News

Editorial: Averting an unneeded election

In surprise vote, council adopts measure to cut office-growth cap in half

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.

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Comments

119 people like this
Posted by A Ray of Hope
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 3, 2018 at 3:00 am

The Weekly is right .. the initiative would have easily been approved by the electorate. We're tired of traffic and parking problems. We're tired of being told that Palo Alto will shrivel up and fade away if we don't allow some developer to profit by millions building yet another tech office. We're tired of politicians who say they are pro-resident but then vote to allow more and more buildings that make our city worse.

We owe a huge thanks to former Vice-Mayor Greg Schmid for creating the initiative that the Council adopted plus to the dozens of volunteers who worked hard to gather signatures. And to everyone who signed the papers to put the initiative on the ballot and wrote letters and spoke to Council, thank you too.

Let's all continue the push to save Palo Alto from over-development.


74 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2018 at 11:06 am

Wolbach got to the right answer, IMO. But his vacillating and this latest whiplash spectacle makes me wonder about his true political convictions.

Who we are really getting when the good people of Palo Alto vote for Wolbach?


41 people like this
Posted by Citizen's win
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2018 at 11:39 am

Ray of hope,

Yes, THANK YOU FORMER VICE_MAYOR GREG SCHMID

Editor,

The general public will apparently not know what it took to have a ballot measure for which there was "little doubt" that it would win. Of course it all looks "right" now after you (Weekly) nor Wolbach had anything to do with this "right" initiative, previous to becoming such a no brainer.

Thanks to the fact that citizens do not need to rely on your Editorials, the City Manager, or people needing votes for an election to get some facts that make some things so obvious.


40 people like this
Posted by sensible growth is not no growth
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 3, 2018 at 12:04 pm

sensible growth is not no growth is a registered user.

Was using the term "cap" for the 1.7 mm square feet in the Comp Plan suggested by the pro-developer members of the CC? The so-called "cap" was actually 2x the average annual increase in office space and should have been termed "doubling the growth rate"

The group the Weekly calls "slow growth" have merely advocated for similar vs. double the rate of office growth. Sounds pretty darn reasonable to me.


74 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 3, 2018 at 1:40 pm

"She [Kniss] had mistakenly voted yes, no and abstain, lighting up her green, red and yellow indicator lights, creating a bit of confusion."

That was no mistake. It was a code message to Wolbach that he had one more chance to get his mind/vote right.


28 people like this
Posted by Shaking Head
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 3, 2018 at 1:49 pm

"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."

Gee...with only 5 votes to account for + 3 button choices, the city council voting process really shouldn't be all that difficult or mind-boggling.

How did the PA City Council handle various decisions before this era of high-tech?


53 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

Annette is a registered user.

"In fact, he didn't even speak during the discussion prior to the vote, unprecedented for him on an important and controversial proposal."

That is arguably the understatement of the year.

I think it worth remembering that woven into the discussion about this was the need to somehow improve the horribly lop-sided jobs:housing imbalance that the Majority's pro-development votes have nurtured.* No doubt the sad spectre of the looming Hotel President evictions has raised our collective consciousness about the lack of affordable housing in Palo Alto. Hopefully the change brought about by the initiative will help us not make our bad situation even worse.

*Wolbach has consistently voted with the Majority; this vote was out of character. It will be interesting to hear what spin is applied during his campaign for re-election.


37 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 3, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Absolutely! Thanks, kudos, salutes, and bows, to Greg Schmid and all those hard working volunteers who gathered enough votes to get the initiative on the ballot. I'm sure that took a lot of beat work...knocking on doors, phone calls, etc.

And yes, I was surprised that the CC vote turned out like it did. I watched the meeting on the Midpeninsula Media Center website. I saw the fumbling on the light board and then was also surprised to see a green light on for Cory. What was especially noticeable was his silence during discussion on the issue. Very uncharacteristic of him. I shouldn't speculate on it, but it does raise questions. Was it an epiphany moment or was it really a political move to help him get re-elected in November? The initiative would have passed in November anyway, so his vote was mute, in a way, but did avoid further discussion and voters' trauma.

He doesn't have to be openly apologetic to his other pro growth majority members and I suspect he didn't take any heat from them for voting the way he did. He probably didn't since they probably knew in advance of how he would vote and that when the dust had settled he'd be welcomed back into their group with open arms.

