From beavers to brazen crimes to long-awaited resolutions, 2022 was a year when we could finally think about something other than COVID-19.
A return to normal took hold in some ways, with people freely gathering indoors and commuter traffic jams returning to local streets and highways. More lasting post-pandemic changes began to take on greater definition. Hybrid work rules rolled out by mandate at high-profile tech companies, despite employee pushback. Restaurants and retailers that couldn't survive the pandemic shutdown are slowly being replaced by new, hopeful entrepreneurs.
Before retiring the 2022 calendar, Palo Alto Weekly journalists reviewed the last 12 months of news so we could offer you this recap of the best, the worst and the craziest things that happened in Palo Alto and the broader area. Read on!
Most brazen crime trend: Attacks at retail centers
Brick-and-mortar stores in Palo Alto continued to suffer losses due to smash-and-grab burglaries and robberies amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in losses. Five men entered the Burberry store at Stanford Shopping Center on Nov. 5 and threatened employees, stealing an estimated $40,000 worth of handbags, according to police.
On Nov. 25, two men entered a crowded downtown Palo Alto Apple store during shopping hours and, over the course of 30 seconds, grabbed $35,000 worth of electronic merchandise off of tables and stashed them in their backpacks while also threatening customers, police said.
The year's retail robberies involved smaller groups of people than last year's, when gangs of 20 to 40 people roamed the Bay Area, including Palo Alto, breaking into stores to steal vast quantities of merchandise.
In Stanford Shopping Center's parking lot on Aug. 31, five men attacked a couple sitting in their car and took jewelry and a purse before escaping in two separate cars. While stuck in traffic and trying to flee, one of the vehicles rammed into a pickup truck to get away, police said.
Stanford Shopping Center was also the scene of two shootings in 2022: In February, a man was shot in the hand and leg by an unnamed suspect in a parking lot. On Nov. 21, a former employee of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar allegedly opened fire while driving by, striking an unoccupied car in the parking lot and shattering a safety glass panel beside the front door. Patrons were inside at the time, but no one was injured.
The suspect was arrested the next day and police recovered a "ghost gun," manufactured from a kit from his San Jose home, they said.
Most awaited development of the year: Wilton Court
There's a reason why Palo Alto's elected leaders routinely use words like "crisis," "emergency" and "priority" to express their dedication to building affordable housing. According to the city's new Housing Element, the city's median rent has increased by 62% since 2009, far outpacing the 44% increase in median income. About 17% of local households spend between 30% and 50% of their income on rent, while another 14% spend more than 50%, putting them in the "severely cost burdened" category. Many renters, the document notes, have been "left priced out, evicted or displaced."
Yet for all that talk, the city has struggled to build the needed housing. In 2009, the City Council approved a proposal by Eden Housing for a 50-apartment at 801 Alma St., a vote that followed a seven-year review process. Then came a decadelong drought, with virtually no major new projects winning approval. (Mayfield Place, a development on El Camino Real that opened in 2017, came out of a special agreement that the city reached with Stanford University in 2015.) The council's attempt in 2013 to approve a housing development with 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on Maybell Avenue fizzled in a voter referendum. The episode made national news and remains Exhibit A for housing advocates complaining about local failings on housing.
That's why the opening of Wilton Court this month was such a big deal. Alta Housing, the nonprofit developer behind the 59-apartment complex on El Camino Road, is the same builder who had proposed the Maybell project and the development represents its return to the nonprofit's place of origin. The council approved the project in 2019 with broad backing from the surrounding Ventura neighborhood and, after two years of construction, the development began welcoming its first residents over the past month.
The road for Alta was long. Randy Tsuda, CEO of Alta Housing, said it took about a decade for Alta to consolidate the parcels, line up the funding and complete the design and construction of the project. During the December grand opening ceremony, he and other Alta leaders celebrated the new development at 3703 El Camino Real, which represents both the newfound community consensus on the urgent need for affordable housing and the nonprofit's return to the city of its birth.
"This will always be our home," Tsuda told the assembled crowd.
