Alison Cormack loves to read, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, comedy or tragedy, the city budget or the 823-page report on her latest passion project — Cubberley Community Center.
The habit, picked up during childhood, helps explain both her biggest civic achievement to date — leading Palo Alto's 2008 successful drive to rebuild its libraries — and her approach to governing, which she says would involve careful analysis and heavy data collection before any decision is made.
If elected to the Palo Alto City Council, she said she would apply this measured, research-heavy approach to tackling the city's most urgent problems, from the severe shortage of affordable housing and the redesign of the rail intersections along the Caltrain corridor to the need to plan for the future of Cubberley, a project that she said she would be heavily involved in, should she prevail on Nov. 6.
In theory, few could argue against such an approach; none of the five candidates are running on a platform of "less deliberation." In practice, members of the current council have been prone to eleventh-hour decisions that surprised members of the public and city staff — whether revising zoning rules for accessory dwelling units well beyond what was initially proposed or changing the scope of a proposed discussion on the hot-button topic of renter protections.
At other times, discussions are often driven by fixed ideological stances (it's not hard to predict which council members will vote against a new development or a proposed big-ticket expenditure) and feature ad hominem attacks against colleagues with opposing views.
Cormack is looking to change that. Her solution to the problem of late-night approvals is simple: vote "no." As for uniting the community, she plans to lead by example. Cormack, whose professional background includes work for Hewlett Packard and Google, has steered clear of political bickering during the election season. She said she would support holding monthly meetings in different neighborhoods and a "participatory budget platform" that would allow residents to get involved in deciding what to fund.
Cormack learned firsthand the importance of compromising during the 2008 library-bond campaign, which followed years of debate about the scope of the needed improvements. Initially, Cormack said, she wasn't convinced that the Downtown Library needed to be in the plan. Many in the community also wondered why the city was renovating all the small libraries, she said. But she also noted that if the downtown library had been removed from the bond package, the bond would lose support from 10 percent of voters, potentially dooming the measure, which needed a two-thirds majority of support to pass.
The final package, she said, was not her "personal preference, and it's probably no one's personal preference, but it's what works for everyone in the community." That, she said, was her "Aha!" moment.
"It's not about what each of us wants individually; it's what everyone wants in the community," Cormack said in an interview on the Weekly's webcast, "Behind the Headlines."
Cormack doesn't align herself with any particular council faction, though contributors to her campaign include Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Greg Scharff, who are both associated with the more growth-friendly side of the dais. She's criticized the council's political environment and the 2014 revival of candidate "slates." When people run as a team, she said, they "start with a team philosophy rather than coming from (the point of) looking at what's in everyone's best interest."
"I'm not running with any other candidates and I'm not running against any other candidates," Cormack told the Weekly.
Her positions on some of the council's most contentious recent issues have generally hewed to those on the Kniss-Scharff camp. Cormack said she opposes rent control (local government, she said, should focus on increasing supply, which rent control does not accomplish). She also said she would not have voted in July to adopt a citizen initiative to slash in half the amount of commercial growth that would be allowed citywide between 2015 and 2030, saying she would have preferred to send it to the voters.
On the divisive topic office development, Cormack does not have a fixed position. When she was asked the Oct. 3 candidates' debate sponsored by the Weekly about measures to regulate office construction, she said she is "really hopeful that this particular topic will be less of a discussion going forward." She also indicated, however, that she probably would not have supported the council's 5-4 decision in 2017 to remove the downtown-specific cap on non-residential development, a position that would have pitted her against the more growth-friendly council members.
She is also less-than-firm when it comes to the city potentially adopting a "just-cause evictions" requirement, which is favored by Tom DuBois, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou and which Scharff and Kniss had opposed. One of the things that is missing from the debate is the data, she said at the Palo Alto Neighborhoods-sponsored council-candidates forum on Oct. 4.
"Before I make a decision on just-cause evictions, I'd like to understand how big the problem is in this community," Cormack said.
She offers a similar answer when asked how big of a fee the city should charge developers to support affordable-housing programs. That issue polarized the council in early 2017, when council members reversed the decision that was made by the prior council in December 2016 to raise impact fees from $20 per square foot to $60 per square foot. The new council voted to set the fees at $35 per square foot, a decision that Vice Mayor Eric Filseth and DuBois are hoping to revisit if elected (each supported the $60 fee).
Cormack said at the Palo Alto Neighborhoods debate that she would be open to a higher fee, though she said she does not have the information to determine exactly what the fee should be.
Cormack also said she supports some of the recently approved housing developments, including the "workforce housing" building at 2755 El Camino Real and the zone change that will enable 59 affordable apartments at 3705 El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue. She called "affordable housing" one of her priorities, particularly as it pertains to the city's growing senior population.
When it comes to accessory dwelling units, her fellow candidates Filseth and DuBois both believe the council erred in stripping away all parking requirements for such units. DuBois called for reinstating these requirements, which the council removed by a 5-4 vote. Cormack, by contrast, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"Since we recently established the rules for ADUs and are seeing permits pulled now, I would like to see how those play out and then evaluate what changes, if any, might be appropriate," she wrote in the Palo Alto Neighborhoods questionnaire. "Our single-family neighborhoods are integral to the fabric and character of many parts of our city."
Her propensity to analyze, deliberate and solicit opinions could be frustrating for those seeking a simple answer. Consider the new downtown parking garage — a project that is included on the council's 2014 list of infrastructure priority. Candidates Cory Wolbach and Pat Boone have said it should be dropped from the list. Filseth and DuBois both think it should stay. Cormack told the Weekly she is not prepared to either oppose or support the project.
"I am prepared to have a discussion about it once we understand what the current parking situation is in downtown," Cormack said. "It's changed in the last four years with the prevalence of Uber drop-offs and Lyft, etc."
Her preferred method for tackling traffic and parking issues is the creation of a robust shuttle system, an idea that the council has often talked about but has not been able to implement. The new shuttle system, she said, would be one of her highest priorities. Another one is rebuilding Cubberley, a long-awaited project that is just now picking up momentum. Cormack believes that, like the construction of the Mitchell Park Library and the renovation of the smaller library branches, Cubberley could be a project that would be funded through a bond.
"I've seen this movie before," Cormack said at the Palo Alto Neighborhoods debate. "I've seen something dilapidated in south Palo Alto that people behind this dais ignored and had a happy ending. And I want to see it again."
Read more about this year's City Council candidates here.
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