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.