Feud of the year: Castilleja School redevelopment
Nothing epitomized the good, the bad and the ugly of the (in)famously thorough Palo Alto Process like Castilleja School's proposal to reconstruct its Bryant Street campus, add an underground garage and expand its enrollment. Initially proposed in 2016, the project ran into intense opposition from neighbors who characterized the project as an assault on their quality of life — and on the zoning code. Over the following six years, the project went through more than 20 public hearings, numerous revisions and heated debates at the City Council level over how many large events the school should be allowed to host, how many students it should be allowed to enroll and on whether the proposed parking structure is technically a "garage" or a "basement."
The project engaged (and in many cases enraged) the citizenry, with Castilleja's supporters maintaining that increasing enrollment would support the school's laudable mission of providing young women with world-class education and opponents warning that the redevelopment would set a troubling precedent in a single-family neighborhood, where underground garages typically are not allowed, and represent another failure in city oversight. The neighborhood around Old Palo Alto was awash with signs representing each camp and the City Council heard from hundreds of residents — in person and through letters — before it voted on June 6 to approve the project.
In voting on June 6 to approve the project with conditions that limit the number of events and impose stringent traffic-management standards, council members characterized their decision as a compromise.
"There has been a breakdown in trust and I think both sides recognize that," Council member Greer Stone said. "This motion allows that trust to hopefully be rebuilt.
Most contentious Palo Alto election: Palo Alto school board
The campaign for Palo Alto Unified's school board was particularly contentious this year, though the final result was decisive.
The contest generated particular controversy because of statements candidate Ingrid Campos made describing being LGBTQ as a "deviant lifestyle" and favoring book banning, as well as false claims that she spread on social media.
In addition, supporters of candidates Shana Segal and Nicole Chiu-Wang sparred over issues including whether math courses should be "de-laned" and how to address systemic inequities in education. While their backers often exchanged sharp words, the two candidates themselves held relatively similar positions on some issues and said that they did not intend to create the divide that occurred among voters.
The race also drew attention to a range of education topics, including whether the district is sufficiently transparent with the community, rising concerns over student mental health and how to address declining enrollment.
In the end, the two seats went to Segal with 38.86% of the vote and incumbent Shounak Dharap, who was nearly 10 points behind at 29.58%. Chiu-Wang got 22.09% and Campos trailed with 9.47%.
New public health crises of the year: Mpox and RSV
COVID-19 might be the winner for persistence and mutability, but two other infectious viruses emerged in 2022 to cause already-tired public health authorities considerable consternation: mpox, formerly known as "monkeypox," and respiratory syncytial virus, also called RSV.
Mpox, which emerged in Santa Clara County on June 23, largely infected men who have sex with other men. The virus, which is related to smallpox, causes painful and itchy pustules. It prompted concerns about a second potential pandemic since it spreads easily by close skin-to-skin contact.
Fortunately, the spread has sharply declined since its peaks in July and August as more people received vaccinations, which local health agencies made available to vulnerable populations.
Santa Clara County had 212 confirmed or suspected cases as of Dec. 28, according to county Public Health Department data.
The far more prevalent RSV is a respiratory virus for which there is no vaccine. Like influenza, it isn't new, but it began emerging earlier than usual this year. The virus can make anyone sick but the symptoms are often mild in most adults. Very young children and infants are another story, however, as congestion from the illness can overwhelm their tiny lung passages causing hospitalization and death.
With so many people no longer wearing masks or isolating, following the dwindling COVID-19 crisis, more individuals are vulnerable to these illnesses, health authorities have said.
The percentage of emergency room visits throughout the county for influenza-like visits is 3.46% as of Dec. 16, a level that hasn't been reached since March during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to county health data.
Policy reversal of the year: Police radio encryption
In January 2021, the Palo Alto Police Department abruptly announced a new policy that caught just about everyone by surprise: Henceforth, all police radio communications would be encrypted. Ostensibly a response to a new state mandate to protect personal information communicated in radio broadcasts, the move followed a broader trend throughout the region of law enforcement agencies silencing their radios, a switch that made it impossible for the public and the media to track police activities in real time.
