Guest Opinion: City Council makes wise decisions on land use | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: City Council makes wise decisions on land use

Recent actions 'strengthen local participation and democracy'

Last week the Palo Alto City Council reviewed a series of policy and program choices sent to them by the Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC) and staff. A Weekly editorial spoke of a "reckless majority." Councilman Tom DuBois went further in an op-ed using words like "democracy is hijacked" and "massacred our Comprehensive Plan" and referred to his council colleagues as "wolves in sheep's clothing."

I have a different perspective from serving on the CAC, the CAC Land Use Subcommittee and serving on the committee discussing performance standards and community indicators. Before I get to the editorial and op-ed I want to mention two achievements at the meeting that are important for democracy and Comp Plan goals.

First was the mayor's decision to allow public speakers before the first round of council comments and questions. This also happened at this week's council meeting. Second was the positive engagement between council and representatives from Stanford University on the possibilities on Stanford land in the city for more housing and transportation-demand-management success -- goals desired by the CAC and critical for Comp Plan success.

The main issues for land use discussed at the meeting concerned a series of policy and program choices that did not have consensus among CAC members. Three of these choices were decided quickly and mostly with a large council majority. These include (1) maintaining a cumulative cap on commercial development citywide, (2) supporting exploration of housing on Stanford lands within the city and (3) removing performance standards from the Comp Plan.

With regard to performance standards, a large majority of the CAC, after hearing from a subcommittee on this issue, decided that these standards were not ready for immediate inclusion in the Comp Plan and would take an enormous amount of staff, CAC and council time to develop agreement.

With regard to building heights for housing and mixed housing/retail projects, there was no CAC consensus, which is why choices were brought to council. In fact a majority of the CAC favored some exceptions to the height limit. The council saw no clear majority and took the issue out of the Comp Plan so there could be more debate, not less, in light of changing resident positions as evidenced by the large number of speakers in the public comment period favoring more housing.

As was typical of most votes during the meeting, the vote here was not 5-4 but was 6-3 with council member Filseth joining the majority. A public tabulation of votes will show that the large majority of land use votes were not 5-4. The Weekly or staff would do a service by tabulating the number of times each vote margin occurred.

There was a wide difference of opinion on the CAC as in the community about the merits of the other caps as an appropriate or most effective approach to handling the impacts of commercial development. So the council left debate and decision on most of these issues for later as the ordinances come before council. Since there is no consensus in the community, the council decided to hear more debate as the issues come up again.

The most serious charge as I read the editorial and DuBois op-ed is that the council moved programs out of the Comp Plan for later individual review and implementation and that this action rejects public input and compromise and wastes enormous amounts of time and money. There is, however, precedent for doing this. Last year, the council opted to have a Sustainability/Climate Action Plan that included only high level policies and, at the request of staff, asked for programs to be located separately.

I agree with the council majority that this is a wise choice and preserves the ability to adapt to changes in the economy and public input and allows staff and council to develop programs as needed. The programs that were put aside for separate consideration are not scrapped or lost. Moreover, it is good to remember both that designing programs takes extensive staff and council time and that few programs in the last Comp Plan were actually implemented.

We should not let disagreements on the direction of the city or how best to develop and implement programs lead to inflammatory language and accusations. The decisions were neither reckless or a hijacking of democracy. The council accepted strong consensus where it existed, kept open debate where no clear consensus has emerged, infused flexibility into a plan that lasts until 2030 and made room for extensive public participation as programs comes before council. These actions strengthen local participation and democracy.

Steve Levy is an economist and consultant to public agencies and private companies, specializing in the California economy and demographic trends. He is a member of the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. He has a blog, "Invest & Innovate," at


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


37 people like this
Posted by HMM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:04 am

Steven Levy is also a founding member of Palo Alto Forward, the pro-development group. Why doesn't he disclose this? A tireless advocate for densification and urbanization, he endorsed Fine and Tanaka in the last election.

