Palo Alto concluded one of the most complex and contentious planning efforts in its history late Monday night, when the City Council voted to adopt the new Comprehensive Plan, a document that will guide the city's land use and infrastructure decisions until at least 2030.
By a 7-2 vote, with Karen Holman and Lydia Kou dissenting, the council crossed the finish line of a marathon planning process that began in 2006 and that took several long and unexpected swerves along the way. Despite several last-minute disagreements and a deep division over the adequacy of the Environmental Impact Report, the council ended its meeting by clinking Champagne glasses in celebration.
The late-night euphoria followed a long and wide-ranging debate that in many times epitomized the entire journey. In the final hours of the process, council members introduced new ideas; revisited decisions that had already been settled; took narrow votes and broad swipes at one another; and, ultimately, reached a compromise. Though Holman and Kou concluded that the new document does not adequately address the impacts of future growth and voted against adoption, the majority agreed that the decision is long past due.
"It's been a long and winding road," Wolbach said.
Even so, the process almost fell off the tracks again on Monday when four council members declined to sign off on the Environmental Impact Report, which evaluated the impacts of six different growth scenarios and proposed mitigations.
A failure to approve the environmental analysis would have legally prohibited the council from adopting the Comprehensive Plan. It also would have required staff to make significant revisions to the document to comply with new state laws that are set to take effect on Jan. 1.
That outcome was narrowly averted when the council voted 5-4 vote, with Holman, Kou, Councilman Eric Filseth and Councilman Tom DuBois dissenting, to support the environmental analysis. The four council members who voted against it cited numerous reasons for their opposition, with Filseth focusing on its failure to address the impacts of new construction on local schools, DuBois calling its scenario-based structure confusing, Kou raising concerns about traffic and Holman finding various faults with its proposed mitigations on transportation, noise and air quality.
Holman called the proposed mitigations insufficient and proposed that staff return in two or three weeks with additional ones. Kou agreed.
"When it comes to being a trustee of this city and being elected by residents and folks who live here in Palo Alto, the unavoidable, significant impacts have to have some bearing on decisions," Kou said. "Mitigations are just not sufficient."
The council majority, however, said that it's time to act. The prior Comprehensive Plan had a planning horizon that concluded in 2010. Councilman Adrian Fine noted that work on that plan began in 1990, when he was 4 years old, and suggested that it's no longer a relevant vehicle for advancing the goals of the city. He encouraged his colleagues to support the update.
"Not everyone is getting what they want, but everyone is getting something," Fine said. "I think it's time to move the community forward."
The most contentious item of the night was Fine's 11th-hour proposal to revisit the debate over how Palo Alto measures transportation impacts. The traditional measure that is used in environmental analyses -- known as "level of service" (LOS) -- focuses on traffic delays at major intersections and road segments. It gives an A to F grade to roadways, based on congestion, and helps planners evaluate the deterioration of traffic conditions caused by new construction projects.
The new standard -- "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT) -- focuses on the total number of car trips taken, with the goal of reducing them and encouraging transit use, bike use and other alternative modes of transportation. Favored by regional planning boards, urban-planning organizations and, increasingly, the state of California (which is now making VMT the default standard for environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act), the measurement focuses on the broader goal of shifting people away from cars.
In debating this issue in the past, council members and the specially appointed Citizens Advisory Commission favored using both metrics to measure impacts of development projects. On Monday night, Fine attempted to reverse that decision and made a motion to effectively shift to VMT and to use LOS only for informational purposes.
In arguing for the change, Fine argued that using LOS could hinder the city in its pursuit of environmentally sustainable policies, such as infill development.
"It also punishes bike and pedestrian improvements, because they might have an impact on you sitting at an intersection in a car," Fine said. "If we really care about building a city that supports multi-modal services, I think this is a good change."
His proposal fell by a single vote, with his political ally Mayor Greg Scharff joining Holman, DuBois, Kou and Filseth in thwarting it. While Scharff said he opposed making controversial changes at the end of the process, others argued that the change would be bad policy that discounts local concerns.
Filseth said that taking "level of service" out of consideration would be a disservice to constituents, who have demonstrated time and time again that they passionately care about traffic.
"They did not send us here today so we can say, 'We don't want you to know what the congestion is,'" Filseth said.
Kou also fell one vote shy in her quest to ensure that new developments fulfill their parking obligations. The new Comprehensive Plan calls for developers to "manage" the parking demand of the projects; the prior version required them to "meet" the demand by actually providing parking spaces. Fine recommended the change from "meet" to "manage" in January and the council quickly adopted it at that time with no debate. Kou attempted to revisit the issue on Monday night by reverting the language to "meet," but the proposal fell by a 4-5 vote, with Holman, DuBois and Filseth joining her.
In other areas, council members proved willing to compromise. In a nod to recent complaints from residents, the council voted 8-1, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss dissenting, to reinsert into the plan's introduction chapter language about neighborhood protection that was previously struck. Prompted by Holman, the addition directs the city to "encourage commercial enterprise but not at the expense of the city's residential neighborhoods."
The council also supported by a unanimous vote Councilman Greg Tanaka's suggestion to go beyond the existing pro-bicycle stance and add language promoting other "personal transportation vehicles" -- including skateboards and rollerblades.
The council also agreed to include in the plan a list of "community indicators" -- periodic measurements that would track the city's progress on issues of high community concern. The biggest debate came over which indicators to choose. Ultimately, the majority went with a proposal from Scharff and planning staff to include eight indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, vehicle miles traveled per capita, the jobs-to-housing balance, below-market-rate units constructed, progress toward achieving the goals of the Housing Element, traffic volumes at 10 representative local intersections, availability of parks and school enrollments.
Scharff's proposal went ahead by a 5-3 vote, with Holman, Kou and DuBois dissenting (Tanaka temporarily left the room during the vote). Those who opposed preferred a different set of measures Dubois proposed that included parking impacts from commercial areas on neighborhoods, the "solo occupant vehicle" rate in employment areas, urban tree canopy, parks acreage per resident and the number of unoccupied homes.
The newly approved Comprehensive Plan includes policies to spur creation of affordable housing, preserve retail, limit office space to 1.7 million square feet (in addition to the 1.3 million that has already been approved as part of the construction of the new Stanford University Medical Center); promote smaller housing units; and create a new community with housing and commercial uses at Stanford Research Park.
It also places a premium on traffic reduction, with a requirement that new developments above a certain size threshold to prepare and implement transportation-demand management plans. It also sets specific traffic-reduction targets that developments have to meet, based on their locations within the city.
The Environmental Impact Report for the plan includes a preferred scenario with between 3,500 and 4,400 new housing units between now and 2030, well below the 10,000 that the city's housing advocates have been calling for, yet somewhat above what Palo Alto would receive under present policies.
DuBois and Filseth shared some of Holman's and Kou's reservations about the new document, though they ultimately joined the majority in supporting the new Comprehensive Plan. Wolbach had his own concerns, having argued at prior meetings that the city should plan for far more housing.
"This plan is clearly not perfect, but it's pretty darn good," Wolbach said.