Former Chief Bob Jonsen, who made the decision to encrypt, insisted at the time that this was the only feasible way to comply with an [ order from the state Department of Justice — an assertion that wasn't strictly speaking true since the order explicitly allowed agencies to keep radio communications open as long as they create policies that protect personally identifiable information like license plate numbers and criminal history. The council bought that argument and, after some debate, agreed to keep encryption in place.
That changed in August, when newly appointed Police Chief Andrew Binder took the helm and promptly reversed the policy. Rather than keep all communications encrypted, the new policy allows officers to split up individual components of personal information into separate radio transmissions or to use their cell phones to provide that information to dispatchers. The result is that the public, including journalists, can once again track police activities while neither compromising personal information nor running afoul of state mandates.
"The change in operations furthers three critical priorities including safeguarding personal identifying information and officer safety, increasing public awareness of police activities, and continuing seamless interaction with our regional law enforcement partners," Binder said in his Aug. 4 announcement.
Most exhausting thefts: Catalytic converters
While thefts of catalytic converters have been a thing on the crime scene for years — popping up as a topic on online neighborhood forums like an unwanted refrain — what's most infuriating is how the thieves are getting away with it. Removing the converters is noisy, requiring a metal-cutting saw, but the thieves take only minutes to seize their prize before police arrive.
Catalytic converters are stolen for their precious metals — platinum, palladium and rhodium — whose value has spiked, according to law enforcement. When thieves turn around and sell the auto parts, it's difficult to prove that it was stolen.
But there are reasons for hope. The rate of thefts in Palo Alto has been coming down: There were 218 in 2020, but about half that many as of mid-October 2022, according to police data. (Police still consider the number of thefts to be high, though.)
Second, new state laws are taking aim at the problem. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed laws meant to curb the resale of stolen converters. AB 1653 adds theft of vehicle parts to the priority list of the California Highway Patrol's Regional Property Crimes Task Force; SB 1087 limits legal catalytic converter sellers to those who can prove it came from their own vehicle and to businesses that include auto dismantlers and repair dealers. Fines start at $1,000 and escalate with repeated violations.
A third bill, AB 1740, requires catalytic converter buyers to document the purchase by recording the year, make, model, and VIN number of the car from which the converter came.
News with the best sci-fi movie nickname: Pod people
A business that rents out small sleeping "pods" in a Palo Alto house at first gained acclaim this year as offering a solution to the affordable housing crisis. Then it came under scrutiny after neighbors began to complain.
The single-family home on Ramona Street in the St. Claire Gardens neighborhood, which is being leased by Brownstone Shared Housing, has been converted into shared housing. People pay $800 a month to rent one of 14 sleeping "pods" — a bunk-bed-style chamber that is a bit wider than a twin bed.
Residents share the kitchen and other living areas. The idea is to offer affordable housing in some of the highest rental markets in the country, according to Brownstone.
The city doesn't currently have any local building code restrictions limiting the number of unrelated residents living together. But in response to complaints, the city investigated the rental home and hit Brownstone and the property owner with multiple building code violations in August, including failing to have smoke detectors in the sleeping pods; use of extension cords instead of permanent wiring; possible over-fusing with multiple-plug strips; exposed wires outside the building; poorly installed wiring; an illegally converted garage and unpermitted, remodeled residence; furniture that obstructed exit doors and paths and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors needing battery replacements, among other findings. The company and the property owner were addressing the code violations as of late September, Brownstone stated.
The city has allowed the company to continue to rent out the pods while the work is being done. Brownstone disputed allegations that it was violating city code on short-term rentals by requiring tenants to stay a minimum of 30 days.
Wildlife spotting of the year: Beavers
Not seen locally for more than 160 years, the once prevalent beaver has been slowly making a comeback since being reintroduced to Santa Clara County waterways in the 1980s. This year, the semiaquatic rodents made it as far north as Matadero Creek in Palo Alto, where two of the roly poly, paddle-tailed critters were spotted cavorting in the creek.
Baylands gray fox researcher Bill Leikam captured video of them swimming in a stretch of the creek and meandering amid the vegetation to find their favorite food: willows.
