When Palo Alto City Council members met in January 2021 to consider their top priorities for the year, pandemic recovery was clearly at the top of the list.
"You can make an argument that that is the only one on the list," council member Alison Cormack said at the council's annual retreat.
The statement proved only partially true. The pandemic certainly shaped many of the city's decisions this year, from whether to hold in-person meetings (no, then yes) to whether University Avenue should be closed to cars to facilitate outdoor dining (yes, then no). In some cases, the prolonged emergency hindered the city's abilities to provide services, as witnessed by shorter library hours and the only partially staffed fire station in College Terrace, a legacy of the council's 2020 budget cuts.
But despite COVID-19, the city made significant progress this year on numerous goals that preceded the pandemic, including the start of construction of a new police headquarters, moving ahead with a citywide fiber network and figuring out what to do about the city's rail crossings, which must be redesigned to accommodate electrified trains.
With the difficult year coming to an end, the council also had some news to celebrate: The local economy is showing signs of recovery, the long-awaited bike bridge over the U.S. Highway 101 is finally open to the public and an anonymous donor has offered more than $30 million to build a new public gym.
Here is a look back at some of the trends that have defined City Hall over the past 12 months.
Persistence and resistance on housing
Palo Alto's quest to add housing stock began on a bright note in 2021, with the council's adoption of "housing for social and economic balance" as an official city priority and the nonprofit Alta Housing groundbreaking in January for a 59-apartment complex for low-income residents and individuals with disabilities. The project, which is now going up at 3703 El Camino Real at the edge of the Ventura neighborhood, received a boost from the city in the form of a $20.5 million loan, which followed unanimous council approval in 2019.
Wilton Court, however, proved to be an exception for the city, which remains at year's end well short of meeting its assigned Regional Housing Needs Allocation targets in all below-market-rate housing categories. Its most promising new tool for attracting housing proposals — the "planned home" zoning designation, which allows residential developers to request exemptions from typical zoning rules — did lead to an uptick in applications, but most proposed to build primarily market-rate units. These include a 70-apartment complex proposed by Smith Development for 660 University Ave. in downtown Palo Alto and a 113-apartment development proposed by Acclaim Companies for 2951 El Camino Real, near Page Mill Road. While the council voiced some tentative support for a few of them during pre-screening sessions this year, none has received the city's approval yet.
Outside of the "planned home" proposals, the city received several other housing applications, with The Sobrato Organization seeking to build 91 townhomes near the former location of Fry's Electronics and SummerHill Homes applying to construct a 48-townhome community near Greer Park. Both projects are preparing to rely on the streamlining provisions of Senate Bill 330, which, among other things, limit the city's ability to pass new rules that would slow down a proposed residential development.
When Palo Alto wasn't discussing ways to attract housing, it was busy fighting Sacramento's efforts to do so. The city took a formal position against both Senate Bill 9, which allows property owners in single-family zones to split their lots and build up to four units, and Senate Bill 10, which allows cities to increase housing density to 10 dwellings per parcel in zones with plentiful public transit options, even if existing laws prohibit such construction.
And when the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) decreed that the city would need to plan for construction of 6,086 housing units between 2023 and 2031, Palo Alto filed an appeal that argued for a lower allocation — a bid it ultimately lost.
The ABAG board of directors, which is made up of local elected officials from around the Bay Area, quickly and unanimously rejected the city's appeal, with one board member, San Ramon Mayor Dave Hudson, blaming Santa Clara County cities for failing to do their fair share on housing and calling Palo Alto one of the "primary offenders." Then in November, the city was one of the subjects of a scathing New York Times video op-ed, which singled out the city's 2013 referendum over housing developments on Maybell Avenue to buttress its point about Democratic cities that fail to live up to progressive ideals.
The city will have a chance to prove its critics wrong next year, when it formally reviews "planned home" projects and advances the latest idea for spurring housing: construction of apartment buildings, combined with garages, on the city's downtown lots.
Infrastructure booms during the pandemic
They came with bicycles, ice cream and a handful of famous quotes. There was a quote from Neil Young ("The bridge, we'll build it now"), one from Will Rogers ("A vision without a plan is just a hallucination") and another one from Winston Churchill ("Never, never, never give up!"). They came to celebrate the opening of a project that Palo Alto leaders had been dreaming about and debating for nearly a decade — a bike and pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek in south Palo Alto.
The $23.1 million overpass officially opened to the public on Nov. 20 and the city marked the opening with a ceremony featuring speeches from Mayor Tom DuBois (who quoted Young), state Sen. Josh Becker, county Supervisor Joe Simitian (who quoted both Rogers and Churchill) and numerous past and present council members.
It would be easy to forget, while watching the event, that it was taking place in the midst of both a pandemic and a budget crisis. And as politicians posed outdoors on the bridge behind a giant red ribbon, smiles beaming, there was nary a mask in sight.
The project, which received financial support from Santa Clara County and from Google, epitomized in many ways a strange phenomenon that characterized Palo Alto in 2021 — a building boom amidst financial pain. Since COVID-19 became a fixture of everyday life starting in March 2020, the city's sales- and hotel-tax revenues plummeted and the council slashed $40 million worth of services. And yet, also in 2020, the city opened its new six-level garage near California Avenue and a completely rebuilt fire station near Rinconada Park.
The trend continued into 2021. Just months before the city opened the bike bridge, it broke ground on a project with an even lengthier prequel: an $118 million public safety building that council members have been listing for decades as their top priority.
