Housing, climate change, economic recovery and community safety will continue to dominate City Council discussions in the coming year after members voted Saturday to adopt these areas as their official priorities.
In a lengthy discussion that underscored the complex, nebulous and enduring nature of the city's four 2022 priorities, the council unanimously agreed to carry all four into another year. They also agreed each of the four priorities should be furnished with specific objectives that could be accomplished this year.
The council will discuss and potentially approve these objectives at its Feb. 6 meeting.
The council's decision to retain its four priorities for another year is, in some ways, a departure from the city's historic practice. Priorities are defined as topics that get "unusual and significant attention" during the coming year and city policies call for each priority to remain in place for only about three years. The topics of housing and sustainability have been on the council's priority list for more than three years, though members have modified how these priorities are described (In 2020, the council adopted "housing, with a special emphasis on affordability" and "sustainability, in the context of climate change" as its priorities.).
After deliberating Saturday, council members agreed that the city still has plenty of work to do on meeting its 2022 goals and that these goals should be better defined. The only change that council members approved was modification to the climate change priority, which is now called "climate change and the natural environment" — a nod to local concerns about flood control and protection of biodiversity. Last year, the wording was "climate change: protection and adaptation."
The council discussion followed the release of a survey of residents in which a large proportion of responders indicated that housing and climate change remain major concerns. Dozens of other residents submitted letters prior to the council meeting or addressed the council on Saturday, urging members to continue to prioritize these topics. Andrea Gara was among the climate activists who urged the council to make progress toward meeting its 80x30 goal, which calls for cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 (the council expanded the goal last year and is now hoping to achieve complete carbon neutrality by 2030).
She praised the council for adopting last year a new program that would facilitate replacement of gas-powered water heaters at local homes with electric heat pump water heaters. The city, she said, should now focus on replacing gas-powered furnaces.
"So far, we have picked the low-hanging fruit and that was not easy," Gara said. "I really do appreciate the tremendous amount of time and work that went into designing our heat pump water heater program but we have another major source of greenhouse gases that is going to be more challenging. We need to start structuring a program now that is going to be working on home furnaces."
While some survey respondents suggested that the work of climate change should be reserved for the state and federal government, council members pushed back on that request. Council member Vicki Veenker argued that the city should focus on "layering" local funds with state and federal grants devoted to sustainability initiatives and suggested that Palo Alto, by virtue of its reputation for innovation, could have an outsized impact in this realm.
"It's urgent, it's necessary and it intersects with housing in a big way," Veenker said.
Vice Mayor Greer Stone agreed and similarly argued that Palo Alto's actions on climate change and sustainability could have a ripple effect beyond the city's borders.
"What Palo Alto does really is a sign to not only the region but the world on what is possible and we should really own the responsibility that we have and make the most of it," Stone said. "Also, I don't think it's good governance or morality for us to say, 'It's somebody else's problem.'"
Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims also called climate change an "existential" threat and said she'd like the council to "explore more thoroughly and hopefully on how we're going to convince our residents to do the heavy lifting on making the changes that are needed in our individual homes."
While climate change will remain a priority, many of the residents who addressed the council focused on a more immediate threat: flooding. The topic has seen an upsurge of concern and attention in the aftermath of a Dec. 31 storm that caused flooding around San Francisquito Creek. While Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park officials have been collaborating on improving flood protection since the 1998 flood, the cities have yet to advance their plans to replace the creek-restricting Newell and Pope-Chaucer bridges.
Dozens of residents emailed the council to advocate for flood control as a 2023 priority. Jeanne Lavan, who lives close to the creek, addressed council members directly at Saturday's retreat and told them that her house got very close to flooding on Dec. 31. Her car, which was parked on the street, was "all of a sudden underwater" and her neighbor's home was flooded, she said.
"It has been difficult to listen to the rain, which we have always been appreciative of," Lavan said. "And now we go into panic, especially during the night."
Others shared similar stories. Susan Mittmann, whose Saint Francis Drive home flooded in 1998, lamented the city's failure to replace the bridges over the past 25 years.
"Twenty-five years is a ridiculous delay in fixing a hazard that traumatized a generation of children and families, not to mention other costs to the city and residents," Mittmann wrote in an email to the council.
Pamela Economos, who lives at De Soto Drive, said her home was inundated with 2 feet of water, including sewage, in 1998. This time around, her house was spared, though some homes were flooded on Alester Avenue a block away.
"It's hard to believe that after 25 years the bridges at Newell and Chaucer still put our homes at risk of flooding," Economos wrote.
Under current plans, city staff are preparing to begin replacement of the Newell Bridge next year. Once that's done, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which includes elected officials from the three cities around the creek, will proceed with its own plan to replace the Pope-Chaucer Bridge and widen the channel in the flood-prone areas near the two bridges.
"This is kind of an all-hands-on-deck effort in the next year with our partners to make sure we stay on track and adhere to our schedule on these projects," Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said.
Council members also agreed to retain housing, economic recovery and community health and safety for another year. On housing, this will mean enacting zone changes to make zoning consistent with the city's newly drafted Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out plans to allow for more than 6,000 new housing units by 2031.
Amie Ashton, a board member at Palo Alto Forward, a nonprofit that lobbies for more housing and transportation services, said the city has a real opportunity this year to meet its housing goals as part of its effort to get its Housing Element approved.
"We've got to take a proactive approach to rezoning sites appropriately to facilitate housing," Ashton said. "When every site in our housing inventory has to be rezoned, it creates a horrible burden on staff and applicants and we don't get the projects that we really want in the city."
The economic recovery priority will include refining the city's designs for the California Avenue business district and a portion of Ramona Street, both of which were closed to cars during the pandemic. The priority on community health and safety will continue to encompass a wide array of areas, from raising staffing levels in the Police Department to adding mental health services for residents.
Council member Ed Lauing called health and safety an "extremely high priority."
"It's really the fundamental obligation of the local government to provide health and safety for its citizens," Lauing said.