And the beat goes on in this little town that I remember from long ago (the way it was when we moved here in 1961) a town that should remain a town, but due to many new circumstances and influences, inside and outside our boundaries, make it impossible. So, our current leaders want it to grow big, just like our neighbors to the north and south. My town, the greatest town on earth then (60's-70's) is gone forever.


67 people like this
Posted by Ms. Wells
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2018 at 2:53 pm

I was a signature gatherer for this petition drive. All of the Palo Alto residents I spoke to were delighted to sign the petition and looking forward to voting FOR the halving of the office space cap. On Monday night Council Member Scharf tried to convince us that signers were willing to go along just to put the measure on the ballot. NO - everyone understands we have too many commuters coming into town on weekdays.

Also, it was interesting to see City Manager James Keene stake out his position as the most fervent advocate of office space growth (AKA flexibility) of all city officials present. I hope Shikada will be a big improvement.


62 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 3, 2018 at 2:58 pm

jh is a registered user.

@ Curmudgeon "That was no mistake. It was a code message to Wolbach that he had one more chance to get his mind/vote right."

Very sharp observation.

A large and activated "residential" turnout to vote for the initiate in November would likely have been a real disadvantage for Wolbach. Also only NOW, with the plight of the tenants at the President on the front pages, and the election on the near horizon, reversing his decision to vote against allowing the council have any discussion about possible (non-draconian) ways to help Palo Alto renters. Whatever his motives, unfortunately the timing of changing his position on these two issues right before an election makes his motives suspect, even if he has had a genuine change of heart.


76 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2018 at 3:57 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Cory Wolbach had no change of heart. The initiative would have won by a landslide. Now he can claim in his reelection attempt that he is not always automatically always in pro growth and that he is a actually a residentialist at heart. Win-win for him. Hopefully, the voters will not be fooled by this kid again.


18 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2018 at 4:41 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

So what's being done for the President Hotel tenants? Is the city or any member(s) of the CC or the PTC doing anything?

One of the tenants is/was a web celebrity of some note who was written up in Wired magazine. Those familiar with this tenant keep asking where they can contribute to prevent this person and the 74 others from becoming homeless in our hyper-competitive local market.


11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of University South
on Aug 3, 2018 at 9:28 pm

Thank you, Cory!

If you’ve followed Cory Wolbach’s votes for years, you shouldn’t be surprised by this. He campaigned on a pro-housing policy that also limited office growth. He voted for the downtown office cap, but wanted exceptions for buildings that improved the jobs/housing imbalance without adding traffic. He proposed more housing in the Comprehensive Plan, but his proposal was defeated by the residentialists along with Scharff, in favor of a lower housing limit.

Given a situation where he can vote for moderate limits on office growth without also preventing housing (as allying with the residentialists on the Comprehensive Plan would have done), he will do it.


52 people like this
Posted by Citizen2
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2018 at 9:18 am

Oh brother, @Resident. What a spin you have there. Wohlbach has been one of the worst BuildBabyBuilders. He has consistently made convoluted, unsupported arguments to further that agenda. Now, like Scharff and Kniss before him, he wants to appear “moderate” on overdevelopment for the election. He knows very well that if that referendum went to vote, his actual record, rather than your whitewashed framing, would go up to scrutiny. Then it would become impossible for him to do things like misuse statements from Bob Moss like Scharff and Kniss did in campaign advertising to appear more moderate for the segment of the electorate who pay only superficial attention to City politics.

@Curmudgeon
Glad to see someone else notices the Kniss signaling. You know what they say, the best place to hide something is in plain sight.


43 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 4, 2018 at 11:30 am

mauricio is a registered user.

If you’ve followed Cory Wolbach’s votes for years, you shouldn’t be surprised by this, that's exactly right. He learned this trick from Kniss and Scharff. When he wants to get elected, he is the sweet local boy who just wants everybody to be nice and civil. When he is elected, he does the bidding of the big land developers, because they would be the ones who finance his future political ambitions.

He knew very well that the commercial cap initiative would win and galvanize the residentialists, who at long last would have shown up on election day and voted him out of office. This was a win-win scenario for him. On Monday, he was just as cynical and manipulative as the old masters Kniss and Scharff. He learned from the best.


