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Len Ely

'If you're happy with how the city is functioning, I'm probably not your candidate'

Try it. If it doesn't work, try something else.

It's the mantra of a thousand Silicon Valley startups. It's also the modus operandi of Leonard Ely III, a City Council candidate who doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

Ely, a commercial real-estate broker with the firm Renault & Handley, doesn't have a list of endorsers or, as he puts it, a "political agenda." While others tout their experiences on the city's planning commission or their decades as neighborhood activists, Ely characterizes himself as "just a guy" looking to get things done.

That lack of action, he argues, has been the problem with the City Council in recent decades. Council members talk a big game, but they actually don't do anything about the issues they talk about, he said. They talk about building new parks, but the city doesn't even do an adequate job maintaining existing ones. They talk about how noisy gas-powered leaf-blowers are, but the city barely enforces its ban on the appliances. And, of course, they've been talking for decades about Palo Alto's insufficient housing stock while watching the problem get progressively worse.

"If you're happy with how the city is functioning, I'm probably not your candidate," Ely told the audience at the September forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.

Ely is a Palo Alto resident who is challenging the "Palo Alto process." He wants less studying and more doing; less analysis and more problem-solving. At a recent League of Women Voters forum, he cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt's axiom to try some method and "it if fails, admit it frankly and try another." Ely wants to bring this approach to Palo Alto, a city where residents have been "tolerating stagnation" for too long.

To emphasize this point, Ely cited a Palo Alto Times article from 1973 in which officials raised concerns about the city's worsening jobs-housing imbalance. At that time, the city had more than two jobs for every housing unit; today, the ratio is greater than three to one.

"In the 43 years, we've identified a problem, a lot of people talked about it, and we've spent endless amounts of money and staff time studying it, and we haven't fixed it," Ely told the Weekly.

Ely doesn't entirely agree with some of the actions that the council has taken on issues relating to development. He is not a fan of the city's recently adopted annual cap on new office development, and he doesn't think much of the council's recent decision to ban the conversion of ground-floor retail space to other uses. When the owner of 100 Addison Ave. (former site of Addison Antiques) requested a waiver from the ground-floor requirement, Ely was one of several speakers who urged the council to support the request, arguing that the site on downtown's periphery just isn't good for retail.

Ely believes that rather than issuing sweeping regulations, the city should look at the particular circumstances, merits and drawbacks of each project and decide accordingly.

"We have a cookie-cutter policy," Ely told the Weekly. "So if you're building a little building over here, you're under the same restrictions as if you're building a multi-story, multi-tenant building in Stanford Research Park or out in the Baylands. I really believe you have to look at these projects on their merits and not just say, 'If you don't do this, then you can't build that.'"

Consistent with that philosophy, Ely believes that limiting developments in the downtown core to 50 feet is a mistake.

"This is a place that we could make denser and have affordable housing, possibly even housing that our first responders can live in," Ely said at a Palo Alto Neighborhoods forum.

But downtown isn't his only answer. Ely believes the council should be more ambitious in proposing new housing, even if these projects are inherently controversial. The biggest challenge in building housing in Palo Alto is the land cost, he said, which means that the city should first identify land that can be provided at "zero cost" to enable housing for teachers, firefighters and others who would not be able to otherwise afford it.

"That would be my first thing: identify those places," Ely told the Weekly. "If they are on parklands, we'd have to go to the voters. And if we went to the voters and they turned it down, they obviously don't want to have affordable housing in Palo Alto."

Ely hasn't served on any local commissions, but he believes his background in philanthropy would serve him well if he's elected. His father, Leonard Ely II, was a well-known businessman and philanthropist who served on the boards of dozens of local nonprofits and who helped form what is now the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Following in his father's footsteps, Ely served on the boards at Adolescent Counseling Services, the Stevenson House and the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo. As a board member at the children's zoo, Ely worked on one of the city's least controversial housing developments: the reconstruction of the zoo's bobcat cage. At the Chamber of Commerce forum last month, Ely said that one thing that the city can do to help maintain its wide array of services is rely more on local nonprofits.

"I think the nonprofits who work with a lot of our city services should be given a little more leeway in building things and doing things that they in turn give back to the city," Ely said.

As someone new to City Hall politics, Ely is not afraid to take an outlier position or acknowledge his ignorance about a particular subject. He has just recently learned about the city's Transportation Management Association (TMA), the nonprofit that the city formed to combat traffic congestion by offering commuters transit passes, ride-share programs and other mode-switching amenities. At last month's Bike Palo Alto event, he approached a staff member from the TMA stand and had a long conversation about the new approach, which he believes is well worth trying. Yet he has also spoken to people who are more skeptical and who note that many of downtown's commuters have multiple jobs, work odd hours or have other circumstances that preclude them from taking Caltrain.

"I think one of the benefits of my candidacy is that I don't know anything, so I come in and when we talk about something, I find out about it and I learn about it from both sides, not just one side," Ely said.

Furthermore, while he believes in public transportation, his position on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's proposed bus cuts in Palo Alto veers from those of other candidates. While others stridently oppose the cuts, Ely favors talking to the VTA about switching to the VTA smaller buses in the north county. In his response to a Palo Alto Neighborhoods survey, he observed that many of the buses that go past his house near Middlefield Road appear empty or have just one or two riders.

"I think this is strictly an economic issue and legislating the solution will just make the rest of the county subsidize our buses," Ely said. "Also, the environmental impact of underutilized buses is enormous."

And on the topic of high-speed rail, he was clearly in the minority when he said at a League of Women Voters forum earlier this month that he supports California's high-speed rail project and that he does not believe grade separation of Caltrain is feasible in the city.

That's not to say, however, that all of his positions stray from the mean. He believes, like most of his fellow candidates, that Palo Alto should continue to fund an animal-services operation, that it should regulate Airbnb rentals and that it should support the electrification of Caltrain. But in discussing his candidacy in recent forums, Ely has emphasized the difference between him and the other 10 candidates.

"I believe I can bring to the City Council a different vision, not clouded by being endorsed by a lot of people," Ely said at the Palo Alto Neighborhoods Forum. "I'm looking forward to being able to work with the City Council and try to move us forward and not study things so much and make more decisions."

Editor's note: The candidate's father, Leonard Ely II, who died in 2011, was one of the Weekly's original stakeholders; his widow, Shirley, remains a shareholder.

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