If things go as planned, by the end of this year, Palo Alto will implement a rental registry, adopt a new vision for a portion of the Ventura neighborhood, advance construction of the Newell Road Bridge and ink a deal with the school district on long-term use of the Cubberley Community Center.
It will also move ahead with a new streetscape plan on University Avenue, adopt a host of zoning changes to promote housing and, in a nod to local bike advocates, enact a "safe system" policy for road improvements that prioritizes bike and pedestrian safety. This includes re-examining intersections where collisions have occurred and making possible improvements, implementing traffic-calming measures in residential neighborhoods and adding bike lanes.
The council endorsed the new safe-system policy during a wide-ranging hearing Monday on its objectives for this year. By a 6-1 vote, with Greg Tanaka dissenting, it approved a list of more than 60 programs and projects compiled by staff relating to the council's four priorities: climate change and the natural environment; economic recovery and transition; housing for social and economic justice; and community health and safety. As part of the vote, they also tacked on a list of fresh programs, including developing a dewatering requirement for commercial development projects, increasing funding for youth mental health and adopting a safe system policy.
The council's adoption of objectives was driven by a belief among some members that their four priorities are too broad and that success is too difficult to measure. At their Jan. 28 retreat, council members agreed to carry over the city's four priorities from 2022 (with minor word changes) and to approve specific actions for each of them.
Many of the projects on the list are items that staff has been exploring for well over a year, including reconstruction of the Mitchell Park fire station, implementation of the Foothills Fire Management Plan and constructing a transitional housing complex on San Antonio Road in partnership with LifeMoves.
Council member Pat Burt was among those who on Monday argued that the city should also devote more attention to bike improvements this year. He noted that the city has been delaying for the past three years an update to the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which was initially adopted in 2012. He expressed some frustrations about the delay, noting the urgency of implementing bike improvements before work commences on reconstruction of the rail corridor.
"We have a big problem in that this plan has been delayed, delayed and delayed," Burt said.
The new bike master plan will include as a component the "safe system" (or "safe city") plan as well as a Vision Zero goal of eliminating all fatalities and serious injuries relating to traffic collisions, Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said. He said that the city has recently secured a $160,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation to develop the safe-city plan. It is also now in the advanced phases of picking a consultant for upgrading the master plan, a process that will take about two years.
Arnout Boelens, who chairs the Palo Alto Council of PTA's Safe Routes to School committee, brought a petition signed by 450 residents urging for improving bike safety. More than a dozen attended the Monday meeting to lobby in person.
"Let's do all we can to create an environment that reduces the risk of collision and injuries to all street users — people who walk, bike, drive and use transit. Let's make our local streets work better for everyone," Boelens said.
Nicole Zoeller Boelens, his wife, also lobbied the council to prioritize bike improvements.
"As a mother who cycles with both kids on a nearly daily basis and finds myself walking through Palo Alto, the last thing I want to be worried about is speeding traffic," she said. "As my kids are growing up in the city of Palo Alto, I want to have the confidence that they can cycle and walk safely on our streets. Adopting this policy will give me greater confidence that they can do that, safely."
In addition to adding the "safe system" policy to its list of objectives, the council also agreed to increase funding and support for youth mental health and advance a plan for dealing with sea level rise. Council member Vicki Veenker advocated for restoring library hours to pre-pandemic levels; Mayor Lydia Kou wanted the city to develop new dewatering requirements for commercial developments and suggested that the city facilitate a location for the nonprofit La Comida to serve meals in north Palo Alto. All of these became eleventh-hour additions to the official to-do list.
Several council members pointed to the frustrating irony of the Monday exercise: in seeking to give staff clear guidance, the council ended up adding a list of new projects to the city's workload. As the list of proposed objectives expanded, council member Julie Lythcott-Haims pointed to "the tension in the room."
"I think there's a lot of staff members who are feeling overwhelmed by the number of things we on council are articulating as things that matter to us," Lythcott-Haims said.
Council member Ed Lauing said he believes it's unlikely that all the programs on the list will get accomplished. He invited staff to return to the council later date to refine the list after assessing which items are actually achievable in 2023.
"One of the things I've been concerned about for years ... is we're putting together 100 top priorities and we can't get it done — and it's not getting done," Lauing said.
Tanaka said he was disappointed by the city's failure to adopt a scooter-share program, which the council approved on several occasions in recent years but which never got launched. Kamhi attributed that to the changes in the scooter-share industry during the pandemic and noted that vendors are now charging cities in which they operate.
Tanaka also suggested that the city's priority list has grown too big.
"By having so many, we're not helping staff focus and getting stuff done," he said. "We're spreading ourselves really, really thin here by doing just a little bit of work on each one of these things versus really knocking it out for that year," Tanaka said.