Check out Palo Alto Online's City Council Voter Guide for comparisons of all seven candidates' views on housing, rail crossings, sustainability and public safety.
Vicki Veenker is well-versed in the art of the compromise.
Five years ago, in her capacity as director at Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, she began mediating discussions between Sacramento leaders and representatives from the health care industry to come up with a proposal to lower health care costs — a plan that was delayed by the pandemic but was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year.
As a patent attorney and professional mediator, Veenker has decades of experience in delving into complex and contentious issues. This includes her 16-yeas of mediating for the federal courts and the U.S. Trade Commission; her 20 years of service on the board of Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which provides legal aid to underserved communities and on which she serves to this day; and her work as general counsel for the Women's Professional League, which she co-founded. (The league existed between 2007 and 2012 and was ultimately succeeded by the National Women's Soccer League.)
Veenker believes her experience would be especially useful at this time, as the council advances plans to build more than 6,000 units of housing, redesign its rail crossings and get businesses and residents to shift from using natural gas to electricity.
"I think there's a lot of people of goodwill in the city who care about the city and who just can't seem to get to yes," Veenker said. "It's something that I think my skills might help with at this time."
Veenker isn't entirely new to politics. In 2016, she ran for the state Assembly but was edged out by Marc Berman in a race that split the Peninsula's Democratic establishment. She's stayed busy since then. In addition to her efforts on health care, Veenker founded Sibling Cities USA, an organization that creates partnerships between cities to improve dialogue between blue and red America. Last year, Palo Alto became a test case for the new program when it signed a sibling-city agreement with Bloomington, Indiana.
Veenker's work on city partnerships helped convince her to enter the local council race. Through organizations such as the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors, she has been meeting with mayors from every region of the country. She said she was struck by what an immediate and profound impact they have had on their communities. And in some areas, like climate change, benefits can extend well beyond city lines, particularly if mayors work together.
"On climate, if Palo Alto does great climate things, that's terrific. It's not going to save the planet. But if we set an example and we connect with others, we could. How can we let Congress know of the needs of the cities and use the dollars that have come in recently? That's done collectively," she said.
As a mediator, she believes she can help the city get "unstuck and move forward" on long-simmering issues such as the reconstruction of rail crossings and redevelopment of Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto. This, she said, requires problem-solving, persuasion and commitment to community needs over individual preferences. She points to her resume as proof that she is up to the task.
"Over my 35-year career in law, nonprofits, mediation and community services, I persuaded as a litigator, solved problems as a mediator and focused on community interests through the many nonprofits I have led," she said at a Weekly forum.
On grade separation, Veenker favors designs that would keep trains in their current alignment and create underpasses for cars. These, she said, seem to be less disruptive than those that involve reconstructing rail. All designs, however, have their flaws and would require significant compromise, she said.
"If we keep waiting for the perfect decision, we'll never make one," Veenker said. "We'll have to pick among bad options."
On Cubberley, she wants to speed up negotiations with the Palo Alto Unified School District over a potential land swap that would give the city more options for enhancing services at the center.
She is also a firm believer in area plans: planning documents that map out new land-use visions for particular neighborhoods. Downtown is one area that could be prioritized for such a plan, she said, particularly because it's related to the city's plans for the Palo Alto Avenue rail crossing.
"There's a lot of discussion about the downtown area plan being early in the sequence because it involves train tracks, discussion of grade (separation) and what it could look like and should look like," she said. "That seems like a twofer."
The Cubberley area is also ripe for an area plan, she said, particularly if evaluated in conjunction with a broader south Palo Alto area where the city wants to build housing, including San Antonio Road.
"We need to pay a little more attention to south Palo Alto, especially around retail needs and things we don't typically think about there," Veenker said. "If we're putting a lot of people there, we'll need to think about that, and it seems to me it could benefit from a holistic approach, especially with the whole Cubberley thing going on. Perhaps we can get a twofer there."
When it comes to new housing, she wants to see higher density in downtown and near public transit, to rezone poorly utilized commercial properties and to support the construction of accessory dwelling units. She also said she favors "adjusting and not busting" the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments, with a focus on sites in areas like downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
"I think we can be smart enough to figure out where we can find height that isn't right next door to a single-family home," Veenker said,
She also wants to see more creative thinking about Palo Alto's built environment. She cited as an example the city of Columbus, Indiana, where city leaders decided to hire the best architects to develop public spaces. The city, she said, was recently named as one of the six most interesting cities in the country when it comes to architecture.
Imagine if Palo Alto did that, she said. Imagine if instead of just Google and Apple having these incredible buildings, what if the city set top architects loose in places like Stanford Shopping Center and said, "Do something beautiful, do something amazing, do something green."
"What if we became known for innovating housing?" she asked. "It's a dream; it's an innovation. But I think if you aim high, even if you fall a little short, you can do something pretty special. Perhaps it's a place where we could."