Candidates for council tackle top issues at election forum | September 16, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 16, 2022

Candidates for council tackle top issues at election forum

Seven challengers united over higher density housing, new city gym

by Gennady Sheyner

The seven candidates vying for three seats on the Palo Alto City Council this November all want to see the city build a gym, renovate Cubberley Community Center, adopt a business tax and build housing at a higher density.

But they have different takes when it comes to campaign finance reform, rent stabilization and the complex question of what to do about the city's rail crossings.

These similarities and differences were highlighted during a Tuesday candidate forum, which was hosted by the Palo Alto Weekly and co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Chinese Parents' Club and Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. The event featured this year's council candidates: Realtor Alex Comsa, Utilities Advisory Commission member Lisa Forssell, software engineer Brian Hamachek, Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Ed Lauing, author and educator Julie Lythcott-Haims, Planning and Transportation Commission Vice Chair Doria Summa and attorney and mediator Vicki Veenker.

All seven agreed that when it comes to development, Palo Alto should retain strict limits on office development while allowing higher density for housing developments. While Comsa said he would support allowing more smaller offices, which can serve as incubators, the rest of the field indicated that they are happy with the status quo, which includes an annual 50,000-square-foot limit on new office development in downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.

And while other cities such as Mountain View and Redwood City have relied on specific plans with commercial components to produce housing, the candidates in Palo Alto firmly rejected that approach and generally agreed that any move that would worsen the city's jobs-housing imbalance would be a step in the wrong direction.

Lauing called the approach "a disaster" and said it further skews the imbalance between jobs and housing and leads to more traffic and congestion. Veenker said the existing office restrictions appear to be working and responded with the aphorism, "If it ain't broke don't fix it."

Lythcott-Haims noted that many offices have become "ghost businesses" during the pandemic, with many employees shifting to remote work, and suggested creating a "mixed-use overlay" to add residential uses to existing commercial districts in areas like El Camino Real.

Summa went even further and said the city, which has a higher jobs-housing imbalance than Manhattan, doesn't need any new offices.

"I'm not in favor of building any more office that is not neighborhood-serving, local, small offices. That's what we need so people can walk to the doctor, to the dentist, to their accountants, etc.," Summa said.

The candidates were far more bullish when it came to residential growth, with everyone vowing to support more housing. Comsa said allowing higher density for residential developments would spur the creation of smaller and more environmentally friendly units and suggested that the city identify large sites that can accommodate these projects and take initiative in building housing.

"I think we should switch to a more proactive approach and targeted opportunities to create housing and preserve habitat in Palo Alto instead of focusing on small, infill projects," Comsa said.

Hamachek, who said his decision to join the race was prompted by his opposition to the council's decision to allow the reconstruction of Castilleja School, was more cautious and said that while he supports higher density in some cases, in many areas it would undermine the character of the neighborhood.

"I'd be really mindful of that when evaluating any kind of project about higher density," Hamachek said.

While the council's recent efforts to add housing have largely focused on south Palo Alto, both Forssell and Lythcott-Haims made the case for a more balanced approach that would spread new residential developments across the city. Lythcott-Haims argued that council members shouldn't be putting developments on the south side if they're not "pretty enough for the north side." Both said they would favor area plans to guide development so that any new housing would come with amenities for residents.

"I think we really need to make specific area plans for new areas under consideration for development, spell out that we want trees and green space and walkable and bikeable and safe (streets) and the trade-off will be a little bit of density," Forssell said. "I welcome that and I welcome the new community members that we'll all benefit from when they live here."

When asked about ways to balance preservation of neighborhood character with the imperative to build housing, candidates generally agreed that it would be important to include gathering spaces and community amenities for new residential developments. Summa suggested that "neighborhood character" has less to do with whether a residence is a single-family home or a multifamily complex and more to do with places where residents can meet.

"There's a lot of different types of neighborhoods in Palo Alto; everyone is free to live where they want," Summa said. "But when it comes to building this new kind of high-rise senior housing, these people deserve the same type of things that make Palo Alto livable and great for everyone else."

To promote more community amenities, every candidate said they would support building a city gym, a project that the council began discussing this year, and renovating Cubberley Community Center, an endeavor that city officials have been debating for decades with little to show for it. Lythcott-Haims suggested opening a gym at Cubberley, an idea that others also embraced. Veenker said a new gym would be an asset both as a way to promote health and to strengthen the community.

