Dozens of residents came to City Hall on Monday wearing buttons with the message "Save Palo Alto" written in red letters.
They bemoaned the impacts of office growth on traffic congestion and parking supply, questioned the council's ability to address the housing crisis without making these problems worse and urged their elected leaders to hit the brakes when it comes to development.
"The mantra of 'Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!' has led to parking shortages and traffic congestion," resident Paul Machado said. "Now we have a new mantra: 'Housing! Housing! Housing!' But if we continue to build offices, we will never have enough housing."
Dozens more attended the City Council meeting to express their desire for more housing. By Monday night, more than 185 people had signed a petition calling for Palo Alto to build more housing -- for all income levels.
"It is important to remember that many residents facing severe housing challenges are not eligible for below-market-rate housing even if we could dramatically increase supply," states the petition signed by Sandra Slater, co-founder of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward.
Despite their philosophical disagreements, the two camps in Monday's citizen debate over Palo Alto's new Comprehensive Plan generally agreed on one thing: the proposed document falls short of what they'd like to see. The button wearers worried that the new vision is too office-friendly because its sets a target of 3 million square feet of new office space by 2035 (which includes the 1.3 million square feet already approved for the expanded Stanford University Medical Center).
The petition signers complained that it's not ambitious enough on housing. Resident John Kelley had proposed last year that the city plan for about 10,000 new housing units between now and 2035, the term of the new Comprehensive Plan. The council opted for the far more modest range of 3,545 to 4,420 units.
Despite the discrepancy, Kelley encouraged the council to get over the finish line and approve the new vision.
"We have been waiting almost a decade," said Kelley, one of about 45 residents who addressed the council Monday. "I've been hearing from people whose entire families had been born during the time the council has been looking at the Comprehensive Plan. ... It's time to stop dithering. It's time to move forward. It's time to act."
The council disagreed and, in a rare show of unanimity on the normally divisive topic, voted to punt its own debate on the document to its next meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 30. The council arrived at this decision after listening to about 90 minutes of public comments, which concluded at about 11 p.m.
The Monday hearing was the beginning of the end for a process that was initiated in 2006 and that has been the subject of 24 meetings of the City Council; 23 meetings from a specially appointed Citizens Advisory Committee; and 28 meetings of the Planning and Transportation Commission, which last month recommended approval of the updated document, according to planning staff.
The planning commission also made a series of recommendations, including a unanimous suggestion that the city make its commitment to affordable housing more explicit. Commission Chair Michael Alcheck said the city should do so by creating a specific policy with quantified goals for housing production.
"Arguably, there is support for development of BMR (below-market-rate) housing in the Comprehensive Plan, but this recommendation stems from the commission's shared view that this support be prioritized at or near the very top," Alcheck said.
Though the crowd was split over growth policies, residents on both sides expressed support for below-market-rate housing. Those with buttons argued that this type of housing should be the city's exclusive focus. Others countered that the city needs all sorts of housing, including market rate, to get out of the housing crisis.
Elaine Meyer was in the former camp.
"We will never be able to house everyone who wants to live here," resident Meyer said. "But as long as we let more businesses and developers bring more workers into town, we will become both more crowded and less diverse."
The debate over housing will likely play out again next week, this time at the council level. Like the citizens in attendance Monday, the council is split between those who believe the city needs to become far more aggressive toward housing (this includes Liz Kniss, Adrian Fine, Cory Wolbach) and those who favor a more measured approach, with a focus on below-market-rate housing (Karen Holman, Lydia Kou and Tom DuBois).
The council will also consider approving the new plan's Environmental Impact Report, a document that analyzes six different scenarios, in addition to the council's "preferred scenario," which includes between 9,850 and 11,500 new jobs.
Among the report's findings is an inconvenient truth: traffic will get worse no matter which scenario the council chooses. The EIR found that traffic impacts at freeway ramps and local streets will see "significant and unavoidable" impacts, the council's new anti-traffic initiatives notwithstanding. There will also be transit delays due to traffic congestion, the EIR states.
A new report from the Planning Department underscores these findings. There's no getting away, it states, "from the fact that we live in a congested region and that any programmatic EIR that fairly examines cumulative growth over a period of time will conclude there are unmitigable impacts."