Responding to an uproar of criticism from residents and community volunteers, members of the Palo Alto City Council swiftly rescinded on Monday night their controversial Jan. 30 decision to strip all programs from the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan.
By a unanimous vote, the council voted to restore back to the document the more than 350 programs that were pegged for removal from the Comprehensive Plan, which the city is in the midst of updating and which will ultimately guide the city's policies on growth until 2030. In doing so, council members reversed a decision that aimed to clean up the sprawling document but that ended up creating a political mess.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who in January led the way in the council's 5-4 vote to strip away the specific programs from the document, once again took the initiative. This time, however, he proposed going in the other direction and both restoring the programs to the body of the document (which also includes higher-level goals and policies) and listing them in an "Implementation Plan," which would be periodically reviewed by the council and staff.
The decision to reconsider the action came at the beginning of the council's long discussion about growth scenarios and, in many ways, it set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Unlike the tense January discussion, which seemed to widen the fissure between the council's political factions, the Monday hearing saw more consensus and collegiality. Wolbach's motion to restore the programs to the Comprehensive Plan was seconded by Councilman Tom DuBois, who in February likened the abrupt removal of programs as "hijacking of democracy."
The January action also faced a sharp rebuke from the Citizens Advisory Committee, a 17-member volunteer group that has been helping the council with the mammoth planning effort. In a joint letter, committee co-chairs Daniel Garber and Arthur Keller wrote that the council's removal of the programs "threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of trust that all the members of the CAC have painfully forged over the last year and a half."
"Changing the rule set that during the final months of the Committee's work is destabilizing and will cause us to revisit many of our assumptions and actions to date," Garber and Keller wrote.
Wolbach said Monday night that it was his "excellent conversations" with members of the citizens group -- rather than the vitriolic reaction from some colleagues -- that prompted him to reconsider the prior action. He also said he wanted to abide by the advice that he would give to children.
"I'll tell them that if they leave a mess, they should clean it up," Wolbach said.
The other four council members who supported the removal in January -- Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka -- similarly changed their positions on Monday night, ensuring a unanimous vote. That spirit of collegiality and compromise largely held up over the next three hours, as council members with starkly different points of view slowly haggled their way toward a compromise on a "preferred scenario" that will be in environmental analysis for the updated Comprehensive Plan. This time, Wolbach was the sole dissenter in an 8-1 vote that required both the slow-growth faction and those who favor more development to make concessions.
The motion outlining the council's "preferred scenario" was crafted by Mayor Greg Scharff, who took a more cautious approach on housing than some of his political allies advocated for. The council has already approved six different scenarios to be studied in the document, each with its own set of growth policies and projections for housing and jobs. The most ambitious in terms of housing, is Scenario 6, which calls for adding 6,000 units between now and 2030. Midtown resident Grant Dasher was one of dozens of residents who called or emailed the council in recent weeks urging members to "go big" on housing and pursue a plan for 6,000 new units.
"If we really are serious about densifying California Avenue and downtown areas to support housing growth, it's a pretty reasonable number," Dasher told the council Monday.
Instead, Scharff proposed a preferred scenario that has between 3,545 and 4,420 new housing units, still at the higher end of the scale (two of the six scenarios featured 2,720 units) but far short of what many had advocated for. Wolbach and Fine both argued that this doesn't go nearly enough and suggested having 6,000 units, if not more.
"Housing is the number one concern in the community," Fine said. "Palo Alto for decades has not pulled its weight. Here is an opportunity for us to show leadership, make a moderate change in the community and support the environmental goals in the S/CAP (Sustainability/Climate Action Plan)."
Kniss agreed and said 6,000 is a good number to aim for.
"For those of us who ran last fall, the only issue was housing and nothing else," Kniss said. "It was housing, housing and more housing."
Other residents argued that the impact of 6,000 units would be too difficult for the city to absorb. Ben Lerner called Scenario 6 "too extreme" and "poorly conceived." And Pat Markevitch, former member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, noted that this would "nearly triple the city's long-term population growth rate.
"The impact to the infrastructure, schools, parks, roads and services would be unbearable," Markevitch wrote.
Wolbach and Fine's proposal to go forth with a 6,000-unit preferred scenario ultimately faltered by a 4-5 vote, with Scharff joining the four slow-growth "residentialist" council members -- DuBois, Karen Holman, Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou -- in defeating it.
The council was similarly cautious on jobs, and staff to evaluate a preferred scenario that adds between 9,850 and 11,500 new jobs. While some council members called for a lower number (the lowest projection on the menu was 8,865), others said smaller numbers would be simply unrealistic given existing zoning and employment trends. Holman, who was in the former camp, argued that allowing more offices would further exacerbate the city's gaping jobs-housing imbalance.
"We're kind of dipping our toe in one place and sticking our thumb in the dike in another place," Holman said.
Her proposal for a lower number faltered by a 3-6 vote, with only Kou and Wolbach joining her.
Filseth, who voted with the majority, said Palo Alto has historically done a good job in finding a balance between a purely residential suburb and an urban setting. The city, he said, boasts residential neighborhoods, trees, a vibrant downtown and a strong tech-innovation economy. The new Comprehensive Plan, he said, should aim to preserve these characteristics.
"I think what most people want is for us to keep this balance," Filseth said. "Most people don't want Atherton and they don't want the Mission District either."