Palo Alto voters will have a chance to dramatically reshape the seven-member City Council when they cast their ballots this fall.
With 10 candidates vying for four seats, the council will inevitably look different when new members are sworn in this coming January. Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, two of the council's staunchest housing advocates, are both concluding their tenures. Their replacements, as chosen by voters, will determine whether the council's pro-growth-leaning majority will continue or whether political dominance will shift to the slow-growth-favoring "residentialists."
The two different approaches are reflected in the two council members running for reelection: Greg Tanaka, who tends to vote with the more pro-growth candidates, and Lydia Kou, the staunchest of residentialists. Both of them feel comfortable pushing back against staff recommendations, challenging their colleagues, and casting the lone dissenting vote on matters pertaining to finance (in the case of Tanaka) or land use (in Kou's case).
In other ways, they are polar opposites. Tanaka has supported relaxing limits on new downtown office space, reducing impact fees for new development and, most recently, easing ground-floor retail protections outside the city's commercial cores. He also opposed rent stabilization measures. Kou has taken the opposite stance on each of these issues.
Vying against them is a field of eight that includes City Hall veterans, community volunteers and political newcomers. Pat Burt, a former two-time mayor with a history of being a swing vote on land use issues, is planning his return to the dais. Two members of the Planning and Transportation Commission, Chair Cari Templeton and Ed Lauing, are also making a bid for council seats. Each can point to a history of listening to both sides and achieving consensus. Teacher Greer Stone and attorney Steven Lee, both of whom are former members of the city's Human Relations Commission, are hoping to join the council so that they can help build more affordable housing and reform the police department. But while Lee, like Fine, supports state legislation that would loosen zoning rules in single-family zones and transit areas, Stone fiercely opposes both approaches, seeing them as ineffective and an affront to local control of land use decision-making.
The other three candidates, attorney Rebecca Eisenberg, engineer Raven Malone and WhatsApp product director Ajit Varma, have not served on any local commissions, but they hope their fresh ideas will help Palo Alto address some of its most intractable problems. Eisenberg, a vocal critic of the council's recent budget cuts, wants to go big on housing and proposes that the city buy land and develop hundreds of affordable units. Malone talks about ending "exclusionary zoning" and allowing more multi-family developments throughout the city, including in single-family neighborhoods. Varma wants to bring Palo Alto back to its business-friendly roots by loosening regulations, streamlining approvals and encouraging new development — both commercial and residential.
The election will be starkly different from the one two years ago, when council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth were both easily reelected and Alison Cormack was the only new member to join the council. This year, the turnover will be higher and change will be the only certainty. The big question facing the voters is: What kind of change?
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