With the hand-off of a half-foot-tall stack of signed petitions Tuesday, Palo Alto residents seeking to set a new and smaller limit on office growth in the city launched what they hope will be a "vigorous debate" leading up to a November vote on the matter.
Former Palo Alto Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and members of the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning have been gathering signatures of registered voters since mid-April to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. Shortly before noon, they gave the signatures to City Clerk Beth Minor, who will count them to ensure the group collected the necessary 2,407 and forward them to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters for validation.
At issue is the city's cap on new office and research-and-development space between 2015 and 2030, which the City Council last fall set to 1.7 million square feet in the Comprehensive Plan, Palo Alto's guiding land-use document. That amount of growth -- about 113,000 square feet a year -- is far too much, according to Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. It would result in more congestion, less available parking, more traffic and an even greater lack of affordable housing, the group alleges.
Palo Alto's average annual rate of growth for non-residential areas was 58,013 square feet per year between 1989 and 2014, according to an analysis that the city conducted before adopting its updated Comprehensive Plan last year.
"What we're doing in this petition is saying, 'Let's cut that 1.7 million in half to 850,000, which gets us back to the long time historical growth rate,'" Schmid told the Weekly. "So we're not stopping growth, but we are definitely interested in limiting it so we have a better balanced community. That's our goal."
Commercial growth has exacerbated the city's already gaping jobs-to-housing imbalance, which is estimated at about 3-to-1. On Monday night, the City Council officially agreed to make permanent a 50,000-square-foot annual limit on office and research-and-development projects in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real.
But that cap leaves the rest of the city with no growth limits, Schmid noted. The Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning initiative would pertain to the entire city, including Stanford Research Park, where more than 150 companies like VMWare are located and thousands of workers are employed.
Though the group members want to see their ballot measure succeed, Schmid said he believes that the journey to November will be as worthwhile as the destination.
"We would be delighted to have a debate with other people in the city on this issue. We think it would be something every resident would be interested in hearing about, so we're looking forward to a nice vigorous debate," he said.
"It's a wonderful experience to have an important issue -- 'What is our community going to be like in the future?' -- settled by the people themselves in open debate," he added. "We're looking forward to having the 'Ancient Agora of Athens.' Everyone interested can get together with their point of view and decide themselves."
In keeping with the spirit of a grassroots effort, residents rather than paid hourly workers collected the signatures, Schmid said.
"It was very hard work," he said. "I mean, just to go door to door, to be outside markets ... and libraries ... was a lot of hard work. Completely voluntary -- just residents who got together and did this."