Editorial: 'Winds of Change' both warm and chill | February 1, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 1, 2006

Editorial: 'Winds of Change' both warm and chill

Landmark conference leaves much to be discussed, debated as Palo Alto's corner of Silicon Valley looks toward its future

Don Weden, a long-time senior planning official with Santa Clara County, started a whirlwind of discussions in Palo Alto last Saturday when he spoke candidly about his perceptions of realities of Silicon Valley before an audience of more than 300 persons at the HP auditorium in Palo Alto.

Weden spoke not just from the viewpoint of a retired professional planner but as a perceptive observer of social, environmental, economic and development trends over the past several decades, during which he has been at the heart of the planning effort. He was principal planner for comprehensive (long-range) planning for the Santa Clara County Planning Office, and managed the most recent revision of the county's General Plan.

Weden also has strong environmental interests, including actively supporting creation of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in the early 1970s -- the MROSD was among the 23 co-sponsors of Saturday's event, of which the American Association of University Women (AAUW) was the primary sponsor. Other co-sponsors included the League of Women Voters, the Committee for Green Foothills, the environmentalist group Acterra, the City of Palo Alto, Hewlett-Packard Co., the Palo Alto Weekly and even the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. But, perhaps significantly, the Palo Alto Neighborhods (PAN) group declined to co-sponsor.

Weden's topic, "Winds of Change: Adapting Our Communities to the Changing Realities of the 21st Century," seemed to strike a warm chord with many in the audience. Several follow-up dialogues have already materialized. Attendees were mostly from the Palo Alto area, with visitors from San Jose and Saratoga, and some Palo Alto High School students.

But Weden's words sent a chill through some neighborhood representatives who have been fighting to preserve lower densities -- Palo Alto's classic, decades-long struggle to balance growth with neighborhood liveability.

Ironically, Weden also attempted to define such a balance, but on a larger scale and over a longer term. Weden cautioned that his remarks applied well beyond Palo Alto -- although he made an obligatory poke at the "Palo Alto Process."

His core message was that there are powerful, "structural" changes occurring that will affect everyone and of which public officials and community leaders of all perspectives should be aware. While "cyclical" changes can be safely ignored -- unemployment, stock prices, tides -- structural changes are permanent, such as when autos replaced horses, computers replaced typewriters and the Internet arrived.

Ignoring structural changes means businesses can cease to exist and communities "can see their employment base, tax base and community services reduced," he warned. Some changes will occur over decades, while appropriate local and regional responses may take years to fashion and implement.

Virtually all specific issues presently facing decision makers revolve around the core issue: "How and where we house of future population," Weden asserted.

And population growth is coming. By 2025, California is projected to grow by more than 9 million people, to more than 46 million -- a full 25 percent. That's equivalent to adding another San Jose every two years and another Los Angeles every eight years, Weden noted.

Most growth with be inland, so Bay Area growth is projected at 13 percent between 2005 and 2020. But that's not the good news it seems: The California Air Resources Board predicts that vehicle miles traveled in the Bay Area will grow by 25 percent. If you think today's commute is bad ....

Weden warned that each area of traditional concern -- from the age wave to dependence on oil, from health care to local neighborhood issues -- is keyed to housing and work patterns. "Palo Alto's protective bubble has begun to shrink" due to technology and competitive economic forces, and communities all need to look hard at increasing densities in some areas, particularly near transit, he said.

But he also urged community leaders to create "liveability enhanced districts," or LEDs -- 20 to 30 blocks of self-contained, walkable neighborhoods with containing services, park facilities and housing.

Once one gets past the headline-grabbing "increase density" message, we believe there is much common ground on which neighborhood leaders and residents can agree, and we welcome the beginnings of a candid process to address today's imperative realities.