Lauding East Palo Alto's regional leadership to help its homeless residents, improvements to its Police Department, and new developments to improve the quality of life, Mayor Lisa Gauthier highlighted a year of milestones during her State of the City speech on Thursday evening at the Cooley Landing Education Center.
Gauthier said that the city is transforming into a growing local and regional player but that it must keep its commitment to maintaining the city's cherished heritage of multiculturalism and economic diversity.
East Palo Alto is watching many of its goals turn into reality, according to Gauthier. In May, the city opened a bike-pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 101. The sweeping structure now links the east and west parts of the city, which have long been physically divided, and gives residents on both sides safe access to the amenities of East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Stanford University and Menlo Park.
In terms of basic infrastructure, the city received $4.4 million in September from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration for Bay Road improvements. The grant completes a $15.2 million package needed to make infrastructure improvements and repave the street. The project, expected to break ground in about two to three months, will open the door to creating the city's downtown, she said.
East Palo Alto also completed a trash capture facility at the O'Connor Street pump station, which is located near the Friendship Bridge. The facility will keep debris out of waterways, as required by the state. The first phase of the San Francisquito Creek flood-control project and levee-improvements project also keeps adjacent neighborhoods free from flooding. Before the project, about one-third of the city was vulnerable to inundation.
East Palo Alto is also working with local agencies to address flooding and sea level rise in San Mateo County. Gauthier has joined the board overseeing one of those projects: Runnymede storm drainage improvements.
The mayor also provided data on the city's accomplishments when it comes to development and building safety. This year, the city issued 2,337 building permits, carried out 1,748 building inspections and conducted 284 building-plan reviews. The total building valuation processed was $34.5 million, she said. The city also stepped up its code enforcement, initiating 197 cases and resolving 134 cases.
On the housing front, the city approved additional affordable housing at Light Tree Apartments, which will include rehabilitation of existing units and 91 new units for low-income individuals and families. Electric buses will serve the area.
Gauthier also lauded the city's collaboration with Project WeHope to create a first-of-its-kind program for people living in recreational vehicles. The city allotted $117,000 to open its Tanklage property for an overnight "safe parking" program, which created a space for homeless residents living in RVs to stay overnight and receive services including counseling, food and transitional housing. East Palo Alto was the first city to enact the program in the region, with others looking to create similar models. More than 10 families have found permanent housing and others have received training for higher paying jobs.
Nonetheless, the city continues to struggle with housing. The city's rent-stabilization program currently has 680 units in its system, which are in addition to the 1,800 units owned by its largest private landowner, Woodland Park Communities. No new properties were registered in the program. More than half of the tenancies turned over in the past two years.
She applauded the Police Department for persevering through difficult situations. Officers successfully negotiated with a suicidal man. Two department employees, Sgt. Angel Sanchez and Officer Cody Chesney, received the Redwood City Elks annual public safety award for bravery after they risked their lives to rescue a gunshot victim.
The Police Department has equipped its patrol cars with lifesaving automated external defibrillators used to treat cardiac patients and now stocks Narcan to use on people in an opioid crisis. The department also held a 48-hour crisis-intervention training and added body-worn cameras for its officers.
Gauthier said that the city is in good financial shape, but it will need to continue approving development projects and attracting businesses to stay that way.
The mayor's speech also touched on personal milestones. She moved to the city with her family in 1967, she noted. "East Palo Alto has formed me into the woman I am today," she said.
Gauthier reached a commendable achievement in August when she received her Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with a focus on general management.
Reflecting on her council service since 2012, she said she didn't consider entering politics until her daughter gave her a bit of advice: "If I wasn't at the table making decisions, someone would be making them for me," she said.
On Thursday, she passed that same message to the city's residents.
"To all residents of East Palo Alto, thank you. Continue to challenge us when we need to be challenged," she said.