Over her four years on the City Council, Lydia Kou championed protections for renters, worked to address airplane noise and led the effort to establish Palo Alto's first safe-parking program.
But she is perhaps best known — both to her supporters and detractors — as someone who knows how to say no. No to attempts by Sacramento's legislators to loosen zoning standards to allow more housing construction. No to commercial developers who want to build more offices in Palo Alto. No to a car dealership that wanted to set up shop in the Baylands. No to a hotel developer seeking to convert an iconic downtown apartment building into a boutique hotel. And no to telecommunication companies who want to install equipment in neighborhoods over objections from residents.
On these last three issues — the application for a Mercedes dealership, the transformation of President Hotel, and recent revisions to wireless communications rules (which she felt weren't stringent enough) — and on many others, Kou represented the sole no vote. Much like her colleague and competitor Greg Tanaka, she often challenges staff's recommendations and occasionally criticizes her colleagues. But while Tanaka focuses on waste in spending and generally votes with the council's more pro-growth wing, Kou's overarching focus has been on protecting neighborhoods from impacts of city growth.
This doesn't just mean fighting proposed developments. Last year, Kou cast the only vote of dissent when the council approved a policy recommended by the Utilities Department that allows the installation of pad-mounted electrical equipment in a neighborhood where utilities are otherwise underground, siding with residents who argued that such equipment would be unsightly. And she argued that the city should not change its policy on letting non-residents into Foothills Park without a vote of the people.
These positions have made her one of the council's most polarizing figures. To her supporters, she is the community's most steadfast defender of "quality of life," whether the battle is over traffic congestion, budget cuts to community services or airplane noise, an issue on which she has been the council's most vocal advocate. To her opponents, she is an uncompromising defender of the status quo whose actions impede what they say is urgently needed progress on easing the city's housing shortage.
A Realtor who recently sold her Barron Park home and moved to a Midtown rental, Kou is broadly supported by neighborhood groups and longtime residents who have lobbied the council for more stringent regulations against developers who want to densify Palo Alto. She is also frequently derided by housing advocates, including Twitter's active YIMBY community who call her out of touch.
As one of three council members who favor slower city growth, Kou distinguishes herself from the other two "residentialists" — Councilman Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Tom DuBois — as less likely to compromise, particularly on issues pertaining to growth.
She has a record of initially resisting denser developments: She fought the Maybell Avenue senior-apartments project in 2013 and a zone change in 2018 that paved the way for a planned 59-apartment complex for low-income residents and adults with disabilities (though she later supported that project, which is now known as Wilton Court).
But Kou does have her own ideas about housing. In September 2019, she and DuBois submitted a memo to their colleagues that encouraged a greater focus on the people making below 80% of the area median income. The memo proposed raising housing-impact fees paid for by commercial developments; requiring developers of rental housing complexes to set aside a certain number as affordable housing (currently, the city requires only residential developers of ownership homes to designate 15% of their units for affordable housing, known as "inclusionary housing"); ensuring that density bonuses for mixed-use projects are devoted to the residential component; and exploring regulations to prevent housing from being converted into commercial space.
Kou and DuBois also have been the council's chief advocates for rental stabilization measures, though their efforts to explore such measures have so far failed to sway the council majority. They had far more success in championing the adoption of "safe parking" programs for vehicle dwellers, which combine a secure location to park with social services. Last month, the council approved Palo Alto's first such program at 2000 Geng Road.
Kou said her biggest disappointment with the council has been a discrepancy between the words of her colleagues and their actions. She cites as an example the recently approved conversion of President Hotel, a 75-unit apartment building on University Avenue, into a boutique hotel that will have 100 rooms. Even though city staff had initially ruled that the project violates numerous zoning provisions and the council had passed a law explicitly banning the conversion of residential properties to non-residential use, the council voted in June to approve the conversation based on a threatened lawsuit from the property owner. Kou was the sole dissenter in the 6-1 vote.
Council members often say they "want housing," Kou said, but their decision to approve the conversion belies that assertion.
"There was so much behind-the-scenes work in order to make sure that codes were changed in order to accommodate the change of the use," Kou told the Weekly.
While most council members believe zoning exceptions are sometimes necessary to make housing projects pencil out economically, Kou argues that such concessions amount to subsidies to developers. Her bar for projects that she would support under the new "planned housing" zone is higher than that of her colleagues. When asked in an interview what type of affordable-housing project she would support, she described a two- or three-story building with plenty of light and open space — one that would "respect the dignity of the people living in subsidized housing."
It's the kind of project that would undoubtedly get the council's unanimous approval. It's also the kind of project that would probably not get proposed by a developer, given the city's exorbitant land costs and the high subsidies needed to build housing for residents at or below 80% of area median income. Even the 59-apartment Wilton Court project, which has significantly more density and height than Kou's ideal project, required $10 million in public funds before it could advance.
A consistent proponent of slowing down commercial growth, which she believes contributes to the city's traffic problems, Kou said she would generally oppose approving an office component as part of such a development, though she might make an exception for businesses that provide community services. She opposes raising the 50-foot height limit for new developments, which some see as a serious barrier to constructing affordable housing, though she would support letting the voters decide the issue.
Kou often clashes on the topic of housing with Mayor Adrian Fine, who supported Senate Bill 50 (which she vehemently opposed) and who believes that supporting "affordable housing" to the exclusion of everything else is a formula for getting no housing at all. The two also clashed last month over protections of retail space, with Fine and the more pro-growth council members voting to explore removing the city's requirement that reserves ground-floor space for retailers in areas outside Palo Alto's commercial core (Kou, DuBois and Filseth all dissented).
In a recent forum sponsored by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a political action committee that leans toward slow-growth policies and that endorsed Kou's campaign, Kou said she is running for a second term because she believes Palo Alto needs to address its housing and business challenges in a "sensible and responsible manner." This, to her, doesn't just mean building enough housing to match the city's jobs. It also means ensuring that the city continues to have enough parks, libraries, community centers and infrastructure to serve both existing residents and new ones.
"In the past couple of decades we've seen the overdevelopment of offices and today we constantly hear the narrative of, 'We have a housing crisis, we have a housing shortage, so let's go ahead and build, build, build,'" Kou said. "Well, we can't build our way out of this."
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