24 people like this
Posted by True Residentialist
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:09 am

Nice column, Steve. Sounds like the City Council handled this appropriately (often with 6-3 votes) and that, far from overriding the work of the CAC, the members of the council made a political judgment when one had to be made.

25 people like this
Posted by Elaine Uang
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:57 am

I am a member of the CAC, and am shocked, almost disgusted, how much time and hot air has gone into the debate about where to put programs in the Comp Plan. I would rather the council focus their time and efforts discussing the merits of the policies for the Comp Plan. That said, I agree with Steve, that Mon Jan 30's discussion was a boon to local democracy because the public got to comment first. I cannot tell you hard it is to encourage the community to engage on these matters when they are asked to wait for a round of council comments before speaking. That process change is enourmous and will allow more people to participate and give them more confidence in the council's ability to hold to a schedule.

WIth respect to placing the programs in an appendix or separating them from the policies, my personal take is this has some value, especially during initial discussions. During the January CAC meeting, the staff asked the CAC to review the Business Element policies without. the programs. At the end of the Jan CAC meeting, i stated that format was much easier to review and make connections between the Business Element and other elements (like Transportation). We need to make the Comp Plan accessible to the public as possible, and almost NO ONE is going to read a 450 page Comp Plan from cover to cover. I can see how a lighter "policies only" version would be much easier for the average person to go through, and if we retain a deeper fuller version with programs, it would still be made available for anyone who wants to to review the whole thing.

33 people like this
Posted by HMMM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:17 am

Elaine is another founding member of Palo Alto Forward. Pro-development-definitely, pro-transparency, not so much.

15 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:50 am

Everyone has their own perspective ... From my perspective what has transpired is only "wise" if you are pushing for a significant increase in development pressures. So, both sides are speaking truth ... pro-development sees this as "wise decisions on land use", slower-growth proponents see it this way: kept open debate where no clear consensus has emerged is another way of saying where growth policies can not be steam-rolled through, we will wait, hoping later to have more political strength on the council , ARB, and planning commission to be able to get what we desire rather than settling for compromises with our opponents at this time. One thing Steve is dead right about ... comp plan can and will be ignored by the council as it finds it convenient , so this isn't the end of any arguments over specifics of the city direction on growth. Keeping things in an appendix (or completely removing mention of height limits) just makes it easier to ignore.
Had to go to PALY this week around 6 pm... traffic around Embarcadero / Town Center was bumper-to-bumper like a big inner city. I'm sure glad I don't live on the north side near downtown!

23 people like this
Posted by Process and Progress
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:53 am

I too attended that packed city council meeting and feel that mr Levy's summation reflects what occurred. I especially appreciate his ask: "We should not let disagreements on the direction of the city...lead to inflammatory language and accusations."
In sum, Council kept debate open, had extensive public participation, and infused flexibility and extensive public participation. "These actions strengthen local participation and democracy."
Thanks for the recap and positive message.

Our council represents the majority - the majority of PA support an inclusive and viable future. I agree with many of the citizen speakers who asked for flexibility in our Comp plan, akin to our US Constitution.

24 people like this
Posted by Thank you, Steve
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:55 am

This is a rational voice among the hysterics.

Council operated pretty efficiently and effectively. As you said, they accepted areas of consensus, and allowed more debate on issues without CAC consensus.

I'm encouraged by this new Council.

25 people like this
Posted by Working together
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 10, 2017 at 10:05 am

A Council that moves forward on the things there's consensus on and leaves open issues that there isn't consensus on is exactly what we all need and want. No more obstructionism! No more "if I can't have everything I want, then no one gets anything." I'm sick of PASZ and the likes of Dubois who are more interested in fighting anything and everything than they are in coming to common sense solutions which the majority of the city supports. We've got a Council of forward movement, whereas the last Council spent hours upon hours stripping away things like balconies and rooftop seating areas from projects just to spite them if they couldn't legally reject them.