"It's a place where we can come together and enjoy each other," Veenker said.

There was a bit more daylight between candidates on the topic of new measures to support renters, who make up about 46% of the city's population. Everyone agreed that the city should move ahead with a registry program that would collect information about vacancy rates and rent increases, information that would be used to evaluate new policies. But while Veenker said she believes the city should consider rent stabilization to prevent steep rent increases, Hamachek indicated that he would oppose this step.

"I think that could have a pretty chilling effect and we should be really careful before we go to that extreme," Hamacheck said.

What about campaign finance reform?

Candidates also had different positions on campaign finance reform. While just about everyone supported lowering the cap for individual contributions, they had different takes on an overall spending limit for candidates. Comsa and Forssell each said they would support lowering overall expenditures by candidates, an approach that Mountain View employs.

But Lauing and Summa argued that because independent expenditures can raise unlimited sums on behalf of candidates as long as they are not explicitly tied to the campaigns, overall limits don't make sense at this time.

"Since we can't cap on independent expenditures and in-kind contributions, it's sort of meaningless," Summa said. "Unless we figure that out, with those huge loopholes it doesn't make sense".

The candidates all supported the city's proposed business tax, which will appear on the November ballot. The tax is based on square footage and exempts businesses with less than 10,000 square feet of space. Not everyone, however, was thrilled about the measure. Lythcott-Haims said she would have liked to see large companies pay more, while Hamachek said he was initially leaning against it because of its potential impact on small businesses. The exemptions for small businesses shifted his view.

The tax is projected to raise about $9 million annually, with proceeds split between affordable housing, public safety and improvements to the rail corridor. Lauing likened the proposed tax to "a cup half full."

"I think we got something to work with here, though $3 million a year doesn't put up too much affordable housing," Lauing said.

While the candidates were in accord on the need to speed up planning on grade separations, the redesign of the rail corridor so roads are split from train tracks, they offered different views about what that would entail. Hamachek said he would support building a tunnel, an option that the council had previously considered and discarded as too expensive to be feasible.

Lauing disagreed and said the city needs to pick an option that makes "fiscal sense." Veenker also stressed the importance of both financial and engineering feasibility, noting that it's hard to place trains underground in some areas.

"There's historic state and federal dollars available if we do it quickly," she said.

Lythcott-Haims said she favored either the viaduct or a tunnel along the corridor, while Summa and Comsa both said they would support an underpass for the Meadow and Charleston crossings.

Summa also suggested that the city should build bike crossings at the tracks before grade separation begins. Comsa, meanwhile, supported the council's recent decision to explore a "partial underpass" at the Churchill crossing, which he said should be done in conjunction with improvements to Embarcadero Road.

The candidates are running for the three open seats on the seven-member council. Council member Alison Cormack is completing her first term and has opted not to run for a second. Council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth are both terming out after two four-year terms.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Palo Alto Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2022 at 11:37 am

Palo Alto Mom is a registered user.

Thank you Weekly for this debate that confirmed my votes for Julie Lythcott-Haims and Lisa Forssell! Vicki impressed me too and will probably get my third vote. How lucky we are to have 3 kick-ass woman candidates to vote for! We especially loved Julie’s no-bs response to the police question and her response to one of the final questions about one last thing they would want to improve. While others spoke of gas blowers and such she gave a passionate response (that had us in tears) about being a Gunn parent and about the need for mental health services and a sense of belonging and unconditional love for our youth. Julie is our #1!

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2022 at 12:18 pm

felix is a registered user.

Thanks Weekly and Candidates for this good Forum. One suggestion - next time have all candidates in person to video/zoom to the public, preventing constant reliance on crib sheets and texts to answer most questions. Only two candidates didn't do what I think of as cheating - giving a false impression of more knowledge than candidates have.

Generalities replaced specific knowledge by just saying "yes" to stuff - greater housing density (easy to say given state law requires 6,000 more units in town), office caps, etc. Only Lauing and Summa stated chapter and verse 90% of the time about the many issues asked of candidates.

When Lythcott-Haims did get specific, she showed lack of knowledge by promoting a tunnel or viaduct as grade separations, though the Council eliminated both as way too costly or too impactful of residents. She complained that no one spoke of George Floyd/BLM the night our new Police Chief was approved by Council, yet she was there and said nothing about either.

