When residents of Palo Alto rose up in 2013 to overturn freshly approved plans for a housing development on Maybell Avenue, the level of opposition seemed to catch most city officials by surprise.
But Greg Tanaka, a member of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, saw the revolt coming from miles away. In February 2013, months before the opposition began to gather steam, Tanaka looked at the empty Council Chambers during a public hearing for the project and spotted a problem -- a lack of awareness.
"I think if the people really knew what was being built across the street, there would be more of an outcry there," he said at that meeting, referring to the proposed 60-apartment building for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes.
For Tanaka, who has spent six years on the planning commission and last year served as the commission's chair, community buy-in is key to any major decision. While that in itself is not an unusual position for a City Council candidate (no one campaigns against community collaboration), Tanaka takes this to a new level and he backs up these words with votes.
That February, he was one of two commissioners who voted against initiating a zone change that would enable the Maybell project because of concern about a lack of neighborhood buy-in. He was also one of only two planning commissioners who in 2012 opposed the Lytton Gateway development, a four-story office building at the corner of Alma Street and Lytton Avenue. At the time, he argued that the developer should build more actual parking for the general public instead of simply contributing to the city's parking fund.
Yet despite his skepticism on these prominent and controversial projects, Tanaka isn't known as either a slow-growth "residentialist" or a "pro-growth" housing advocate. Among the most notable features of Tanaka's civic service is his consistent habit of steering clear of ideological camps. Tanaka's ideology, such as it is, is non-ideological by design.
"If you don't have a true dialogue, you'll have a firestorm," Tanaka said at a recent interview, recalling the Maybell episode. "If you try to look through one lens, you get a stalemate.
"Going to a project or plan with a predetermined idea of what's right is actually wrong because it alienates people. You're not necessarily productive," he said.
For Tanaka, the lessons of the Maybell referendum are clear: Before the city talks about broad solutions to its housing problems, everyone -- council members, property owners, immediate neighbors and other community stakeholders -- needs to come to the table to air views and vent frustrations. And before the city makes any major policy decision or approves any development, there needs to be plenty of data and analysis to support the change. Putting labels on people and proposing dramatic solutions without adequate outreach or data are the surest paths to failure, from Tanaka's perspective.
Both Tanaka's rigor and his spirit of inclusiveness were reflected in how he conducted himself as chair of the planning commission in 2015. Every issue was thoroughly vetted and every question or concern that any commissioner brought up was placed on a list. The commission would then painstakingly go through that list (which at times included more than a dozen items) and every member would have a chance to support, oppose and elaborate on each issue. This method often led to extremely long meetings. But it also led to increased clarity about where every commissioner stood on every aspect of a given policy. It also ensured that no stone was left unturned.
So what are Tanaka's personal perspectives on how to achieve progress? That is less clear, even on the major issues. His position on collaboration is so strong that it seemingly crowds out all others.
On the recently adopted 50,000-square-foot cap on office development, Tanaka and his commission colleagues in 2014 blasted it as an approach a "blunt tool." But now he says he would like to see the cap remain until the city updates its Comprehensive Plan.
Asked to articulate a vision for the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, whose closure -- and possible rescue -- is pending, he said he's seeking a solution that the public will accept.
More recently, Tanaka and his colleagues have slowed down the city's plan to raise impact fees that developers have to contribute for affordable housing. After holding two hearings on the topic and reviewing more than 300 pages of analysis, the commission agreed to form a subcommittee to future vet the topic before making any recommendations (former planning commissioner Arthur Keller, who is running against Tanaka, recently chided this approach as "paralysis by analysis.")
Despite the occasional policy disagreements, Tanaka has earned support from the more pro-growth council members, including Cory Wolbach and Greg Scharff. He has also been endorsed by state Assemblyman Rich Gordon and other Democratic dignitaries and, as of mid-October, was vying with Liz Kniss for the highest contributions received in the race.
Tanaka, a Los Angeles native and high-tech entrepreneur, dove into local issues about a decade ago, shortly after he moved to Palo Alto. He has served as the president of the College Terrace Residents Association and as a member of the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee, which surveyed the city's infrastructure needs and proposed ways to fund the projects.
Tanaka is currently the CEO of the company Percolata, which helps retailers recruit optimal sales staff. He believes working professionals don't get as much representation in City Hall as they should and he hopes to correct this.
"The voice of working professionals, especially working families, is very, very small," Tanaka said in a recent interview. "Even though they pay the bulk of the taxes and make the bulk of the population, their voice is not well-heard today."
Tanaka's business commitments have occasionally got in the way of his civic duties. Earlier this year, he had to attend meetings in Seattle, which fell on Wednesday nights, and missed four commission meetings, more than any other commissioner. Though civic watchdogs raised their eyebrows, Tanaka said the absences were anomalies. Throughout his entire commission tenure, his attendance record is higher than 90 percent, and he vows that, if elected to the council, meeting attendance will not be an issue.
At a Palo Alto Neighborhoods-sponsored forum, he reiterated one of the biggest lessons he's learned through his years of civic service: "It's really important to hear the community's voice and to hear community concerns about what's needed, what are the impacts and how do we make sure we maintain our quality of life," Tanaka said. "That's something I've always done."