Economic recovery will remain a top priority in Palo Alto in 2022, city leaders agreed on Saturday, though they had different ideas about what that means.
Housing and climate change will also remain on the city's official priority list that was approved by City Council members.
These three priorities, holdovers from 2021, will be joined by a new one: community safety and health. A broad and somewhat vague category, it includes among its components the issues of crime, mental health, air quality, noise and sense of belonging. As such, it responds to and reflects the written and oral comments that the city had received before and during Saturday's annual retreat.
While the vote was unanimous, members offered different ideas about what they want the city's focus to be in 2022. The council ultimately agreed to rename the priority "economic recovery and transition" as members debated which of these terms should carry more currency.
Council member Tom DuBois emphasized transition and suggested exploring ways to streamline city operations and reevaluating whether the traditional mix of businesses and service-delivery models in commercial districts still makes sense, given the changes to working habits and the economic trends that had occurred during the pandemic. "What can be streamlined? How can we use technology? How can we shift delivery models? And I think that can have one of the largest long-term impacts on our city and it really warrants some serious consideration."
Mayor Pat Burt argued that recovery will remain the primary goal, which includes restoring services and reversing some of the cuts that the city made over the course of the pandemic. This includes hiring more firefighters and police officers.
"We historically had 11 investigators and we have three today," Burt said of the Police Department. "I was hearing from a friend who had a car stolen and we don't have the capacity to send an investigator for an automobile theft. Not a bicycle theft — a car theft! That's how thin our police are."
Council member Greg Tanaka made a pitch for cryptocurrency. Tanaka said that he plans to accept his council paycheck in Bitcoin — echoing an announcement recently made by New York Mayor Eric Adams. Taking a cue from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, an outspoken proponent of cryptocurrency, Tanaka also suggested that the city consider mining Bitcoin and issuing a currency called "PaloAltoCoin," which would become a local median of exchange.
No one else commented on that idea.
The council defines "priorities" as topics that will "receive unusual and significant attention during the year." Its goal is to have each priority on the list for no more than three years. City staff craft a work plan around each priority and issue updates throughout the year.
Housing, a mainstay on the priority list, once again received broad support, with the council adopting the same language — "housing for social and economic balance" — as in 2021. Council members signified that they will have a full workload when it comes to housing, including adoption of a new Housing Element and more zoning changes in response to Senate Bill 9, which allows homeowners in single-family zones to split their lots and construct up to four residences.
While the council had adopted a goal of creating 300 new housing units per year, the city had only permitted 95 units in 2021, of which 89 were accessory dwelling units, according to Planning Director Jonathan Lait. And while the council had evaluated numerous "planned home zoning" proposals — which allows residential developers to exceed development standards such as height and density restrictions for multifamily housing projects — none of the developers had actually filed formal applications, Lait said.
Council member Alison Cormack, who made the motion on the four priorities, suggested that the city has not made sufficient progress on housing. She alluded to the recent report from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, which compared Palo Alto's record on creating affordable housing with that of Mountain View. The grand jury report issued a long list of recommendations for Palo Alto, encouraging the city to streamline its approval process for housing projects, develop a stable funding source for affordable housing and adopt more "area plans" for sections of the city where the council wants to encourage affordable housing.
"I think there's a significant opportunity for us there to read and reflect on the grand jury report, to look at how we have funded affordable housing in the past and to think about how we'll fund affordable housing in the future," Cormack said.
Prior to the vote, the council heard from residents who encouraged members to prioritize issues such as combatting airplane noise, enforcing the city's prohibition on gas-powered leaf blowers and supporting mental health, particularly for the city's youth. All of these, along with the issue of crime, were folded into the new priority called "community health and safety."
Council member Greer Stone said the new priority will both demonstrate the council's commitment to both protecting the mental health of its community and nuisances like gas-powered leaf blowers and airplane noise.
"These things aren't just annoying. … They're true health risks," Stone said.