51 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Hard to see Liz's "mis-vote" as anything other than a way to get a do-over on on a vote with an uncertain outcome.

Kniss also frequently uses the trick of asking for a show of hand from the public before commenting on an issue and then adjusting her comments to suit the sentiment of the audience.


31 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 5, 2018 at 5:49 pm

jh is a registered user.

Corey ran on a platform promising he would bring "civility" to council meetings. Now he has been the swing vote on the development cap perhaps he could also be the swing vote on the council to bring civility to the Planning and Transport Commission. By voting to remove the one person who constantly sabotages the meetings with his bizarre behavior and rantings, Michael Alcheck.


3 people like this
Posted by Andrew Lucky
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 6, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Palo Alto is a backwards community with this so-called policy.

These acts are destroying the future for the next generation.

Our children will suffer and not be able to live in this community because too many chose the status-quo over progress.


8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 6, 2018 at 1:42 pm

"Our children will suffer and not be able to live in this community because too many chose the status-quo over progress."

No problem. Either there will be thousands in line to replace them, or we'll get our quiet community back.

Besides, compared to where I grew up, this is a boring place to be a kid. So let those "suffering" children thrive.


15 people like this
Posted by Former Child
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 6, 2018 at 1:51 pm

Yes, and growing up around a bunch of office buildings is REALLY BORING.


2 people like this
Posted by Waving Goodbye
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 6, 2018 at 2:12 pm

Palo Alto lost its collective soul 40 years ago.

Now it's all about money and false images.


11 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 6, 2018 at 4:13 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

I see, growing up around many tall buildings with lots of traffic noise and people bumping into each other is so exciting.


12 people like this
Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 6, 2018 at 6:50 pm

Sorry to play drama-killer here, but the Button Skullduggery theory simply isn't true. I was right there, and the Mayor just pushed the wrong button, that’s all -- it’s pretty easy to do because they’re close together, and we all do it occasionally. The thing is, once you push a button, you can’t un-push it; so in practice the only way to signal an error is to push a second button, which is what happened. I actually pushed the third button myself. Obviously there's a range of views on Council, but in the end you want a clean vote. It was.


16 people like this
Posted by Watcher
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 7, 2018 at 9:31 am

On the other hand, Mr. Filseth, it was very clear she said just count my vote as red when all the lights came on. It was not necessary for the Mayor to command a revote. Commanding a revote is where she was manipulating the process.

Thank you for explaining the lights mishap Mr. Filseth, you should keep your fingers to your own lights.


14 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 7, 2018 at 10:20 am

jh is a registered user.

Thank you Mr. Filseth for the explanation of how the buttons work. In her fourteenth year on the council pressing the "wrong" button was an unexpected "mistake" for mayor Kniss to make, especially on such a crucial vote. With all due respect, I don't think you can know what was on her mind any more than we can, and of course she convincingly passed this off as a mistake, that's easy to do, whether it was or not.


2 people like this
Posted by Vasche LaMou
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 7, 2018 at 12:55 pm

"...the Mayor just pushed the wrong button, that’s all -- it’s pretty easy to do because they’re close together, and we all do it occasionally."

That should be an easy fix. Maybe a PAUSD shop class would do it as a project.


7 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 7, 2018 at 12:57 pm

jh is a registered user.

If its so easy, how come it happens so rarely?


2 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 7, 2018 at 1:12 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2018 at 5:40 pm

"... the Button Skullduggery theory simply isn't true. I was right there, and the Mayor just pushed the wrong button, that’s all -- it’s pretty easy to do because they’re close together, and we all do it occasionally."

I believe you say this in good faith, but watch the video. It's plain: Kniss voted red, then quickly pushed the "wrong" button right after Wolbach voted green, forcing a revote.


14 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 9, 2018 at 6:38 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The censorship of post that do not contain foul language, racist or threatening remarks and are relevant to the subject are truly nauseating. It is the complete opposite of journalism and free speech, it is soviet style censorship.

MODERATOR COMMENT: The ground rules you agree to when posting on our site include that comments be respectful and not attack others. Our goal is to promote honest discussion and debate of issues, and when a comment strays from that purpose we will edit or remove them. As a frequent poster, you surely know that by now.


14 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 9, 2018 at 7:29 am

Online Name is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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