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Residents' beefs get an airing at neighborhood 'town hall'

City of Palo Alto officials host meeting to listen to concerns

City officials launched the first 2016 neighborhood 'town hall' meeting on Wednesday night in College Terrace to give residents a chance to air their concerns about their neighborhood's issues.

The Wednesday night meeting, which is the third neighborhood forum since Palo Alto officials began their citywide outreach in 2015, took place at Escondido Elementary School. About 20 residents discussed bicycle and pedestrian safety, traffic, hazardous materials, construction trucks, code enforcement and maintaining neighborhood diversity, among other topics.

"We all understand there are a lot of systemic issues in our city. We're tremendously affected by neighboring cities," City Manager Jim Keene said, noting that the equivalent of a new city is being built next to U.S. Highway 101 around the San Francisco Bay to accommodate workers from Google and other large tech and social media firms. That growth will add to the area's -- and Palo Alto's -- existing traffic, parking and housing problems.

Keene was joined by sitting Councilmen Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach, and Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello. Councilwoman Karen Holman, incoming Councilwoman Lydia Kou and incoming Planning and Transportation Commissioner Doria Summa were also on hand in the audience to hear residents' concerns.

For College Terrace, parking was largely addressed when the neighborhood became the first in the city to implement a Residential Parking Permit Program, which has now spread to other neighborhoods where commuter and employee parking has clogged streets. But traffic that impacts students who don't have a delineated bike path along key routes to school and construction trucks working on the Mayfield development at Stanford Research Park have continued to plague the neighborhood's peace and safety.

The antics of drivers who have used neighborhood streets as a truck route in violation of the truck-route ordinance have nearly caused catastrophe. In one case, a truck sheered off a fire hydrant, which catapulted into a yard where a child was playing. In another recent incident, a driver verbally assaulted a mother in front of her 5-year-old child because she told him he was blocking her driveway. Police said they could not do anything because they didn't see the driver blocking the driveway, said Diane Finkelstein, whose neighbor was the one verbally abused.

"I know we don't live in Atherton where people call the police because someone is walking down the street who isn't dressed right. But when you feel threatened, police should respond," she said.

Mello said that although the transportation division doesn't have any enforcement power over the trucks, he could help residents to work with the public works department to crack down. Contractors would not want projects to be jeopardized or delayed, and they will think about complying, he said.

Effective code enforcement is also a concern, residents said. A number of illegal residences pose fire and safety hazards. Code enforcement personnel are very polite but they haven't done much about it, residents said.

Wolbach suggested the city should look to see if three officers are adequate, considering the many issues and complaints.

Keene and Mello said the city would also address the functioning of the city's 311 system, which allows citizens to file online concerns about issues. Some residents said they haven't seen a response to their complaints. Mello said he was saddened to learn that some reports appeared to have fallen through the cracks. He vowed to investigate what happened to the individual reports.

Losing the neighborhood's diversity, which is a mix of apartments and small and large single-family homes, is also troubling, residents said.

"I love that my nanny lives in this neighborhood," Leah Russin said. But the city's high rents are threatening that mix, and her nanny may be forced out because rent is going so high. Stringent zoning codes and the high cost of additions also made it impossible for Russin to add a live-in nanny unit to her home, she said, and she and others urged the city to revise some of its ordinances.

DuBois said that the city has been resistant to talk about rent restrictions. "But it's probably time to include that," he said.

Kathy Durham said that many small "village residential" homes -- small clusters of homes built around a cul-de-sac in a sort of pocket neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s -- are being razed for mega-homes.

"Please think about what you can do. That really matters here for our diversity," she said.

The city has many illegal units, and it should make College Terrace a test case for modifying rules, residents said. That could help ease some of the housing crisis, they said. The codes are antiquated; the city requires a 20-foot front setback, for example, which is a waste of space because it is only used for lawns. Instead, if residences are built closer to the street they could have a back yard where there is more room to build an addition or second unit, residents said.

College Terrace residents also face a threat that is not apparent in many other neighborhoods: the potential for hazardous materials from Stanford Research Park to migrate under their homes. Recent concerns about the spread of hazardous trichloroethylene (TCE), which was found at the Mayfield construction site, caused some residents to hire their own contractor to test for TCE vapors under their homes. Soil vapor levels were tested under 19 homes. At six homes, the levels exceed the allowable levels mandated by state and federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Stanford agreed to develop a plan for testing some of the homes. The plan was due by Oct. 28, residents said. But they have not gotten any further communication from the university, resident Ed Schmitt said.

Keene said city staff could sit down with Stanford. He also directed staff to meet with residents to address the bike path issue and the truck-traffic problem.

The city also received kudos from the residents. About half said they are affected by airplane noise. They are grateful for the city's efforts to get the Federal Aviation Administration to address the problem. Filseth, who was a liaison to the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, said the group's recommendations report is the first of many steps the city must take to resolve the problem.

The city will hold a second town hall meeting in Barron Park on Dec. 14, 7-9 p.m., at Barron Park Elementary School, 800 Barron Ave.

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