28 people like this
Posted by Smooth Obfuscation
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2017 at 10:15 am

Just to be clear, the removal of programs from the comp plan elements is not a simple reformatting. As is explicitly clear in the current, adopted comp plan, the "Implementation chapter is not a Plan Element." Placing the programs there or in an appendix means they are not adopted as part of the Plan itself. Instead, they will carry NO authority. They are not an indicator of intended strategies or even a description of actions the city will try to implement, but are instead a list of suggestions, that may or may not receive "further review" by either Council or the public.

Yes, this will simplify the document: It presents no strategies and provides no context about the thinking behind the policies; It offers no tools by which the community can hold the city accountable for it's intentions; it gives no indication of how the city will plan to achieve the policies; it eliminates any requirement that any program on the list of suggestions receives further review by the Council or the public. In short, it makes it simpler for each successive City Council to do whatever they want in any area. Without the programs, the Plan is not a plan at all, and certainly not a long term plan.

18 people like this
Posted by Balance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2017 at 10:55 am

[Portion removed.]

Not even millennials who call loudly for densifying Palo Alto really want what they're trying to do to the town, judging by their leader Kate Downing and Eric Roseblum ditching as soon as they could get a nice big singke family home aomewhere else. Most other residents really do not want Palo Alto transforned into this urban mess.

I woukd just remind people that there are traffic circulation requirements of comp plans, but a Business Element is optional. Palo Alto really should look to the future and reducing the office population here during the day, and converting ffice zoning and occupancy to housing and resident - oriented retail.

26 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2017 at 11:31 am

I suspect Palo Alto Forward put out another alert asking for positive comments regarding Steve Levy's apparent rebuttal to Tom DuBois' guest opinion. The comments are way more positive than one would have suspected.

27 people like this
Posted by When is a Plan not a Plan
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2017 at 11:47 am

Removing all the citizen-input direction and measurement means there is NO guidance and NO accountability.

At a minimum, Council needs to remove "Comprehensive" from the title of the plan because, not only is it not comprehensive, it's just a list of subject areas. And they can't really use "Plan" either since it's not one. Look at any definition of the word plan and they all contain the word "specific" in the definition. The specifics here were all removed by the cabal.

So let's call it what it is, "Just Some Stuff We Might Talk About."

When is Council going to run roughshod on some stuff, without citizen input or measurement? Looks like pretty much any time they want.

I get why Council wants no accountability - who wouldn't want to get to do whatever you want? The question is why would the citizens of Palo Alto want this.

22 people like this
Posted by Amy Sung
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2017 at 12:27 pm

As a member of CAC and Land Use subcommittee, I am stunned and sick of the willingness to attack on personal level without merits. As a community celebrating diversity, we pride ourselves in attacking process but not persons!

A shout out to his brilliant "City Council makes wise decisions on Land Use". Steve summed up exactly what took place at CAC - present options for Council when consensus weren't reached. Presenting the options to council was a CAC consensus.

The updated Comp Plan will live to year 2030. It might very well possible that the document will live beyond it's intended life time like the one we are current using. That means Comp Plan is intended to be relevant and be a guiding principle for the next 13 years if not longer. In this fast paced world we live, much could happen. As such, staying in high level in Policies while moving Programs for flexible adatation makes total sense.

Mayor Scharff at the State of City address Wednesday urges Weekly to pioneer a practice. Real opinion, real names. Kudos to Mayor!

12 people like this
Posted by Truth to Power
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Here here Steve. Thank you for taking the time to present a truthful account of the events. I am very disappointed by the rhetoric and tone in Tom Dubois' op'ed. He was way out of line and I am not sure how he can still expect to work professionally with his peers after his remarks.

[Portion removed.]

If Tom and his allies want to stand in the way of accommodating more housing than they will lose this battle. It's clear he doesn't like to be in the minority but it would be wise for him to appreciate that the minority is exactly who shares his views.

16 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 10, 2017 at 6:53 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I don't think "Tom and his allies" are dedicated to standing in the way of accommodating more housing. Strangely, it is quite likely that there's tremendous agreement about what must be done but frustration on the part of so-called residentialists about what is actually being done. I think that those labeled residentialist are trying to put some balance into the equation. Right now, we are heavy on jobs, far behind on housing. But we keep adding to the jobs side of the equation. All this does is increase the imbalance. To me, this makes about as much sense as one of the ugly step sisters trying to squeeze a size 9 foot into a size 5 shoe.

