Editorial: Home stretch for Comp Plan

More than a decade in the making, updated long-range plan nears finish line

If time spent on a project were the measure of its import, the vision document for city decisions over at least the next 12 years, now in its final phase of City Council review, is almost twice as good as the one it will replace.

The last time Palo Alto updated its Comprehensive Plan, in 1998, was after an unprecedented (at the time) six-year effort and was intended to be operational until 2010.

The new, refreshed plan up for approval in the next few weeks is the product of an 11-year process that began so long ago (in 2006) that none of the current members of the council had even been elected.

Along the way, the city manager, planning director and planning staff have turned over, as have members of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, the city body that was originally intended to lead the process and where the revision languished during the Great Recession.

Long-range plans, intended to be updated as conditions in a community change — typically about every 10 to 12 years — are required by state law and are supposed to be a framework within which zoning, development, transportation and other policy decisions are made during that period.

It's an expensive, time-consuming process for any city, but especially in Palo Alto, where so much importance is placed on achieving broad community engagement and, when possible, at least some consensus.

Concerned that the process had lost momentum and visibility with the public, in 2015 the council decided a re-set was needed and formed a citizens committee to work with staff to develop a draft document. After a few hiccups relating to the membership of the committee, the full group held 23 meetings and formed subcommittees that met 29 times over two years — all open to the public. It wasn't easy and not everyone was satisfied, but all points of view were heard and, to a great extent, the outcome reflected the policy tensions of long-standing political divides in the community.

In May, following sometimes cantankerous interim reviews by the City Council, the committee handed off its final draft, which was reviewed over the summer by the planning commission.

A required environmental-impact report (EIR) has been completed, and now the council is in the process of its final review of the plan and the EIR. Mayor Greg Scharff is determined to have the council approve both by the end of the year.

While there is plenty the council could continue to debate about the plan, we don't think further delays can or will improve it to a degree worth the time or effort. History has shown that comprehensive plans aren't nearly as influential in shaping future decisions as the herculean effort to create them would suggest. These plans attempt to identify broad needs of the community, such as constraining commercial development, pursuing new housing opportunities, and implementing transportation initiatives to ease congestion and encourage people get out of their cars, but the real policy decisions get made as specific projects or zoning proposals come before the city in the future. Nothing in this plan will truly constrain the decision-making of a future council.

A comprehensive plan and its accompanying impact report are more tools for having a community conversation than they are proscriptive, and as we have seen over the last few years, council decisions in Palo Alto are far more influenced by the outcome of council elections than they are by specific provisions in the city's Comprehensive Plan.

Regardless of one's political perspective, the unsung hero in this long process has been the city staff, which has had the challenge of providing continuity, structure and professional judgment to a process that is inherently political and vulnerable to criticism and second-guessing from all corners of the city.

The quality and clarity of the staff reports, the patience shown by staff when faced with sudden surprise (and sometimes wacky) proposals by council members or others and the constant need to assess and recalibrate to the shifting views of the council deserve the community's appreciation. Similarly, the Citizens Advisory Committee members remained engaged and committed until the very end of a difficult process.

By its very nature, a comprehensive plan is a compromise document with which very few will be entirely satisfied. The perennial debate over what kind of community Palo Alto should be, its rate and type of growth, zoning requirements and most every other issue addressed in the plan will continue to occur as specific zoning changes and development proposals come before the community in the future.

In this eleventh hour of the process, we urge the council to steer clear of re-opening controversial, already-debated elements or bringing forth new ideas or programs. After 11 years, it's time to declare success.


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20 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2017 at 5:23 pm

There are those who are for pushing the council to immediately adopt the draft of the revised Comprehensive Plan, using of the length of time that has passed since the update began as justification.

This is somewhat misleading because this implies the time spent was productive and there is no reason for further consideration of this document by the council. However, long delays were caused because the two entities instructed by the council to review and update any out of date language in the Comprehensive Plan each, in turn, instead took it upon upon themselves to extensively reword important sections of the document to reflect their own vision for the future or Palo Alto. Which changed the intent and direction of the original plan. Originally compiled by citizens and now with much of it’s intent gutted with no citizen input whatsoever.