Campaign finance was asked about, with candidates Forssell, Lythcott-Haims and Veenker all supporting campaign finance caps including Independent Expenditure Committees (IEs), yet none mentioned they had just benefited from ads run the week before in a local paper paid by for an IE. IE's can't be limited by law, nor can PACs. Campaign finance limits/reform are an illusion as Summa stated.

Forssell wants Specific Area Plans. The problem is she doesn't know the consequences. SAPs take a long time to do when done right like SOFA (not like Ventura, so far a failure). Several SAPs would be needed for El Camino, San Antonio areas, delaying housing by years - a no-starter.

A Gym? Yes, but also a good public swimming pool. Riconanda has two. South Palo Alto, none, which is poor in services. Put both at Mitchell Park.

Lauing and Summa simply know the most, have the most experince and it showed last night

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2022 at 2:24 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Does anyone have any firm ideas of where these new residents for new housing will materialize? I do agree that people like teachers and various support staff for Stanford and service industries will want to live nearer to their work places, I am not so sure we are going to need lots of housing for high tech singles or even couples who might be working here.

There appears to be huge amounts of empty office space with for lease signs and empty parking lots all over town. Even smaller office space in Midtown and similar commercial areas seem to be in abundance.

Are we going to build ghost housing for people who will never live in these developments?

Posted by Concerned Neightbor
a resident of Triple El
on Sep 15, 2022 at 9:29 pm

Concerned Neightbor is a registered user.

The only one who deserves a vote is Brian Hamachek. Possibly also Alex Comsa. All the others will bring more problems to the residents.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2022 at 2:36 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I would very much like to see each candidate rank Palo Alto's problems and priorities in writing and submit those to the Weekly and Daily Post for publication simultaneously before ballots are mailed.

An incomplete list of problems includes: increased crime, an understaffed PAPD, a lack of affordable housing, the grade separation conundrum, what to do about Cubberley, an unreliable electricity grid, water supply and treatment , youth mental health, and the fiber issue. More than one of these problems is fat and thorny, making it impossible to choose which one is the most serious and thus worthy of the most CC and Staff time and attention. And limited budget money.

What does get a lot of attention is climate change and the City's SCAP goals. Of course those are important, but they are also global issues and the focus of agencies and higher level government than city council. Since Palo Altans are environmentally conscious and inclined to work towards and even sacrifice for the good of the environment, I think it's best to focus on the most critical issues that are truly within the council's purview: local health and safety, local housing, local transportation issues (including grade separation). If we continue to bite off more than we can chew we will continue to make insufficient progress on our worst problems.

Climate change can be promoted by others. The Cubberley conundrum, as important as it is, should not be prioritized over allocating funds to improve health and safety. A gym can wait. Ditto the fiber project. If we were looking at a future that included revenue from a relevant-to-impact business tax, we would not have to prioritize as much or make as many hard choices, but we aren't, so let's move forward in a practical, realistic manner.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 19, 2022 at 2:54 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"I would very much like to see each candidate rank Palo Alto's problems and priorities in writing and submit those to the Weekly and Daily Post for publication simultaneously before ballots are mailed."

I would also. We can't have everything and often spend a small fortune on overly ambitious projects, hiring pricey consultants with no local knowledge and end up worse off than we started.

It would also be nice if at least one candidate said their top priority is having the city work efficiently to provide timely service in a cost-effective manner. In all my years of living here, I've never heard Palo Alto mention cost-effectiveness.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2022 at 3:49 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I think the previous two posts have nailed it.

We have had and seemingly will have a council with grandiose ideas if any of the candidates replies are anything to go by.

Palo Alto is a small city which takes a long time to get things done. Think about the pedestrian bridge! It was supposed to be a statement bridge that would make those driving by think Wow, Palo Alto. Instead we have a very functional bridge which I have heard described as a rusty railroad bridge in appearance. I don't really care what it is called, but pleased now that we have a bridge after over 10 years talking about it. I have heard similar statements that a particular intersection needs statement appeal as it gets a new look. Can we please get a council that stops thinking we need statement appeal or need to be leaders on an issue and instead get a council that will approve things in a timely manner.

We don't need statement ideas. We do need to get things done. We need efficient service for Palo Alto residents as described above. We have suffered long enough with bad service and it is time that should change. That is enough statement for any of us.

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