City Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who over the past four years established herself as one of Palo Alto's most strident opponents of dense developments and Sacramento housing mandates, plans to pursue a new term.
In a Thursday message, Kou announced her intention to seek re-election and pledged to balance what she called the city's "unrestrained growth," improve government transparency and fight Sacramento's attempt to "take away local control over zoning and other basic City decisions."
With the announcement, Kou became the first council incumbent to announce re-election plans. Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilman Greg Tanaka, who are both affiliated with the council's more growth-friendly faction, are also eligible to run for another term. While both are expected to do so, neither has formally announced his decision.
The May 28 announcement marks the beginning of Kou's third council campaign. A real estate agent and a longtime neighborhood volunteer with a focus on emergency preparedness, Kou became enmeshed in the city's land-use battles in 2013, when she emerged as one of the leaders of a coalition that opposed the council's approval of a zone change that would have allowed the development of a 60-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on a former orchard site on Maybell Avenue. Residents overturned the zone change in a referendum that year, dooming the project.
Kou and two other opponents of the project, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, all ran for the council the following year. While DuBois and Filseth both won election, Kou fell just short during the 2014 campaign. She ran again in 2016 and won election.
Since then, the Barron Park resident has been the council's critic of commercial developments, even as she championed programs that would help low-income residents. A member of the council wing often known as "residentialists," she supported the council's decision in 2018 to slash in half the citywide cap on non-residential development in the Comprehensive Plan. Even as Filseth has emerged as the council's most centrist member and DuBois has shown a willingness to compromise and collaborate on various land-use issues, Kou has been consistent in her opposition to most new developments and to housing bills like state Senate Bill 50, which would relax local zoning standards to allow more housing development.
While Kou has supported the city's Housing Work Plan, which aims to spur more housing production, she has argued that the city should primarily focus on below-market-rate housing. She supported the approval of the Wilton Court development, which is set to break ground later this year and which will include 59 units for low-income residents and adults with disabilities. She also joined her colleagues in voting to contribute $10 million in public funds for the project.
She and DuBois have also focused their housing efforts on renters and low-income residents. In 2017 and in 2018, they had proposed capping rent increases (the council ultimately rejected the idea). Last year, they had more success in advocating for a "safe parking" that would devote parking lots to vehicle dwellers (the city is now moving ahead with establishing such a program at local churches). On the topic of housing, she has frequently clashed with Fine, who supports housing for all income levels, including market rate, and who has been Kou's leading ideological opponent on the council.
During recent budget hearings, Kou has been a leading advocate for restoring funding for teen programs and for reducing spending on capital projects such as the reconstruction of the fire station at Mitchell Park. In her announcement, Kou alluded to the city's projected $40 million budget deficit and to her disagreement with some of her colleagues over capital projects. The council majority, she wrote, "is slashing city services, but not the 'unfunded' capital improvement projects or generous salaries for city staff, to meet this deficit."
Kou framed the current political debate in Palo Alto as a clash between "those who say Palo Alto must become more dense" and those who want to preserve the city's traditional character and retain what she calls "livability for residents."
"There is a vocal faction demanding Palo Alto be a 'world-class' city," Kou wrote. "But what does this term mean? Does it mean having more headquarters of famous corporations, even though their biggest "contribution" is their out-of-town employees clogging Page Mill, Oregon Expressway, Charleston, Arastradero, Embarcadero, and El Camino."
Kou also criticized Sacramento legislators and regional agencies who she said are planning for "substantial population growth."
"Lacking detailed knowledge of the city's differences, these unelected officials have imposed unrealistic planning goals and housing targets," Kou wrote.
In discussing her platform, Kou said she would limit zone changes that "favor individual developments at the community's expense" and "limit exemptions to developers, businesses and employers in order to reduce parking, traffic, pollution and noise." She also said she would ensure that businesses and employers "pay their fair share of all City expenses, including infrastructure costs."
"I believe Palo Alto is at a crossroads," Kou wrote. "Do we retain our single-family residential areas, expand our community serving businesses and retain our unique character? Our village? Or, do we change our zoning and land use regulations to allow for severe densification and morph into a large urban center?"