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A popular Palo Alto city program intended to bring together residents to make more environmentally conscious decisions while building a sense of community has some neighbors divided on whether $100,000 to fund the Cool Block program is money wisely spent.
The Palo Alto City Council was scheduled to vote on a contract with the Global Action for the Earth (a nonprofit of the Empowerment Institute) as part of its consent calendar, which contains items that are not discussed. But City Manager Jim Keene, a supporter of the program, pulled the item from the vote because some residents, including the group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, opposed voting on the funds at least until there is a public discussion. The council will revisit the funding issue as an action item at its April 2 meeting.
The city has previously endorsed two pilot Cool Block programs at no cost through the Empowerment Institute. Keene, who is listed as a "strategic partner" on the Cool Block website and as an adviser to the institute's broader Cool Cities Challenge, has expressed interest for years in such a program because it addresses the city's zero-waste and carbon-footprint-reduction goals and builds a greater sense of community on a block level, according to a city staff report.
Getting to know neighbors was one of the chief reasons proponents want the program to continue. In 2003, 70 percent of Palo Alto respondents to the National Citizen Survey, which the city takes annually, rated their sense of community as "good" or "excellent." That rate dropped to 56 percent by 2017, according to a city staff report. Numerous letters to the City Council by people who took part in the two pilot programs said Cool Block achieved something that many other city and neighborhood programs have not: getting residents to team up to make meaningful change in their neighborhoods and making them feel like they are part of a community again, they said.
"This is a wonderful program that inspires and it builds bridges," said Shannon Rose McEntee, a Sheridan Avenue resident.
Her neighborhood, which is mostly comprised of apartments and condominiums, doesn't have a neighborhood association.
"We have nothing that brings us together," she said, noting that even people passing in the hallways of her 55-unit condominium complex often don't say hello.
But doing something meaningful together and working on these problems is empowering, she said. The program also brought together neighbors of very different backgrounds, who found common ground. Her team included neighbors from South Korea, China and India, she said.
That's important as the city tries to find ways to better integrate and include its burgeoning immigrant population. The council has tasked the Human Relations Commission with coming up with recommendations for developing an inclusiveness policy. Last year, the commission hosted an immigrant speaker series to learn about how well its newest residents are faring. Many said they felt socially isolated and said they did not know how to make American friends.
Bret Anderson, a Palo Verde resident, said he has lived in his neighborhood for 20 years, but neighbors "hardly spoke to each other." But trying to reach a common goal brought people together, he said.
The program was so popular in one Midtown neighborhood they had to create a second Cool Block program on Webster Street, Annette Isaacson said. Her neighbors have each reduced their carbon output by 5,000 pounds, she said.
During the spring 2016 and summer 2017 pilots, block leaders met with teams of five to eight households on a block. They held nine team meetings that covered topics including energy conservation; emergency preparation; water reduction; what people want in their neighborhood, such as removing blight, adding a community garden or traffic calming; and what it means to engage in civic life.
The participants selected from 112 "action recipes" that included measures such as carbon reduction, water conservation, using less hot water, moving toward a vegetarian diet, shopping less, installing efficient lighting and retrofitting houses. They improved their emergency preparedness plans by storing up to seven days of food and water and establishing alternative lighting and ways to receive news in the event of a disaster.
Residents tracked their progress through a web platform built by the institute, which contains resources to help them achieve their goals. The first pilot had 15 households and helped adapt the program to Palo Alto's goals.
The second pilot took place over four-and-a-half months and involved 24 blocks representing 175 households. The pilots resulted in households on average reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent, exceeding the 25 percent target. Each household on average reduced its carbon output by 7 tons. Each household on average engaged in nine disaster-preparedness actions, among the outcomes, according to the Empowerment Institute.
In an email to the City Council, Lee Birdsey said she now bikes whenever she can and she and her husband only put their garbage can out once a month because everything else is recycled. They have supplies for a disaster and they now know who their neighbors are who might need extra help, she said.
"It really feels like a safe and warm place to live again after this program," she wrote.
Proponents urged the council to approve the program. If funded, the city and the institute would now roll out the first phase of what they hope to be a four-year project. The program could eventually be used throughout California and perhaps eventually worldwide. The $100,000 in funding for Phase I would target 30 blocks and would be completed by the end of this year. A proposed Phase II would scale up to 350 or more blocks -- about 25 percent of all the city's blocks -- and is not included in this funding round, but could be funded later at the council's discretion, according to the contract. The city would contribute $100,000 and staff time to the $200,000 program, with the Empowerment Institute matching the city funds with up to $100,000 in "in-kind" services.
Sandra Slater, Cool Block volunteer program manager for Palo Alto, said most of those services would involve customized web development for Palo Alto, data gathering, maintenance on the existing web service, e-newsletters, program marketing, recruitment, online tracking and coaching. So far, the institute has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the web programming for the pilot program. The city was not charged for the pilot programs. Staff is recommending tapping the city manager's more than $200,000 in contingency funds for Phase I.
But some residents are questioning the expenditure. They wanted greater accountability and a clear vision of what the program would cost if all phases were implemented.
"What is the cost for the following year, and the following year and the following year after that?" Rita Vrhel asked.
Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which represents 33 neighborhoods and three affiliates, asked the council in a March 2 letter to remove the Cool Block funding request and contract from the consent calendar. The organization wants public discussion on the merits of the investments, co-chairs Sheri Furman and Rebecca Sanders wrote.
The group raised questions about the completeness of the data and how it is tracked. They noted that of the 175 households, only 97 had reported their results.
They also expressed concern about current costs and any that might be added for future project phases. The contract would last through March 4, 2022, they noted, and they questioned why the city would engage in a four-year contract. The agreement states that a program and funding for Phase II is up to the council's discretion, however.
"The proposed work for $100,000 would target just 30 blocks or household groups. The cost per block/group seems extremely high and is not explained. Could we ever afford to replicate this across the approximately 1,400 such blocks/groups in Palo Alto?" they wrote.
Palo Alto Neighborhoods also said the proposal overlooks other city programs such as its Zero Waste program and an extensive and well-organized volunteer emergency-preparedness team, which are integrated with the city staff. There is no analysis of an overlap with other city efforts on energy and waste reduction in the staff report, they noted.
But Slater said in a phone interview that the Cool Block program isn't reinventing the wheel; it leverages existing programs, bringing in city staff to inform and recruit residents and spreading information about existing incentives, a sentiment echoed by several speakers at the council meeting.
The program aims to do what other programs haven't accomplished individually -- to interest whole neighborhoods in city programs such as the Emergency Services Volunteers and its Healthy Cities, Healthy Community resolution. Slater said that's in part human nature. People tend to have good intentions and know they should do something, but they don't get around to it. Being part of a group -- and accountable to each other -- helps introduce ideas, share with one another, grow a stronger neighborhood and build relationships.
"There is no forum to do that," Slater said.
"We don't know the people sleeping 100 feet from our heads. How weird is that?" Going to a block party is fine for meeting people, but she said it isn't the same as being on a team where people are doing something together. Other residents who took part in the program agreed, saying it has had a long-lasting effect beyond the program itself.
Every penny will be well spent, they argued, because the city will save money in the long run as people reduce their waste and carbon dioxide output.
Slater told the council that the city faces an "existential risk" because of climate change that it will be forced to address. John Kelley, who was one of the original block leaders in the early pilot program, agreed.
"If you delay; if you dither ... you could miss the opportunity to address the single most important issue of our time," he said.