College Terrace seems like a most unlikely candidate for the title of Palo Alto's grumpiest neighborhood.
It's located near the center of the city, a short walk from Stanford University, the Dish trails and the California Avenue shopping district. Its residents have a long history of civic engagement and political involvement. It has a fire station and a library and its housing stock is an eclectic mix that includes single-family homes, small apartment buildings and cottage clusters. It's also diverse, with residents of all ages and from many different countries, said Doria Summa, a College Terrace resident who serves as vice chair on the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.
"It's called 'collage terrace' because there's no way to generalize about it," Summa said.
A new survey, however, has city leaders wondering whether everything in College Terrace is really copacetic. Conducted by the research firm Polco, the survey gauged resident opinions about Palo Alto as a place to live, to work, to raise children and to retire, among other questions. It also divided the city into six geographical areas, each consisting of a few neighborhoods, to see whether and how responses vary between neighborhoods.
The survey showed Area 5, which includes College Terrace and its neighbors across El Camino Real, Evergreen Park and Southgate, scoring far lower in most categories than other areas, in some cases by an eyebrow-raising margin.
Take retirement. The survey, which was conducted between October and December of last year, showed a sharp decrease in the percentage of survey responders who think Palo Alto as a great place to retire. Only 46% gave the city the two highest ratings in this category, down from 52% in 2021. There were, however, variations based on neighborhoods. In Area 5, the percentage was 30%. In Area 1, which includes the north Palo Alto neighborhoods of Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis, the percentage was 63%.
When asked to rate Palo Alto as a place to raise children, 65% of the residents in Area 5 gave the city top ratings, compared to 87% citywide. By contrast, in Area 3, which includes the south Palo Alto neighborhoods of Greenmeadow and Charleston Gardens, and in Area 4, which consists of Ventura and a portion of Barron Park, the share of responders who gave Palo Alto a high rating on child raising was 94%.
When asked about Palo Alto's overall quality of life, 76% of the Area 5 responders gave the city high ratings, compared to 88% citywide. And when asked about the city's overall image, 60% of the responders in Area 5 gave the city high marks, compared to 89% in the area that includes Crescent Park (the citywide average was 76%).
Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims brought up these disparities during Monday night's discussion of the survey results.
"They are outliers in just about every major respect," Lythcott-Haims said of Area 5, noting that in many categories, this section is 10% to 30% below other areas.
She said she wants her colleagues to contemplate the results and consider what they can do about them.
"Maybe they're just more opinionated and more discerning. Maybe they're more grumpy. I'm not sure, but I think since we slice this data that way we should be curious."
Summa said she found the survey results surprising. She does not consider her neighborhood to be in any way "grumpy" and said she did not expect to see survey results showing fewer residents in her area than in others calling Palo Alto a great place to raise kids.
"That really surprises me because College Terrace is such a great place for kids. We have four little parks, we have our little library, and neighborhood kids get to walk to the elementary school, which is really nice," she said.
There are, however, some persistent sources of neighborhood angst. James Felix Cook, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, said residents have been increasingly concerned about Stanford buying up homes in College Terrace, which means fewer homes for people not affiliated with the university.
"There are concerns that this might change the complexion of neighborhoods and lead to a less diverse neighborhood," he said.
The neighborhood also saw more of its share of service cuts in recent years. Whenever the city's Fire Department tried to cut costs, Station 2 on Hanover Street is usually the first to see brownouts, much to the consternation of some nearby residents. Same with the College Terrace Library, a neighborhood branch that is often the first to close or see hours reduced when the city is trimming its budget. Cook noted that the library serves as a community hub, at times hosting meetings of the resident association.
"That's a really vital part of our community and during the pandemic especially, the city cut hours so drastically it became unusable," Cook said. "There's concern about usability of the library and the viability of such a vital part of our community. It's something residents had brought up a number of times."
Some questioned the survey results, which are based on 398 responses. Polco sent out 3,600 surveys last fall and ended up with a response rate of 12%, well below the 22% response rate in 2020. Kim Daane, survey research associate with Polco, said that despite the lower response rate, the firm has 95% confidence in survey results, with a 5% margin of error.
"Just what we like to see," she said. "Although the response rate was a little bit lower this year, we are still well within the industry standards for margin of error."
But the margin of error increases to 15% once you zoom in on the neighborhood level, given the relatively low number of responses in each section. Area 5 had only 40 responses, fewer than any other area. By contrast, Area 6, which includes Downtown North, Professorville, University South and Old Palo Alto, had 106 responses.
Council member Greg Tanaka, a College Terrace resident, said he didn't find the survey particularly useful. Rather than issue detailed surveys, as the city has been doing since 2003, Tanaka argued the city should poll residents in real time to gauge their feedback about city services, a common practice in the private sector.
Council member Pat Burt wondered if the survey results get skewed by the self-selection of the respondents. He suggested that the city compare the survey responses against objective statistics. This includes comparing people's responses about civic participation to actual voting rates in their precincts and comparing perceptions about crime to actual crime statistics.
"Everyone gets an opportunity to respond. Not everyone responds. People who choose to respond may choose to respond for a number of different reasons," Burt said.