Then there is the invisible infrastructure. A municipal fiber system bringing broadband-speed internet to every corner of the city has been debated since 1998, with numerous proposals flickering in and out of existence over the decades. Finally, this past May, the council unanimously approved a proposal from the consulting firm Magellan Advisers to gradually expand the city's existing fiber network. The first phase of the expansion, which will roughly double the existing network, is projected to cost about $22 million.
The city's switch to "smart meters" (or "advanced-metering infrastructure" in City Hall speak) also received the green light this year, with the council voting in October to approve $18 million in contracts to eventually convert all electric, gas and water meters.
Some elements of Palo Alto's infrastructure renaissance moved ahead despite calls from some council members to delay signing the contracts because of pandemic-induced budget shortfalls. The fiber project, if anything, benefitted from the pandemic. A new flyer about Palo Alto Fiber states that the pandemic "has shown the immediate need of providing high-speed and reliable internet for our community to support work, education and learning, health care and delivery of government services."
The building boom will continue in 2022, as the police building proceeds toward completion and the city advances two other projects from the city's 2014 Infrastructure Plan: the ongoing street improvements along the Charleston-Arastradero corridor and replacement of the obsolete fire station near Mitchell Park.
A critical juncture for rail effort
Palo Alto's effort to redesign its railroad crossings is, by most measures, the most complex, most expensive and most contentious project in decades. Separating the train tracks from streets at key intersections will involve hundreds of millions of dollars, years of future construction and changes to both the city's rail crossings and to its traffic patterns.
While construction remains years away, the city made steady progress toward the end of 2021 and finally settled on an option for the Churchill Avenue crossing. By choosing the "partial underpass" as its preferred alternative, the City Council sought to turn down the volume in a debate that has pitted residents of Southgate against those in Old Palo Alto. Though the underpass design has received only cursory analysis, the council selected it over two options that had caused significant anxiety to area residents: the closure of Churchill to traffic — an alternative many in Southgate opposed — and a train viaduct, which received poor reviews from Old Palo Alto residents.
The city also made steady progress this year on what council members acknowledge to be a more pressing priority: grade separation of the two south Palo Alto crossings, Charleston and Meadow, which are being considered in tandem for a single design solution. Though the city has yet to pick its preferred alternative, it eliminated a viaduct from consideration in August, leaving it with three remaining options: an underpass for cars and bicyclists, a trench for trains and a "hybrid" design that combines raising the tracks with lowering the streets. A final decision on an alternative is expected in 2022.
Even if the projects don't materialize for some time, their ancillary benefits may arrive sooner. Several council members advocated for enhancing the city's bike boulevards and constructing new underpasses near the tracks well before construction begins on grade separation. These proposals are also scheduled to be discussed in 2022.
"With half of our kids biking to school every day, we need to get a bike and pedestrian plan in place early, before we proceed and potentially shut down major pieces of the current bike and pedestrian infrastructure for a period of multiple years while construction goes on," council member Eric Filseth said during an August hearing on grade separation.
Police reform takes one step forward, two steps back
After vowing last year to support racial equity and improve transparency and accountability in the Police Department, Palo Alto struggled this year to live up to its bold commitments.
As soon as the year began, the department encrypted its radio communications, effectively barring journalists and residents from monitoring breaking news over the scanner. In addition, the department eliminated its public information officer position and decreed that all requests for information would henceforth be processed through an online portal.
On their own, either of these moves would have been a setback to transparency. Together, they effectively gave the police complete discretion over what information gets released to the public.
City officials have maintained that the police department had to encrypt its radio transmissions to remain consistent with an order from the state Department of Justice. But that order requires law enforcement to protect only private information, such as an individual's social security number and criminal record, and allows for continued publicly accessible dispatch communications. The fact that California Highway Patrol continues to openly broadcast its communications belies the assertion that Palo Alto needed to go to full encryption and calls into question whether the switch was made for the sake of the department's convenience.
The moves to shield information from the public come at a time when one recently retired police officer is facing a criminal trial for slamming a man into a car windshield during a 2018 arrest and then failing to disclose the incident in a police report, as city policy dictates. And the city is still facing a lawsuit from an individual who alleged police brutality, with video evidence at hand. (A second lawsuit alleging brutality was settled last week, but the details were not made public.)
In addition to defending its officers from lawsuits, the city this year found itself in the awkward position of defending itself from its officers' lawsuits. In June, five officers — Eric Figueroa, Michael Foley, Christopher Moore, Robert Parham and Julie Tannock — sued the city over its "Black Lives Mural," claiming that city-commissioned mural amounts to discrimination and harassment (a sixth officer, David Ferreira, joined the lawsuit later in the year). Their big issue with the mural involved the images of Assata Shakur — a civil rights leader who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper — and a black panther. The mural, which was painted in June 2020, was intended to be temporary and was removed four months later.
That said, Palo Alto did take some steps toward reform in 2021. In November, the city announced the launch of its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), which pairs an officer with a Santa Clara County clinician for calls involving mental health crises. The city is also in talks with Mountain View and Los Altos about teaming up on a program that would replace officers with mental-health professionals for certain calls, along the lines of the Cahoots program pioneered in Eugene, Oregon.
The city also expanded the scope of work by its independent police auditor, The OIR Group, which is scheduled to release its latest report in late December.
Palo Alto Online is taking one last look at 2021 all this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.