As I recall, the planning staff were the first step in the review, assigned by the council to update any out-of-date language. The Planning Department took several years getting back to the council, and when they did it was discovered large chunks had been completely reworded, changing the emphasis and intent of the original document. Often subtle changes in the language but which could have large consequences for Palo Alto’s future direction. Instead of representing the vision of the citizens It now emphasized the vision of city staff.

This revision took place under the radar with no citizen input. Not the council’s intent and consequently much time wasted.

The council then tasked the Planning and Transport Commissioners to review the Comprehensive Plan. Instead the commissioners also took it upon themselves to redo much of the document to reflect their vision for Palo Alto’s future. Particularly cutting or changing sections of the original language where residents interests conflicted with development interests. Further weakening the original intent of the document and without any formal opportunity for citizen input.

Once again not the council’s instructions, and causing another long delay.

Following the commissions presentation of “their” document, some of you will remember the joint meeting between the council and the commissioners. It was not pretty.

Council then tasked the city manager with putting together a Citizens Advisory Committee to include the public input. Unfortunately, the city manager first came back to the council with a group that reflected primarily commercial interests. The city manager was instructed to come back with the addition of some members of the public who would represent the interests of residents. Finally this group started working, and an intensive review of the commissioner’s document followed, another long delay.

The final document still largely reflects the vision of the commissioners, but moderated somewhat with citizen input.

Just because this document was delayed for years, first by the staff and then the commissioners, is not an excuse to bypass council’s consideration and rush it’s formal adoption

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2017 at 11:17 pm

"This revision took place under the radar with no citizen input. Not the council’s intent and consequently much time wasted."

There was no radar to be under. Council should have demanded quarterly progress reports. But it let things slide, so staff rightly assumed the plan wasn't a priority.

Say, isn't it about time to start the process for the next scheduled update?

9 people like this
Posted by for some
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2017 at 1:40 am

for some is a registered user.

Is the logic of the Editorial that the plan doesn't mean anything because specific decisions are made later, so better to just get the paper work over with? That can be said about a lot of plans but when the unsuspecting public is not watching, the business of the City will use the plan to justify actions.

While all the work meetings were open to the public, the home stretch should involve the public to understand this final version.

If the plan is solid, fear of second guessing and new ideas should not be a concern.

7 people like this
Posted by A good plan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 4, 2017 at 1:59 am

The Citizens Advisory Committee's involvement in drafting the Comprehensive Plan is anything but opaque. A total false to paint the process as without public input.

The draft Comp Plan produced by CAC was a product of an open and transparent process scheduled in public agenda, conducted at public venues with public comments by a group of local volunteers under the directions of the Council and facilitated by City staffers governed by the Brown's Act. The volunteer group comprised of all local residents with liaisons from PTC, PAUSD, and Stanford.

The draft Plan underwent many iterations of Council deliberations and DEIRs. The Plan and EIR before Council is nothing short of public inputs.

Is the Plan perfect? No. Can it be better? Maybe. Is it a good plan? Yes. You see, that's just how the democracy works. You give some, you take some, and you compromise.

So the time has come for actions. And yes, after a decade long delay, we now have a good plan that the Council can act on.

3 people like this
Posted by review
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2017 at 2:12 am

review is a registered user.

Good Plan,

To understand how good the plan is, sharing what the gives, takes, and compromises were could be interesting to the general public.

9 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 4, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

The Environmental Impact Report concludes that we should expect decreased air quality, increased congestion on local streets, increased congestion on freeways, decreased effectiveness of transit systems, more new workers than new residents, negligible improvement in jobs/housing ratio, and a host of minor deteriorations. If the UCLA Anderson forecast (Web Link) is correct, there won't be nearly enough new housing to make a noticeable improvement in housing affordability.

I'm inclined to agree with the editorial's conclusion that the composition of the Council matters more than the specifics of the Comp Plan. However, it would have been nice to have a Comp Plan that offered more hope for improvement. My best guess is that would have required greater emphasis on transportation and functional constraints on commercial growth. I hope those are among the things that the Council will consider in the future.

7 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2017 at 6:54 pm

My earlier post did not say that the Community Advisory Committee's work was conducted without public input. Only the lengthy process before the CAC began its work. The CAC's work on the draft document on our behalf was a truly herculean effort. My point was that that the length of time taken to get to this point should not be used as an excuse to circumvent council members having the opportunity to each, in turn, be given the opportunity to make their comments and observations on the final document for the public record. Especially given they are our elected representatives.

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

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