July 28.

Unofficially, he did so on Nov. 10, 2014, days after an election that brought a slow-growth "residentialist" majority to the council and minutes after the lame-duck City Council voted not to reappoint him to the city's Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC). At the same meeting, the council appointed two new members: attorney Kate Downing, who co-founded the group Palo Alto Forward and this summer penned a provocative resignation letter that blasted the city's housing policies, and College Terrace resident Adrian Fine, a 29-year-old newcomer to civic service who works at the social-network company NextDoor.

Commission votes don't normally cause a sensation, but this was no ordinary vote and Keller was no ordinary commissioner. Since 2006, he had been a leading critic of Palo Alto's dense developments and growth policies. He voted against the controversial mixed-use developments Alma Plaza and College Terrace Centre (he later supported a revised version of the latter) and likened the new affordable-housing complex at 801 Alma St. to a European fortress (its "little windows," he said, look like someone will fire arrows from them). And during the commission's painstaking review of the massive expansion of Stanford University Medical Center, he was known for asking tough questions and challenging projections and assumptions.

An example of this came in June 2010, when Keller questioned the wisdom of creating the type of "hospital zone" that Stanford was requesting -- zoning that would allow the density Stanford was looking for. Keller made the case for further studying the project's expected traffic impacts and argued that simply changing the name of the zone won't actually do anything to ease these problems. Or, as Keller put it: "Just because a hamburger calls itself caviar doesn't make it so, particularly if it tastes better with ketchup."

Keller's removal from the commission was supported by three council members who were concluding their terms the following month, as well as Greg Scharff and Marc Berman. Given Keller's history of skepticism toward development, his ouster was seen by many as the council's parting shot at an electorate that repudiated their views on growth.

That night, Keller fired his own parting shot. Minutes after the vote, he thanked the council for allowing him to serve, promised to stay engaged in local issues and left them with a Terminator-style message: I'll be back.

"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.

Keller made good on these promises. Since 2014, he has served on the Citizens Advisory Committee that is working to update the city's Comprehensive Plan and was elected co-chair by the group's members. He regularly attends council meetings to offer thoughts on planning scenarios, proposed developments and transportation projects. He is part of the group that launched a petition to preserve CinéArts at Palo Alto Square, which the theater's parent company was set to close in August but subsequently decided to continue operating for two years. He has also been leading the opposition to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's proposal to cut its paratransit buses.

And, sure enough, he's running for council.

If Keller succeeds, he won't have to worry about being a lone voice in the wilderness. All four-and-a-half of the council's "residentialists" support his campaign, with Karen Holman, Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois serving as his honorary campaign co-chairs and Greg Schmid and Pat Burt (the council's swing vote) endorsing him.

That's not to say that Keller is opposed to all growth. He voted, for instance, in favor of the Lytton Gateway development at Alma Street and Lytton Avenue after developers agreed to make contributions to the city's parking fund and include electric-vehicle charging stations in the four-story project. He also voted for the controversial housing development on Maybell Avenue, a project that voters overturned in a referendum in 2013. Keller also said he supports building some new housing, provided it's housing for seniors and small apartments for one- and two-person households (Keller points out that such households comprise about 60 percent of the city population, while studios and one-bedroom apartments make up only 20 percent of the city's housing stock). He also supports requiring 25 percent of new housing developments to be set aside as below-market-rate housing (up from the current 15 percent).

For Keller, the bigger problem isn't the addition of housing but its impacts on local schools. Likewise, offices aren't inherently problematic, but their effects on local traffic and parking are.

Needless to say, he is skeptical about a current proposal to rezone a property on the busy corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real to enable a development with 60 small (about 500 square feet) apartments and only 45 parking spots. Under most zoning designations, such a development would have to provide between 92 and 100 spaces. The plan relies heavily on the developer's transportation-demand-management programs, which aim to keep renters from owning cars. These include the provision of free transit passes, ride-share services and bicycling amenities (including a "bike kitchen" at the ground floor).

"The parking reductions proposed for this project are not based on experience with multiple comparable developments but are based on aspirational reductions in car ownership," Keller wrote in a response to a questionnaire from the residents' group Palo Alto Neighborhoods. "With only 6 percent of Palo Alto households not having any car, this is a recipe for spillover parking in the surrounding neighborhood, which does not have a Residential Parking Permit Program."

Keller pointed to the project as an example of "spot zoning" -- i.e., zoning created to fit the proposed project, a process that "residentialists" reject as not honoring the city's land-use vision.

While cautious when it comes to growth policies, the Brooklyn-born data scientist is otherwise quite at home in Palo Alto's culture of innovation. Keller moved to Palo Alto in 1977 and earned a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University. After a stint as an assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin, he returned to Palo Alto and has since taught and conducted research at both Stanford and University of California, Santa Cruz. He advises startups and recently served on a city's Electric Vehicle Task Force, which helped craft the 2014 ordinance that requires all new commercial developments and apartment buildings to install EV-ready infrastructure.

But when it comes to development or transportation, Keller is less interested in experimenting and more interested in data. He elaborated on his philosophy at the Sept. 29 forum sponsored by Palo Alto Neighborhoods: "I think we do need to be experimenting, but we need to understand that when we say that a building will be built as an experiment that building will be built for 50 years," Keller said at the event. "We need to be careful about our experiments."

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5 people like this
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:16 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I endorsed Arthur Keller because of his depth of knowledge and long time experience with city issues, particularly land use issues. With the loss of Pat Burt and Greg Schmid on Council (due to term limits) we need his expertise. Please vote for Arthur on Nov 8th.

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