The seven candidates vying for three seats on the Palo Alto City Council all want to see the city build a gym, renovate Cubberley Community Center, adopt a business tax and build housing at a higher density.
But they have different takes when it comes to campaign finance reform, rent stabilization and the complex question of what to do about the city's rail crossings.
These similarities and differences were highlighted during a Tuesday candidate forum, which was hosted by the Palo Alto Weekly and co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club and Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. The event featured this year's council candidates: Realtor Alex Comsa, Utilities Advisory Commission member Lisa Forssell, software engineer Brian Hamachek, Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Ed Lauing, author and educator Julie Lythcott-Haims, Planning and Transportation Commission Vice Chair Doria Summa and attorney and mediator Vicki Veenker.
All seven candidates agreed that when it comes to development, Palo Alto should retain strict limits on office development while allowing higher density for housing developments. While Comsa said he would support allowing more smaller offices, which can serve as incubators, the rest of the field indicated that they are happy with the status quo, which includes an annual 50,000-square-foot limit on new office development in downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
And while other cities such as Mountain View and Redwood City have relied on specific plans with commercial components to produce housing, the candidates in Palo Alto firmly rejected that approach and generally agreed that any move that would worsen the city's jobs-housing imbalance would be a step in the wrong direction.
Lauing called the approach "a disaster" and said it further skews the imbalance between jobs and housing and leads to more traffic and congestion. Veenker said the existing office restrictions appear to be working and responded with the aphorism, "If it ain't broke don't fix it." Lythcott-Haims noted that many offices have become "ghost businesses" during the pandemic, with many employees shifting to remote work, and suggested creating a "mixed-use overlay" to add residential uses to existing commercial district in areas like El Camino Real.
Summa went even further and said the city, which has a higher jobs-housing imbalance than Manhattan, doesn't need any new offices.
"I'm not in favor of building any more office that is not neighborhood-serving, local, small offices. That's what we need so people can walk to the doctor, to the dentist, to their accountants, etc.," Summa said.
The candidates were far more bullish when it came to residential growth, with everyone vowing to support more housing. Comsa said allowing higher density for residential developments would spur smaller and more environmentally friendly units and suggested that the city identify large sites that can accommodate these projects and take initiative in building housing.
"I think we should switch to a more proactive approach and targeted opportunities to create housing and preserve habitat in Palo Alto instead of focusing on small, infill projects," Comsa said.
Hamachek, who said his decision to join the race was prompted by his opposition to the council's decision to allow the reconstruction of Castilleja School, was more cautious and said that while he supports higher density in some cases, in many areas it would undermine the character of the neighborhood.
"I'd be really mindful of that when evaluating any kind of project about higher density," Hamachek said.
While the council's recent efforts to add housing have largely focused on south Palo Alto, both Forssell and Lythcott-Haims made the case for a more balanced approach that would spread new residential developments across the city. Lythcott-Haims argued that council members shouldn't be putting developments on the south side if they're not "pretty enough for the north side." Both said they would favor area plans to guide development so that any new housing comes with amenities for residents.
"I think we really need to make specific area plans for new areas under consideration for development, spell out that we want trees and green space and walkable and bikeable and safe (streets) and the trade-off will be a little bit of density," Forssell said. "I welcome that and I welcome the new community members that we'll all benefit from when they live here."
When asked about ways to balance preservation of neighborhood character with the imperative to build housing, candidates generally agreed that it would be important to include gathering spaces and community amenities for new residential developments. Summa suggested that "neighborhood character" has less to do with whether a residence is a single-family home or a multifamily complex and more to do with places where residents can meet.
"There's a lot of different types of neighborhoods in Palo Alto; everyone is free to live where they want," Summa said. "But when it comes to building this new kind of high-rise senior housing, these people deserve the same type of things that make Palo Alto livable and great for everyone else."
To promote more community amenities, every candidate said they would support building a city gym, a project that the council began discussing this year, and renovating Cubberley Community Center, an endeavor that city officials have been debating for decades with little to show for it. Lythcott-Haims suggested opening a gym at Cubberley, an idea that others also embraced. Veenker said a new gym would be an asset both as a way to promote health and to strengthen the community.
"It's a place where we can come together and enjoy each other," Veenker said.
There was a bit more daylight between candidates on the topic of new measures to support renters, who make up about 46% of the city's population. Everyone agreed that the city should move ahead with a registry program that would collect information about vacancy rates and rent increases, information that would be used to evaluate new policies. But while Veenker said she believes the city should consider rent stabilization to prevent steep rent increases, Hamachek indicated that he would oppose this step.
"I think that could have a pretty chilling effect and we should be really careful before we go to that extreme," Hamacheck said.
Candidates also had different positions on campaign finance reform. While just about everyone supported lowering the cap for individual contributions, they had different takes on an overall spending limit for candidates. Comsa and Forssell each said they would support lowering overall expenditures by candidates, an approach that Mountain View employs. But Lauing and Summa, argued that because independent expenditures can raise unlimited sums on behalf of candidates as long as they are not explicitly tied to the campaigns, overall limits don't make sense at this time.
"Since we can't cap on independent expenditures and in-kind contributions, it's sort of meaningless. … Unless we figure that out, with those huge loopholes it doesn't make sense," Summa said.
The candidates all supported the city's proposed business tax, which will appear on the November ballot. The tax is based on square footage and which exempts businesses with less than 10,000 square feet of space. Not everyone, however, was thrilled about the measure. Lythcott-Haims said she would have liked to see large companies pay more, while Hamachek said he was initially leaning against it because of its potential impact on small businesses. The exemptions for small businesses shifted his view.
The tax is projected to raise about $9 million annually, with proceeds split between affordable housing, public safety and improvements to the rail corridor. Lauing likened the proposed tax to "a cup half full."
"I think we got something to work with here, though $3 million a year doesn't put up too much affordable housing," Lauing said.
While the candidates were in accord on the need to speed up planning on grade separation, the redesign of the rail corridor so roads are split from tracks, they offered different views about what that would entail. Hamachek said he would support building a tunnel, an option that the council had previously considered and discarded as too expensive to be feasible. Lauing disagreed and said the city needs to pick an option that makes "fiscal sense." Veenker also stressed the importance of both financial and engineering feasibility, noting that it's hard to place trains underground in some areas.
"There's historic state and federal dollars available if we do it quickly," she said.
Lythcott-Haims said she favored either the viaduct or a tunnel along the corridor, while Summa and Comsa both said they would support an underpass for the Meadow and Charleston crossings.
Summa also suggested that the city should build bike crossings at the tracks before grade separation begins. Comsa, meanwhile, supported the council's recent decision to explore a "partial underpass" at the Churchill crossing, which he said should be done in conjunction with improvements to Embarcadero Road.
The candidates are running for the three open seats on the seven-member council. Council member Alison Cormack is completing her first term and has opted not to run for a second. Council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth are both terming out after two four-year terms.
Register for our next candidate forum featuring the four candidates for the Palo Alto Board of Education on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m.