3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:08 pm

The current tech bubble seems to have run its course. Local papers report rents are leveling off. Soon there will be no market for new housing as the new office developments empty out.

25 people like this
Posted by Trust
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:19 pm

In contrast to @Truth to Power, like him or not, I honor Councilmember Tom Dubois for walking the walk he talks, publicly and consistently.

Mayor Scharff and Councilmember Wolbach on the other hand, often talk about the importance of quality of life, citizen inclusion, open dialogue and transparency, yet after going on an on about how much they value and appreciate the work of the citizen Comp Plan Committee, they put it on a shelf, refusing even to consider its potential value to the efficacy of the Comprehensive Plan. By doing so, they rendered it irrelevant along with the years-long (and expensive) engagement of hundreds of community members on which it was based. Instead of a Comprehensive PLAN, they've left us with a collection of generalized policies and no strategy to implement them.

Not only that, by the same stroke, they prevented the carry over of ANY programs contained in our current, adopted Comp Plan. And they used a fast-track procedural rule to make sure the decision was not fully deliberated by the Council.

By not discussing any of the rejected programs, they leave the public with no idea which strategies they favor or are likely to pursue.

Furthermore, it appeared that the entire Council majority was "in on the plan" - no surprised reaction, not a single question from any of them about the timing, intent or impact of such a radical move.

Left in the dark were the hundreds of citizens with wide-ranging concerns about quality of life who had been rallied to participate in the Comp Plan development (through the extensive Our Palo Alto campaign), under promises of inclusion, transparency and collaborative decision-making. With no public notice that this wholesale, fundamental and far reaching change to the city's Comprehensive Plan was on the table, they had the rug pulled out from under them with no opportunity to comment.

I for one, find every bit of that far more offensive and condescending than a Councilmember openly expressing his personal objections in a guest opinion piece.

I hope and expect that Palo Altans of all policy persuasions will object to such a heavy-handed move. In the name of flexibility, they've left the public with no mechanism at all to hold them accountable for the policies in their "simplified," so-called plan. They ask for our trust, while at the same time refusing to do the hard work of earning it. Palo Altans should be smarter than to be wooed by nice words in the absence of substance.

13 people like this
Posted by Just the facts
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2017 at 11:40 pm

Amy Sung neglected to mention that she is also a real estate agent and an active supporter of pro-development PA Forward, not just a member of the CAC.

[Portion removed.] To understand opinions stated here, it is necessary to know where you are coming from.

7 people like this
Posted by Just the facts
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2017 at 11:50 pm

Another inconvenient fact, the random sample 2016 Citizens Survey reports

Overall confidence in Palo Alto government:
44% say Good or Excellent

Given the shenanigans of the new city council, and the hidden developer contributions, it is likely that that number will be even lower next year, as it has gone down in the last 2 years.

17 people like this
Posted by Amy Sung
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 11, 2017 at 1:06 am

My name is Amy Sung. I live in Palo Alto, a home owner, and I am a Realtor.

Thank you for your intro, @Just the facts! While we are into the facts, I am also a formal Software Engineer at NASA working under the mission of For the Benefit of All (mankind). Not quite a rock scientist but I rather trust I contribute positively to all the professions I chose. On the volunteer side, I am a formal member of school PTA and a treasurer for my Boy Scout Troop.

Curiously, who is this person behind the mask of "Just the facts". It looks like this hidden person prefers selective facts!

7 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 11, 2017 at 9:29 am

Interesting that Just the Facts suggests that we need to know where someone is "coming from". Yet we know nothing about him or her. I'll take Amy's opinions any day.

19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 11, 2017 at 9:53 am

The CAC did bring forth controversial issues for the city council to vote on, which were clearly explained in the meeting packet. However, the big issue was redefining the Comp Plan to strip out the programs was not agendized, included in the packet, the public was not given an opportunity to comment on it and many council members were not looped in this was coming. This is not open and transparent government.

