In his "State of the City" speech on Feb. 8 — a talk normally confined to highlighting the City Council's recent accomplishments and annual priorities — Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff took a detour to address an unusually heated and convoluted meeting that had taken place the prior week.
In deliberating over an update to the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan, the council voted to abolish downtown's limit on new development and remove any mention of height limits for buildings. Most controversially, it decided on a 5-4 vote to strip all programs from the plan, a decision that sparked such a community backlash that the council later reversed it.
Despite these actions, which took many in the community by surprise, Scharff assured the crowd at HanaHaus that the sudden changes wouldn't dramatically impact the Comprehensive Plan, a vision document that some regard as the city's "constitution."
"No one will see every policy or implementation program they want in the plan, but I'm confident that the finished product will not be vastly ideologically different from the current plan we have, and that it will accurately reflect our collective vision for Palo Alto in 2030," Scharff said.
His speech came at a transition point for the Comprehensive Plan update. Launched in 2006, the process has been undermined by political indifference, disagreements about the preferred approach and laborious copyediting by a group of planning commissioners with little input from the council or the community.
Then this year, the update process jumped into warp speed — and then some. Between January and this week, council members introduced and approved new Comprehensive Plan policies that had not been previously discussed, much less vetted, including ones calling for less required parking for new multifamily housing in areas served by public transit and allowing more dense new hotels.
Earlier this month, the council hit a critical milestone when it approved the plan's two most critical chapters (or elements): Land Use and Transportation.
Now, if things go as planned, the updated document will be adopted later this year, paving the way for new zoning policies and — ultimately — development projects.
As this "collective vision" comes into focus, residents on both sides of the political divide are becoming increasingly engaged. Hundreds have attended recent public hearings on the Comprehensive Plan or submitted letters to the council advocating for or against policies. A growing coalition of housing advocates, buoyed by last November's council election, is calling for the council to "go big" on housing.
Diane Morin, member of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, told the council in March that the city needs to have "diverse housing for the diverse community that has come to Palo Alto and to help regional needs." Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, urged council members to "be bold."
"Let's get housing downtown, near transit, and let's help solve this housing imbalance," Kleinberg said at the hearing.
At the other end of the political spectrum are those who believe the city needs to focus less on building and more on existing "quality of life" issues — parking shortages, traffic jams and unwelcome urbanization.
Joe Hirsch, a Barron Park neighborhood resident who co-founded the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, told the council at the same meeting that the city needs to "focus on the needs of current residents who are here and now." More growth and more people means more cars and worsening gridlock, Hirsch said.
"Have a plan in place that will mitigate the problems we have now and then gradually expand housing to the extent it can be accommodated without adversely affecting the quality of life for all of us — those who are here and now and those who will come afterwards," Hirsch said.
While much work remains to be done, the blurry outlines of the "collective vision" Scharff cited began to crystallize this month. Over a dizzying series of page-long motions, amendments, substitute motions and counter-amendments that at times left council members wondering what they were voting on, the council swiftly adopted policy changes. Those changes — large and small — promise to alter the city's path between now and 2030 and, in many ways, belie Scharff's claim that the new plan will not be much different from the current one.
So, what exactly should residents expect to see in the new vision? Find out what the council is looking to change in the areas of development, building height limit, housing, transportation and business.