A citizens' initiative to significantly scale down the amount of office growth sparked a debate among Palo Alto's elected leaders Monday night, with some calling it a "moderate" plan and other urging far more analysis before the issue is formally placed on the November ballot.
In a preview of the debate that is certain to escalate prior to November, council members sparred over whether the initiative is indeed a panacea for the city's traffic and housing woes -- as proponents maintain -- or a costly proposition that will hurt local business.
If approved, the measure would amend the city's recently adopted Comprehensive Plan to reduce by half the amount of office and research-and-development construction allowed between now and 2030. The plan, which was adopted last November after nearly a decade of discussions, revisions and negotiations, sets the citywide cap on office growth at 1.7 million. The initiative, which was spearheaded by former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, would reduce it to 850,000.
Because the initiative garnered more than 3,000 signatures, the council's options were limited to adopting the citizens' proposal as is or placing it on the ballot. The council also has the option of placing a competing measure on the November ballot.
Despite their limited options, council members quickly splintered into familiar political camps in a discussion that stretched well until 1 a.m. and that featured accusations of "grandstanding" and "disingenuous" conduct. The debate began shortly after Councilman Greg Scharff proposed a laundry list of items for the city's consultants to analyze before the council decides what to do about the initiative. These include an analysis on how the initiative would impact the city's General Fund, transportation, schools, open space, employment, ability to attract business and ability to construct below-market-rate housing.
"The most important thing on this is to get some data and understand the claims made on the initiative and make a fiscal analysis on this before deciding what we should do," Scharff said.
His proposal carried by a 5-4 vote, with Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, Councilman Tom DuBois, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilwoman Lydia Kou voting against moving ahead analysis. The four dissenters, who constitute the council's slow-growth wing, argued that the study is redundant because the city had already analyzed the fiscal impacts of various growth scenarios during its Comprehensive Plan update; the studies showed little difference between their respective impacts.
Kou blasted Scharff's proposal to further analyze the initiative and then return in late July or early August during the council's scheduled summer break to take action on it.
"The citizens have spoken. The residents have spoken. They have gone out and gathered signatures and yet we'll be spending money we don't have to do all this work and do a fiscal study. ..." Kou said.
DuBois, who helped gather signatures for the initiative, called it a "pretty moderate proposal." Placing it on the ballot, he noted, would send a signal that Palo Alto is interested in creating a better balance of land uses than it currently has.
"I think (the) council should just respect the democratic process, the will of the voters and we should just put this on the ballot," DuBois said.
In his comments to the council Monday night, Schmid emphasized growing frustrations about traffic and parking, as reflected in survey results, and the city's gaping imbalance of jobs to housing, which is estimated at 3-to-1. He also noted that a citywide cap on office development has a long history in Palo Alto, which adopted a cap of 3.25 million square feet in its 1998 Comprehensive Plan. The revised Comprehensive Plan sets the cap 1.7 million square feet -- the amount left over from the 1998 plan.
"This initiative, to place a stricter cap on allowed office construction citywide, is an opportunity to involve the residents directly in the future (of) their community," Schmid said. "It is open government in action."
Joe Hirsch, a leader of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, concurred and stressed that the initiative is not a moratorium on office development, but merely an attempt to keep annual office growth close to the historic average.
But some business leaders and Stanford University officials argued that this is a poorly thought out proposal that could do more harm than good. Tiffany Griego, managing director of Stanford Research Park, said businesses in the Research Park contribute millions in revenues to the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District every year.
"We are concerned that without a better study, the initiative will undermine the long-term economic stability of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District," Griego said.
Jean McCown, associate vice president for the Office of Government and Community Relations at Stanford, pointed out that the limit set in the 1998 plan (which was determined by a 1989 study) has "never been breached" and also urged caution about moving ahead with the proposal without more analysis.
"The consequences of this radical downzoning and the economic impact of that to the city and school district need to be understood and presented to the voters," McCown said.
Bob Fickett, president and CEO of Communications & Power Industries, a manufacturer of microwave equipment in Stanford Research Park, said his company is concerned about the "new anti-growth, anti-business initiative proposed by some residents." The measure, he wrote, bypasses the official, deliberate planning process that the city and its various commissions and citizen advisers have undertaken over the past decade.
"If the initiative passes, it will create a hostile business environment that will impact both current and prospective employers in Palo Alto," Fickett wrote. "New businesses will not move into the City, and current businesses will be forced to move out of Palo Alto in order to continue to grow.
"This will strip the City of revenue and prestige," Fickett's letter states. "This initiative is bad for business and it is bad for Palo Alto."
But the initiative also has plenty of supporters, about a dozen of whom stayed until the early Tuesday morning hours to address the council. Others submitted letters endorsing the measure. Rebecca Sanders and Sheri Furman, co-chairs of the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, urged the council to move ahead with the citizens' measure (either by adopting it outright or by placing it on the November ballot) and to avoid drafting a city-sponsored measure to compete with the citizen petition. As traffic approaches saturation, they wrote, delay "increases exponentially."
"Under any scenario, more jobs add more traffic, as not all of the new employees will take transit, bicycle or carpool," they wrote. "Indeed, the current drive-alone rate for Palo Alto workers is over 2/3. We further note that Palo Alto housing prices and rents have increased dramatically in the last decade. Excessive growth in jobs will exacerbate both these trends."
Proponents of the imitative have framed the proposal as a way to prevent Palo Alto from doubling its office growth -- a characterization that critics dismissed. Councilman Adrian Fine noted that office construction contributes funds in the form of service-impact fees, library fees and park fees and called the idea of Palo Alto having "unfettered office growth" a "false narrative."
"When you wear buttons that say, 'Don't double office growth,' I think it's disingenuous," Fine said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said the initiative "definitely should go to the voters" but also favored getting more data before moving ahead. He also rejected the idea that the council is "doubling office growth" (an assertion based on the position that the existing 1.7-million-square-foot cap could potentially allow a greater level of growth than Palo Alto has seen in recent years).
"We should keep having (an) ongoing debate over whether that's the right number or not and I might end up voting on this on the ballot as a voter, but I want to be accurate about how we describe it," Wolbach said.
While others couched their arguments in lofty philosophical principles, Filseth kept his comments characteristically brief.
"It's got the signatures. It probably should go to the ballot," Filseth said.