By moving the programs to an appendix they are not officially part of the plan. Greg Scharff made that clear that staff cannot start working on any of those programs not already in progress without bringing them in front of council for approval. Many of these programs would have a very positive impact on the city but are not big enough to get space on the city council agenda. These programs focus on reducing single occupancy vehicle trips, better bike and electric car infrastructure, a safer, more walkable city, numerous improvements to encourage housing, etc... These programs represented a consensus from a very diverse set of committee members as a common sense approach to growing smartly. They helped legitimize the Comp Plan as a document representing the entire community, not just the pro-growth side.

In my opinion, this was a serious power play by the pro-growth side to throw efforts to sensible mitigate growth impacts under the bus. In my mind there is a clear path forward where we can have great neighborhoods and vibrant commercial districts and we do not need to be such a divided community. Steve, if you want to be part of the solution, please work harder on encouraging your pro-growth friends to agendize big changes, be thoughtful of mitigating the impacts of growth and protecting residential neighborhoods.

7 people like this
Posted by A Comprehensive Plan that has taken forever, and forever to complete
a resident of Mayfield
on Feb 12, 2017 at 1:00 am

Palo Alto is just a village, filled with people who think it is something more than it really it is. Stanford University is what makes Palo Alto something on the map of these United States of America. Most people across the United States of America could care less about Palo Alto. They have heard of Stanford University. When I mention Palo Alto to most people in the heartland of America, they have no clue about this place. But when you mention Stanford University, yet get at leash an "Oh" response. Stop taking yourselves so seriously Palo Altans. You are on the planet briefly, yet, you have been able to take a nice, quaint attractive village, and turn it into a hodgepodge of new buildings with no life, and you have invited thousands of people into your village on a daily basis to crowd the living comforts of its residents, and trash the streets with traffic. You have ruined your own village, yet you think your decisions will make it better, and better. No wonder, most people don't leave the heartland to live in places like Palo Alto or anything on the left coast. Some things are best when left alone. And to Amy Sung, freedom of expression does not warrant the right to give up anonymity. Everyone knows in a small minded town like Palo Alto, one is not free to express themselves because then, they are made targets. This forum works fine the way it is. If you want otherwise, most people would not participate. Then, the PA Weekly online loses its attractiveness for commentary. Why do you need to know people's real names, so that they can be targeted because you disagree with them. That's the problem with this country now. The protestor group simply cannot accept they did not win the presidency, and they think their protests is somehow going to change the results.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I was heartened this week when Greg Scharff clarified at his State of The City talk, that grouping the Programs will be only a formatting change and all the work of the CAC will remain in the Comprehensive Plan. The programs will not be removed.

As I described, there was a lot of confusion to what exactly was voted on and what's impact would be among City staff, Council members and the public, as My Levy's article demonstrates. Council always has the ability to determine which programs get priority and to amend the Comp Plan.

Hopefully the Comp Plan will come back to Council soon and we can clarify as a group that the programs will remain part of the Comp Plan.

2 people like this
Posted by Amy Sung
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2017 at 1:58 pm

“It’s terrifying to put the target on your forehead, and it sets you up for all sorts of attacks..." said Meryl Streep in her accepting an award in New York yesterday. I am no Meryl Streep but I share the feeling.

My personal take is that this space is open for public inputs. It's up to Weekly to ensure its a safe place to encourage participation.

2 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 12, 2017 at 2:35 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Retraction?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 12, 2017 at 4:20 pm

[Post removed.]

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Anne Le Ziblatt, formerly of Tamarine and Bong Su, is back with a Vietnamese noodle bar in Redwood City
By Elena Kadvany | 7 comments | 3,383 views

Local Pols Debate Climate
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 2,761 views

Letting Christmas Linger
By Cheryl Bac | 5 comments | 1,449 views

The E.R.A. – no real equality yet. Why not?
By Diana Diamond | 14 comments | 922 views

Truth Matters (and so does good beer)
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 867 views