Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss was so surprised Monday night by the electronic vote tally displayed on the wall of the council chambers that she asked her colleagues to vote again. She had mistakenly voted yes, no and abstain, lighting up her green, red and yellow indicator lights, creating a bit of confusion.
But for everyone in the chambers, including Kniss, her colleagues, city staff and the public, it wasn't her fumbled voting that grabbed their attention.
Councilman Cory Wolbach's green light was on, meaning he had decided to vote with the slower-growth four-person contingent (Tom DuBois, Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou) instead of his usual allies (Adrian Fine, Kniss, Greg Scharff and Greg Tanaka).
It was an unusually dramatic moment, in part because Wolbach had given no indication he would reverse the views he had expressed just a month ago and support enacting an anti-office-growth measure without sending it to the voters. In fact, he didn't even speak during the discussion prior to the vote, unprecedented for him on an important and controversial proposal.
At issue was whether to put the recently qualified citizens' initiative measure to lower the cap on new office development over the next 12 years on the November ballot or to simply adopt it as presented. With what has become a predictable 5-4 split on the council on development issues, it's unlikely that even proponents thought adoption had any chance of passing.
Those favoring reducing the allowable growth of commercial space from 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 square feet had mostly been concerned that the council majority might put a competing measure on the ballot. Even DuBois, who ultimately voted to adopt the measure outright, commented prior to the vote that he supported putting it on the ballot.
But when the vote came, on a motion by Lydia Kou, to adopt the initiative measure instead of giving it to the voters, Wolbach joined Kou, DuBois, Filseth and Holman. Wolbach, who is one of three councilmen running for re-election this November (along with DuBois and Filseth,) was clearly uncomfortable during the council discussion and after the vote. Seated next to him was Fine, who theatrically held up a copy of the recently approved Comprehensive Plan and said it now belonged in the recycling bin.
Does any of this political intrigue actually matter? Probably not.
On the one hand, the new commercial-growth limit of 850,000 square feet — half the amount that has been city policy for many years — is roughly the amount that would be built in the next 12 years if the average rate of growth experienced since 2001 simply continued.
On the other hand, opponents of the lower cap argued it would take away flexibility in the out-years to respond to an appealing hypothetical proposal for a major expansion of a company in the Stanford Research Park.
City Manager Jim Keene was adamant about the importance of this flexibility. He and others pointed out that action limiting office growth in Palo Alto wouldn't have the desired effect of containing traffic congestion and housing costs because our neighboring cities are approving massive amounts of new office development and we are impacted by the traffic created by them. And they correctly pointed out that the biggest impact would be on the Research Park, which has been exempted from annual growth limits and now could face tighter constraints on new development many years from now.
We have little doubt that Palo Alto voters would have approved the citizens initiative if it had been put on the November ballot instead of adopted by the council, so in the end this week's drama is probably unimportant.
In a text message to reporters after the meeting, Wolbach said he concluded that the reduced office cap is the right policy for addressing the enormous imbalance between jobs and housing in the city and now hopes new housing will actually get built, not just talked about.
That's quite a turnaround from the concerns he raised a month ago when he speculated that city services might need to be reduced in the future if the lower growth cap were approved because of the loss of tax and fee revenue from new development. That argument, made by some others Monday night, is illogical and misleading. The current growth cap of 1.7 million square feet was never intended as a goal, so the financial consequences of failing to reach it strikes a false note.
But Wolbach's latest position is right. There are few, if any, Palo Alto residents that would argue that accelerating commercial office development was good policy. With his vote, he has spared us an election campaign sure to have further polarized the community while getting to the same result.