Homeless veterans. Struggling nonprofits. Seniors struggling to make it on a fixed income.
These are some of the constituents of Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission, an advisory board that tries to use its soft powers (convening forums, making recommendations on grants to nonprofits) to tackle hard issues. And Greer Stone, the commission's energetic chair, believes the city can do a lot more to help those in need -- those who find themselves on the fringes of Palo Alto's upper crust.
Stone, who at 27 is the youngest of the 11 candidates in the race, hasn't been involved in the city's recent bitter land-use tussles, but in his brief but busy career in civic service, he's become well-versed with local housing and transportation problems. As a member of the commission, he had a hand in evaluating needy nonprofits and organizing forums on issues such as affordable housing, veterans and mental health. The commission's Veterans Summit last October brought about 100 people to City Hall, including Colonel Nicole Malachowski, the director of the White House initiative to end homelessness, and several veterans who talked about their struggles to adjust to life after war. The event ended with then-Mayor Karen Holman signing a pledge to end veterans' homelessness.
This spirit of compassionate collaboration is what Stone, the son of a teacher and a deputy sheriff, hopes to bring to the council. Born in Redwood City, he graduated from Palo Alto schools and earned a law degree from Santa Clara University in 2012. The following year, at the age of 23, he won an appointment to the commission, rising to vice chair in 2014 and to chair in 2015. His service on the commission, he said, has allowed him to see the city "from a completely different point of view."
"I talked to people who feel invisible: the unhoused, the people who suffer from mental health issues, our teenagers and senior citizens," Stone said.
Now, the Midtown resident believes his insights and experiences will help him make a valuable contribution to the council, which remains roughly split between slow-growth "residentialists" and those more amenable to new development. Stone said he envisions himself as "an independent."
Yet Stone's council bid has the backing of the council's slow-growth faction, with Holman co-chairing his campaign committee (along with Mayor Pat Burt, who sometimes votes with the "residentialists"), and Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth each endorsing his council run. He believes the city's 50-foot height limit for new buildings is essential to preserving Palo Alto as an aesthetically pleasing place. He is also skeptical about the creation of new accessory-dwelling units (ADUs or "granny" units), noting that once they're built they can be used as gyms and home offices.
"Even if we could regulate the use of these ADUs, code enforcement would be nearly impossible," Stone wrote in a response to a questionnaire by the group Palo Alto Neighborhoods . "During a time when code enforcement has been nearly nonexistent, to believe we could enforce uses of these ADUs is laughable."
The city, he said, shouldn't try to provide housing for everyone who wants it -- an impossible task by all accounts. Rather, it should focus on teachers, first-responders and other service workers who are essential to Palo Alto and who are increasingly priced out of the city.
"We have to focus housing on those who need it most," Stone said at the Sept. 29 forum hosted by Palo Alto Neighborhoods.
To do that, Stone said the city should beef up its inclusionary-zoning requirement by directing new housing developments to offer 25 percent of their units at below the market rate (up from the current set-aside of 15 percent). He also wants to talk with the Palo Alto Unified School District about the prospect of using district sites for teacher housing, a concept that he said has been implemented effectively in Santa Clara. Above all, Stone said, new housing should be compatible with the neighborhood in which it's built. He also wants to take away a developer's ability to claim a "hardship" and to pay an in-lieu fee instead of providing the required below-market-rate housing.
"There is a balance there of being able to add affordable housing, but doing it in a slow, paced way that really reflects the values of the neighborhood ... and the look and feel of the neighborhood," he said.
Stone is even more cautious when it comes to office growth. He supports retaining the cap on new office developments in downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real, and conditioning new development in Stanford Research Park on Stanford's ability to decrease traffic congestion. He would like to see downtown leases restricted to companies with 50 or fewer employees, a move that he believes will help the city retain its legacy as an incubator of innovation (once a company outgrows its location, it should be encouraged to move to Stanford Research Park, he said).
When it comes to the city's efforts to improve traffic flow, Stone believes the city should do more to ensure that the "transportation demand management" (TDM) programs proposed by developers -- which typically include offering workers subsidies, bike programs and ride-share options -- actually work.
"Currently, I feel the TDM policies are not enforced," Stone said. "Developers can say, 'I'll make sure traffic will be reduced by 20 percent' and we believe them. ... They don't follow up, and there's no teeth to the policy. What do they fear? Nothing."
To address that, Stone would require all new developments to include transportation-demand-management policies that would reduce the project's potential resulting traffic by at least 30 percent. He would then require the developer to return to the council a year after the project is completed to prove that the plan has worked. If it hasn't, the city would assess a penalty and use the fees it collects for traffic-decongestion projects.
At the same time, Stone thinks the city should be proactively pursuing some new developments: He wants a new playground in north Palo Alto modeled after Mitchell Park's recently constructed Magical Bridge playground, which offers amenities for children of all abilities, and a new public swimming pool in north Palo Alto, too.
Much like Burt and the council's residentialist members, Stone believes the recent tech boom has exacerbated the city's 3-to-1 jobs-housing imbalance (the ratio of jobs in the city to employed resident), which he calls "the root of many of the woes we're facing in Palo Alto." He believes his approach to restricting office growth and building new housing in a careful, focused way is the best way to address this problem.
"We should not sacrifice quality for quantity but instead ensure that even higher-density housing is high-quality housing that we can all be proud of," Stone wrote in the PAN questionnaire. "This includes having adequate access to light, parkland and aesthetically pleasing buildings."