With any luck, if the pair are busy beavers, there could be a bevy of little beavers — more properly called a colony — in spring 2023. Rick Lanman, a Los Altos historical ecologist, said the beavers could also begin spreading to waterways in San Mateo County.
Aside from beavers' cuteness factor, Stanford University researchers also recently determined that beaver dams, despite their reputation for being a nuisance, provide critical wildlife habitat and improve water quality in waterways.
Most opaque decision: Terminating the general counsel
The Palo Alto school board voted during a four-minute closed session in August to terminate the employment of general counsel Komey Vishakan, who had been promoted to the position in 2018. The board has never publicly explained its reasoning for letting Vishakan go, who was the only person to ever hold the post.
The general counsel role was structured such that it reported directly to the board, with a dotted line to the superintendent. Vishakan was in charge of providing legal guidance on areas that included public records and meetings law, special education law, Title IX compliance and board governance.
At an October school board meeting, Superintendent Don Austin recommended contracting with two firms, who would each provide a lawyer to the district for one four-hour shift per week, which would typically be virtual. Board members were largely open to the change, though some noted that it would be substantially different from the prior model of a full-time, in-house position with direct board oversight. The board approved contracts with two law firms at a Nov. 15 board meeting.
Most impactful school move: Palo Verde
Despite parents' initial surprise and objections in late 2021 when plans were announced to temporarily relocate Palo Verde Elementary School, students and staff completed the roughly 1.5 miles move this fall.
The Palo Verde community has been operating out of a temporary campus next to Cubberley Community Center while their permanent campus is under construction. Palo Verde is sharing space with Greendell School and using additional portable buildings in the parking lot.
The move was opposed by some Palo Verde families, who particularly objected to what they described as a lack of notice from the school district in fall 2021.
To address transportation concerns, the school district has been offering families morning and afternoon buses between the Louis Road and Middlefield Road campuses.
Pivot of the year: Mental health staffing
The Palo Alto Unified School District launched a plan to shift towards hiring its own mental health professionals, rather than relying largely on outside contractors. The move came in response to widespread hiring challenges for mental health staff that left the agencies that the district contracts with short-handed.
The decision to pivot to an in-house model came as schools saw students reporting increased mental health needs coming out of the pandemic. The district prioritized hiring its own clinicians at the elementary and middle school levels this fall, with the potential to expand the shift in future years. The staffing push included hiring 10 elementary school therapists and three to serve at the middle schools.
Scariest drug trends: Fentanyl and methamphetamine
Two drugs responsible for accidental drug overdoses have been on the rise, according to county data: the synthetic opioid fentanyl and the stimulant methamphetamine.
The number of deaths from fentanyl poisoning throughout Santa Clara County accounted for a staggering 80% of fatalities from all opioids in 2021, the latest data from the county's Medical Examiner-Coroner shows. Deaths have also occurred in Palo Alto and at Stanford.
The shocking rise in deaths sparked a campaign by Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and the county's Fentanyl Working Group to find ways to put Narcan, a life-saving medication, and fentanyl test strips into the hands of schools, bars, restaurants and local agencies.
But methamphetamine is an even bigger scourge, accounting for more than half of all drug-related deaths in the county, according to the medical examiner's data. Between Jan. 1, 2018, and July 17, 2022, 43.47% of fatalities were caused by methamphetamine alone. An additional 204 deaths, or 15.24%, were caused by a combination of methamphetamine and opioids, mainly fentanyl.
The drug addiction and deaths crossed all age groups and demographics.
The good news? California is poised to become the first state in the nation to pilot a contingency management program, in which drug addicts receive incentives for achieving a desired behavior. It's been an effective way to break addiction, according to a 2021 California Health Care Foundation report.
Most stealthy weapons trend: Ghost guns
The proliferation of so-called untraceable "ghost guns" is on the rise. Though law enforcement has made high-profile busts mainly in south Santa Clara County, local police, including in Palo Alto, have confiscated the weapons during traffic stops and other crimes, Palo Alto police said earlier this year.
