When Crescent Park resident Ajit Varma says Palo Alto has a big problem, he means business.
As a director of products at WhatsApp, he frequently interacts with companies from around the globe as they try to recover from virus-induced shutdowns. And he is increasingly worried by what he sees in his own hometown, where businesses are struggling to stay open and where city leaders are perennially failing to meet their housing goals. These trends, he believes, are diminishing the city's long-enjoyed status as a beacon of opportunity.
A Texas native who moved to Palo Alto two decades ago to pursue a career in technology, Varma is hoping to join the council so he can start reversing this trend. On Aug. 7, he filed his papers to join a crowded race for four council seats.
"We came to Palo Alto because of opportunity, and we want the next person, who wants the same opportunities, to have them," Varma, 40, told this news organization. "For my kids, and the next person who comes to Palo Alto, I want to say, 'You have the same opportunities that people have had 10 or 20 years ago.' Every single race should have those opportunities. Every single viewpoint should have those opportunities."
More so than other candidates, Varma believes the council has gone in the wrong direction when it comes to supporting — and growing — the business community. While council members have long talked about the need for a business tax (they had planned to place such a tax on the November ballot before halting the plan in March in the face of the pandemic), Varma's seeks to "eradicate damaging business taxes," according to his campaign website.
He also disapproves of the council's strategy on limiting commercial development, which in recent years included the adoption of an annual office cap in the city's three main commercial areas and a reduction in the citywide limit on nonresidential growth. The council's primary goal with these actions was to address the city's high jobs-to-housing imbalance by reducing office growth and encouraging more residential construction projects.
Varma believes this is a failed and misguided strategy. Rather than capping office space, he believes the city should be encouraging mixed-use developments in which offices subsidize housing, particularly below-market-rate housing. In his view, the city can encourage both economic growth and housing construction by encouraging mixed-use communities such as Santana Row in San Jose or the ones that Google and Facebook are pursuing in Mountain View and Menlo Park, respectively.
"It is always presented as trade-off, like you can have one or the other but you can't have both," Varma said, referring to commercial and residential developments. "I feel we're in a situation where we have neither, and we have failed at both."
Varma, who has worked at Square and at Google before joining Facebook (the parent company of WhatsApp), believes the city's office restrictions and lengthy permitting processes have created a difficult business environment — a problem that will make the city's recovery from the COVID-19 recession all the longer and more difficult.
"I'm really worried that with our policies in Palo Alto being so anti-business — with getting permits being very difficult, with the office caps — we're discouraging businesses from being in Palo Alto."
He is also concerned about the impact of Palo Alto's housing shortage on the city's social dynamics. He said he has seen more people leave the region entirely because of the astronomical living costs. Just a few years ago, companies like Pinterest and Doordash departed Palo Alto to go to San Francisco. Now, many companies and residents are leaving the state altogether. Many of his friends, even those who are well-off, have concluded that the benefits of living here are no longer commensurate with the costs, he said.
When it comes to housing, he believes the city needs to encourage construction of both market-rate and below-market-rate units, particularly around prominent corridors such as El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. Focusing exclusively on below-market-rate units is a recipe for getting no units at all, he said, because of the difficult economics of building affordable housing.
Varma also said he wants to see Palo Alto strive to be more diverse, by addressing what he calls the city's "bad record with housing and policing." One of his top priorities, if elected, would be to attract people with diverse viewpoints to Palo Alto, he said.
"We need to structurally reform our systems to ensure that people of all backgrounds belong here," Varma said.
Varma's decision to seek a seat means voters will get to choose between 10 council candidates. Council members Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka are each running for a fresh four-year term. Mayor Adrian Fine is not running for re-election while Councilwoman Liz Kniss will term out at the end of this year.
Also running are former Mayor Pat Burt; attorney Rebecca Eisenberg; Planning and Transportation Commission member Ed Lauing; Human Relations Commission member Steven Lee; engineer and activist Raven Malone; teacher Greer Stone; and Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Cari Templeton.