It's a typically bustling lunch hour on California Avenue, with workers, residents and the occasional out-of-towner lining up for falafel wraps, poke bowls and the deli counter at Mollie Stone's.
Three years after Palo Alto's "second downtown" underwent a dramatic renovation that widened sidewalks, added new benches and installed a modernist, sculptural fountain by the Caltrain station, business in the commercial strip appears to be booming a symbol of the city's general economic prosperity.
But in the neighborhoods of Evergreen Park, Ventura and College Terrace, which all surround the business district, the picture looks far less rosy. With traffic congestion getting worse, available parking spots harder to find and new developments nearing completion across El Camino Real, anxieties about the city's growth are rising as fast as tax revenues, a new poll of residents indicates.
According to the 2016 National Citizen Survey, the results of which were released this week, residents' perceptions of their city are gradually changing and not for the better. Though 85 percent of the survey respondents ranked the "overall quality of life" in Palo Alto as "excellent" or "good," the number has dropped precipitously since 2012, when it stood at 94 percent. (In every year for the full decade prior, the rating hovered in the low 90s.)
The percentage who gave the city the top two ratings as a "place to raise children" similarly slipped from 93 percent in 2014, to 87 percent in 2015 to 84 percent in 2016. And when it comes to Palo Alto as a "place to retire," only 50 percent gave the city the highest scores, a slight dip from the 52 percent in 2015 and a significant slide from just five years ago, when 68 percent strongly endorsed the city in this department.
To be sure, the new survey reaffirms that Palo Alto residents by and large like living in Palo Alto and have a special fondness for their particular neighborhoods. Yet the survey also hints at trouble in paradise. Of the 135 questions that the survey asked, only two showed favorable ratings rising by more than 5 percent between 2015 and 2016. By contrast, 22 questions showed a drop of 5 percent or more.
"Usually, in one year you don't see that much change," said City Auditor Harriet Richardson, whose office commissions the survey and analyzes the results.
While the survey suggests that growing disillusionment is a citywide phenomenon, the attitudes seem particularly negative in the area around California Avenue, according to the survey's geographical breakdown. Whether asked about the city's overall "quality of life," the quality of new buildings or more generally about Palo Alto as a place to raise children, work or retire, the respondents in these neighborhoods expressed a slightly darker view of how things are going than their counterparts elsewhere.
Surrounded by a building boom both around California Avenue and at Stanford Research Park, residents here are also far more likely to be disenchanted about the quality of Palo Alto's "built environment" (only 52 percent generally approve of it, compared to about two-thirds of those who live in the rest of north Palo Alto). And despite their proximity to the city's geographic center, the residents of the California Avenue neighborhoods said they struggle getting to their desired destinations, with only 50 percent giving the city good grades on this question, well below the citywide average of 67 percent.
Just this week, dozens of Evergreen Park residents lobbied the City Council for a new residential parking-permit program. Many said the rapid office growth around them has flooded their neighborhood with commuters' vehicles, cut into their sense of community and turned roads into congested arteries.
Karen Machado, an Evergreen Park resident, pointed to the prime reasons for why only 69 percent of the residents in her area ranked their quality of life as good or excellent, compared to 85 percent citywide.
"We feel the parking problems and the traffic problems are some of the things really contributing to this deterioration in the rating," Machado said. "We feel it is a significant issue that needs your attention."
The results in the new report mirror in many ways last year's survey, which showed growing anxieties about retirement, swelling frustrations about traffic and an overwhelming recognition that when it comes to affordable housing, the city is failing badly. Faced with these results, the council placed housing, traffic and parking atop its 2016 priority list and went on to create new limits on office space, move ahead with a new parking-permit program around the California Avenue area and explore a new scenario for planning city growth that would add 6,000 housing units between now and 2030.
The new survey suggests that these efforts have yet to allay anxieties. In fact, from residents' perspective, things have only gotten worse when it comes to these issues. Only 28 percent of the survey respondents gave the city high grades when asked about "ease of travel by public transportation in Palo Alto," down from 60 percent in 2006. And when asked about the quality of new development, only 42 percent gave Palo Alto high ratings which means you're about as likely to find a movie critic raving about "Office Christmas Party" (according to RottenTomatoes.com) as you are to find a local resident praising new buildings. A decade ago, by contrast, 62 percent of the respondents gave new development high ranks.
Over the same span, the percentage of residents who thought highly of Palo Alto as "a place to retire" dropped from 68 percent to 50 percent. And the portion who think the city is doing a good job on "affordable, quality housing" shrank even further last year, with only 6 percent giving Palo Alto high marks down from 11 percent in 2006. Among 271 U.S. jurisdictions surveyed, the city finished 270th in this category.
"For it to be in single digits, you're pretty much at rock bottom," said Richardson, who plans to present the survey findings at Saturday's council retreat.
She noted that the city ranks "much lower" on housing than benchmark jurisdictions, which means it's at least 10 percent below average. Similarly, when it comes to "variety of housing options," Palo Alto ranked at 240 out of 245 jurisdictions. And in cost of living, Palo Alto finished at 172 out of 174 jurisdictions.
The new survey marks the first time ever that the average rating for all the "quality of life" questions dipped below 80 percent (it was 79 percent). This is primarily because the answers from Evergreen Park, College Terrace and Southgate dropped from 84 percent in 2015 to 69 percent in 2016, the survey notes.
There are other declines. When asked how likely they would be to recommend Palo Alto as a place to live, 72 percent of the respondents citywide said "likely" or "very likely" down from 92 percent in 2012 and from 80 percent in 2015 (in the California Avenue area only 58 percent of the respondents said they would do so).
And when asked how likely they would be to remain in Palo Alto for the next five years, 75 percent said "very likely" or "somewhat likely" down from 87 percent in 2013 and from 80 percent in 2015. The audit notes that this is the first year that the average fell below 80 percent. (Ironically, the only area where there wasn't a decline was around California Avenue, where 82 percent declared that they'll likely stay put.)
The survey results suggest that the council's priorities for 2016 will largely remain front and center in 2017. The council is set to formally adopt its annual priorities at its Jan. 28 retreat.
On Monday night, several council members pointed to the new survey as evidence that the city needs to do more to combat traffic jams and protect the community from the consequences of building new office space.
Before the council voted to reduce the number of traffic lanes along a northern segment of Middlefield Road, Councilman Tom DuBois pointed to the survey in arguing that the council needs to "start thinking about congestion in a big way."
"Ease of travel by car has gone from 66 percent in 2010 to 44 percent a 22 percent drop," DuBois said. "That's a key performance metric that's not moving in right direction. And we really have to figure out how to stop that problem."
To be sure, not everything is going in the wrong direction. Ninety-one percent gave high rankings to their neighborhood "as a place to live." The city's newly renovated library system continues to get glowing reviews, with 82 percent raving about the "variety of library materials" and 89 percent giving high marks to their local library branch (up from 59 and 73 percent, respectively, in 2006). The survey also suggests the city's recent efforts to repair streets has been noticed, with 57 percent giving the city high rankings, up from 47 percent in in 2006.
Then there is the local economy, which continues to hum along. In the category of "a place to work," Palo Alto finished 15 out of 319 jurisdictions, with 82 percent of respondents giving it high marks. And when asked about "employment opportunities," Palo Alto did even better. Out of 280 comparison communities, the city finished first.
Read the survey here.