Criminals obtain unserialized weapons that are either smuggled in from other states, built from legal gun kits or are 3-D printed, police said. All firearms by law are supposed to be registered and have a serial number, but ghost-gun owners fail to have the guns etched with the serial number, which makes them untraceable, police said.
Such weapons can end up in the hands of people who are excluded from legally purchasing guns, such as those convicted of domestic violence, felons and persons with mental illness.
In Santa Clara County, the number of confiscated ghost guns has risen from four in 2015 to 293 in 2021 — a 7,225% increase, according to county data.
San Jose police and the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office also arrested two men in 2021 who allegedly built ghost guns at a home and in a warehouse for sale to south bay felons, according to the DA's office.
The high number of ghost guns in Santa Clara County, particularly in San Jose, led the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in May to direct staff to develop a ghost gun ban, which is still pending.
While the number of ghost guns confiscated in Palo Alto is in the single digits, alleged criminals coming from outside of the city can — and have — used the weapons to commit violent crimes. Police arrested a former employee of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar for allegedly shooting at the restaurant in November and found a ghost gun thought to be used in the crime at his home.
On May 12, two teenagers were injured after one of them accidentally discharged a ghost handgun while they sat in a truck smoking marijuana in a parking lot at Stanford Shopping Center, police reported.
Swiftest about-face of the year: District's child care programs
Parents turned out in force this spring to oppose the Palo Alto Unified School District's plans to reduce space for the two long-time child care providers — Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC) and Kids Choice — in favor of Right At School, a national company.
The district defended its decision as an attempt to ensure affordable child care was available for all families, as well as the chance to sign up for before-school care. Many parents questioned that rationale and particularly objected to disparaging statements that Superintendent Don Austin made about PACCC during a panel discussion with other superintendents that was video recorded.
The district ultimately reversed course and announced that PACCC would maintain its existing facilities for the 2022-2023 school year, although Kids Choice would lose one of three rooms, which the district said had been a temporary pandemic addition (a claim that some parents disputed).
The future of child care in the school district is still uncertain. Palo Alto Unified created an ad hoc committee of school board members, district officials and parents to study the issue, but the school board has yet to make any formal decisions.
Predicament of the year: Page Mill Pastures' alleged water theft
In a multiyear drought, a popular equestrian center was accused of siphoning water — possibly for as long as 20 years — from a city of Palo Alto fire hydrant to fill its water trucks without paying. In March, the city accused Page Mill Pastures, located at 3450 Deer Creek Road, of the water theft after a city employee saw a Page Mill worker fill the truck tank.
The city asked the equestrian center to submit evidence of having a hydrant meter and the number of gallons used. The device in the photograph that the city received was not a city-authorized meter, and the center also didn't have a fire hydrant permit, the city said.
Page Mill's manager denied the allegations, but the city has been conducting an investigation into the center's water usage. The investigation is ongoing.
Palo Alto Online is taking one last look at 2022 all this week. If you missed any parts of our series, view the stories below.
• Did you pay attention to local news in 2022? Find out with our quiz.
Bigger and better than ever, our year-end news quiz is returning for a third time, giving Palo Alto Weekly readers a chance to look back on the past 12 months in local headlines.
• With newfound spirit of cooperation, Palo Alto ends the year on a bright note
In 2022, Palo Alto saw a strong resurgence from a period of austerity, uncertainty and, for many, isolation.
• 2022 rewind: The year's 10 most clicked-on stories
From pod housing to a rare turtle-dove sighting, look back at the Palo Alto area happenings that made headlines.
• The year in photos: A look at 2022 from behind the lens
We've compiled 14 moments captured behind the camera lens that tell distinct stories from this year.
• Our favorite bites and beverages of 2022
Our staff and contributors reflected on the past 12 months and compiled our favorite drinks and dishes of 2022.
• The best, the worst and the most memorable movies of 2022
There's still a bounty of great films to discover from a year of cinema at theaters and home.
• A by-the-numbers look at 2022 real estate in Palo Alto
The city's most and least expensive home sales this year surpassed that of 2021.
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