Palo Alto's accomplishments, civic trends in 2013 | December 27, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 27, 2013

Palo Alto's accomplishments, civic trends in 2013

Healthy economy, ongoing infrastructure problems characterize busy year

by Gennady Sheyner

"At the end of 2013, I want us all to be able to look back and say, 'Wow, we accomplished a lot,'" Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff said at the beginning of the year.

And surely, by many measures it's been a productive and prosperous year. Even with Palo Alto's recent growing pains, residents continue to give the city glowing reviews when it comes to quality-of-life issues. In the 2012 National Citizen Survey, 94 percent of respondents rated the city overall as "excellent" or "good" and 95 percent gave Palo Alto top ratings as a "place to live." These numbers have been strong for many years and are unlikely to change significantly this year.

Outsiders have also taken notice. In November, the website ranked Palo Alto as the nation's top city to live in. At around the same time, the think-tank Center for Digital Government designated Palo Alto the nation's top digital city in its population category. The year was as kind to the Palo Alto brand as it was to the local economy and to property values.

The council didn't exactly rest on its laurels in 2013. In a year full of political speed-bumps and setbacks, the City Council came away with a long list of accomplishments.

It succeeded in greatly expanding the city's public-art program, requiring for the first time that private developers contribute to Palo Alto's art scene. It extended a ban on smoking to every local park and began exploring new smoking restrictions downtown; mandated that every new home be pre-wired for electric-vehicle chargers; created new penalties for residents whose languishing "mystery projects" (that is, stalled home renovations) bring blight to city blocks; banned vehicle habitation in response to complaints from neighborhoods, especially adjacent to Cubberley Community Center (though it also agreed Dec. 16 to freeze enforcement of the ban for a year); shut down community centers at night; and approved new master plans to create citywide wireless and fiber-optic systems.

The local economy continued to blossom, with tax revenues in just about every category climbing steadily and the budget picture looking sunnier than it did even before the 2008 recession. Hotel-tax revenues jumped by an astonishing 57 percent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2014 (July through September), when compared to the same period a year ago. Sales taxes showed a 48 percent jump, prompting city staff to revise their budget projections.

All of this was great news.

Yet when it comes to preserving the quality of life of city residents and making progress on the most urgent priorities, 2013 brought its fair share of disappointments. Library patrons are still waiting for the city's new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center to open its doors. The project has seen so many construction mishaps, missed deadlines and failed inspections that Public Works officials have given up on predicting the opening date.

In November, when it became clear that the city's hapless and embattled contractor, Flintco, will miss another deadline, officials sent the company a "notice of default." In mid-December, the city began discussions with Flintco's surety company about supplementing Flintco's undermanned crews or terminating the contractor entirely, which could further delay the long-deferred grand opening of the city's largest library.

Bookworms and library volunteers aren't the only Palo Altans whose patience was tested this year. Residents eager for the long-awaited "fiber to the premise" system, which would bring ultra-high-speed Internet to every home, will also have to continue waiting (thankfully, by now they have about two decades of practice). The only major action on this council priority was approval of master plans for the possible fiber-optic system and for a wireless plan.

When it comes to the city's faltering infrastructure, the council remains uncertain about funding repairs with a 2014 bond measure. Polls of voters showed that a new police headquarters, the city's top infrastructure priority, is unlikely to garner the two-thirds voter support needed for a bond to pass, and Jay Paul Company's withdrawal of its development proposal eliminated one avenue for getting the police headquarters built.

The council's Infrastructure Committee held extensive debates about different funding sources and possible bond packages. As the curtain closes on 2013, a hotel-tax increase stands out as the most promising source for funding infrastructure, but the city remains without a concrete plan for a 2014 election.

The biggest infrastructure accomplishment came this year in the form of street repairs, an area where the city had more than doubled its budget two years ago. This year, the city resurfaced more than 36 lane miles, an accomplishment Scharff said will allow the city to reach its 10-year goal of excellent street-condition scores "much sooner than we anticipated."

In his final written message of the year, Scharff called 2013 a year "of action and progress" and said that the city has "accomplished or laid the ground work to complete almost everything I called for in my State of the City address."

Whether or not other city leaders share this view depends on many factors, not the least of which is their definition of "almost." The council may credibly claim that it "accomplished a lot" in the politically charged atmosphere of 2013. But with so much business left undone and a council election looming, it has set itself up for an even busier 2014.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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