Stewart Carl began his civic involvement on the ground. More recently, he shifted his focus to the sky.
A decade ago, the College Terrace neighborhood resident was part of a citizens group who vetted Stanford University's housing proposals and, years later, reviewed plans for the block-long College Terrace Centre development on El Camino Real. Two years ago, he co-founded a citywide citizens group called Sky Posse, which is advocating for reducing airplane noise and has largely succeeded in elevating the topic on city and county agendas.
Now, as a candidate for the City Council, he is back to surveying the city's development landscape and is troubled by what he sees: too many offices, too much congestion and suboptimal architecture. In response to a survey by the residents' group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, he wrote that the city is "become a hodgepodge of incompatible architectural styles, with office park and strip-mall-style architecture increasingly intruding into and looming over residential homes, parks, small retailers and the pedestrian streetscape."
The chief culprit, in his view, is commercial development. His campaign slogan -- "Less office. More Q of L" -- succinctly lays out the vision of Carl and others who hold a slow-growth philosophy on city development. It also implies a causal relationship between the two: The city's recent office growth is threatening its "quality of life."
Though this idea is widely accepted among the city's "residentialists," Carl's preferred remedy goes further than most: a moratorium on office development. The freeze would stay in effect until the city figures out how to address all of the problems that new projects create.
In a recent interview with the Weekly, Carl called office construction the "engine that's driving development in Palo Alto, and it's a highly leveraged engine." An employee, he noted, may only need 75 square feet of space to work in, but housing this person would require 750 square feet. Such growth of office space, in his view, is not sustainable.
"It's stressing all of our infrastructure," Carl said. "It's stressing our ability to provide housing. It's stressing our parking. It's stressing our traffic. It's putting stress on our retail by pushing up the cost of real estate We really need to take a breather. ... It's time to put a moratorium on and really figure out how we're going to cope."
It's not just the quantity of new developments that trouble Carl; it's also the quality. He is concerned about recent developments that won approval from the city's Architectural Review Board, only to face appeals by citizens and get struck down by the City Council (the two most recent cases are the downtown developments at 437 Lytton Ave. and 429 University Ave.). In Carl's view, the city must improve the "independence and professionalism" of the board so that the council won't have to spend hours designing projects -- which is not its area of expertise.
"All art is subjective. That doesn't mean it's arbitrary and that one decision is no better than the other," Carl told the Weekly. "There is better architecture and there is worse architecture, and we need a high level of architects to sort it all out."
As a relative newcomer to the city's land-use debate, Carl has found allies on the slow-growth wing on the council, with Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Greg Schmid all endorsing his campaign. Former council members Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel, conservationists and stalwarts of the original "residentialist" movement in the 1960s and 1970s, are also backing him.
Carl was born in suburban Philadelphia, studied transportation design and industrial design in southern California and moved to the Bay Area to earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. After stints at several Silicon Valley companies and renting "all over Palo Alto," he settled in College Terrace about two decades ago and now works as a self-employed product-development consultant.
Like others with slow-growth leanings, Carl opposes any new buildings that would exceed the city's 50-foot height limit. He also firmly rejects the idea that the city should significantly expand its housing stock to accommodate the heavy demand for Palo Alto homes. At a recent forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, he argued that the city cannot possibly build such housing without "compromising our quality of life." While other candidates are calling for new programs that would enable housing for teachers, police officers and other service workers, Carl believes that Palo Alto is simply past the point where it can be an affordable place for these types of employees.
"There's no such a thing as 'affordable housing' in Palo Alto," Carl said. "Just using that term misleads people. We can talk about expensive housing and somewhat less expensive housing, but that's really what we're dealing with here. I don't think that, given the macroeconomic climate, we can make Palo Alto affordable in a free market to teachers and people like that."
Carl also doesn't agree with the city's approach to solving transportation problems, which leans heavily on promoting "transportation demand management" programs at companies. He believes it is short-sighted to rely on plans in which businesses provide transit subsidies, ride-share services and bike amenities to get workers to switch from commuting alone in cars to taking other modes of transit.
In an interview with the Weekly, he said the city's traffic-reduction efforts are "fig leaves that paper over and hide the real transportation problems we're having ... letting people pretend like we're solving them while we're not."
Instead, he said at the Chamber forum, the city should be a "leader in new transportation technologies like network ride-sharing services and driverless cars that can provide a safe transportation system for our seniors."
In Carl's view, cars -- which he said aren't going out of style anytime soon -- aren't the problem. The problem is the office development that brings the cars in the first place and that he -- if elected -- would try to get under control.
"Cars don't cause traffic," Carl said. "Traffic is caused by too many cars coming to Palo Alto to work in the offices we have overbuilt in the last decade."