Good feelings and big buildings | September 28, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 28, 2012

Good feelings and big buildings

Come November, elected City Council candidates will join governance board that's been largely united, especially when it comes to growth

by Gennady Sheyner

There was a time decades ago when City Council meetings in Palo Alto resembled episodes of "The Real World," with raucous debates, endless bickering and insults flying across the dais.

In this bygone era, which peaked in the 1960s, the slow-growth "residentialists," who sought to protect Palo Alto against encroaching developments, feuded with "establishment" council members who pushed for more growth and economic prosperity. The establishment side dominated the council throughout the 1950s, a period of dramatic growth in Palo Alto, but began losing power in the early 1960s. Spurred by controversial projects such as construction of the Oregon Expressway (which ended up going to the voters and prevailing by 474 votes out of 18,340 ballots cast, according to Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: A Centenial History"), residentialists such as Enid Pearson, Kirke Comstock and Byron Sher began to take council seats. By 1966, establishment council members held a mere seven-to-six advantage.

"We had fights and were fighting. We weren't getting city business done. It was totally absurd," Pearson recalled in a recent interview.

The city had just hired its first city manager, Jerome Keithley, to manage the growth of the 1960s. He instantly became a target for residentialists and, according to Winslow, resigned in exasperation and under fire in 1966.

Things inside the council chambers got hairy. Writes Winslow: "Personal relations between the two sides deteriorated to the insult level and, once, almost to fisticuffs. Sometimes, they couldn't agree to accept the minutes of the previous meeting. Council meetings ran long and late, and decisions were delayed for weeks because the members could not compose their differences, particularly on issues related to land use and growth."

Council meetings today still run long and late, but the divisiveness and acrimony of yesteryear would seem unimaginable to anyone who has attended a recent City Council meeting, where unanimous votes are the norm and where the atmosphere behind the dais is usually one of genial consensus. Even on issues as controversial as California's high-speed rail system, lane reductions on California Avenue, benefit cuts to city workers, legalization of marijuana dispensaries and massive new office developments, the council members consistently speak with the same voice, albeit a voice with nine distinct tones. There is a range of opinions: Greg Schmid and Karen Holman bring more skepticism toward new developments than most of their colleagues (both voted against the proposed four-story Lytton Gateway development) while Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Larry Klein have been the council's leading advocates for development. But the gulf isn't very wide. There have been a few 5-4 votes, as in when the council authorized money for design work for a compost plant in the Baylands earlier this year or when it placed a repeal of binding arbitration on the 2011 ballot. But unanimity, or something very close to it, has generally been the rule.

Gary Fazzino, a former two-time mayor who is writing a political history of Palo Alto, said the current council has had more unanimous votes than any since the mid-1990s. It's also the most pro-development council since the 1960s. Fazzino compared current City Manager James Keene, with whom the council has had a smooth working relationship, to Keithley when it comes to his philosophy about economic growth and changes to the city's character.

When the council approved the massive, $5 billion expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center in 2011 — a project that added 1.3 million square feet of new development and that officials frequently referred to as the "largest development in the city's history" — the vote was 8-0 (Klein recused himself because his wife is on the Stanford faculty). While some members of the community expressed concern about potential traffic problems caused by the expanded hospitals, council members oozed with enthusiasm about the ambitious project, with Gail Price saying it was a "pleasure to be a part of the process," Mayor Yiaway Yeh calling it a "momentous evening" and Schmid declaring it "a night for celebration in Palo Alto."

Fazzino said the council discussion reflected the council's view of Stanford University and Stanford Hospital not as major developers but rather as leading educational and medical institutions, respectively.

"I cannot imagine the Stanford Hospital being approved on a unanimous vote 10 or 15 years ago," Fazzino said.

Other major development projects are getting the ear of the council. The two most recent proposed developments look to transcend just about every major zoning restriction on the books. Commercial developer Jay Paul hopes to build a pair of office towers on Page Mill Road, and billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga has proposed four office towers (one of which would be 161 feet tall) and a theater near the downtown Caltrain station. Whereas before, it was relatively rare for developers to exceed the city's 50-foot limit for new development (a residentialist restriction that once was more or less sacrosanct), that request has become relatively routine.

The Arrillaga proposal "wouldn't have made it to first base" a few decades ago, Fazzino said. He also pointed to other recent developments, including the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Alma Plaza and Lytton Gateway, that the council allowed to be "built to the max."

November's election, in which six candidates are vying for four seats, may not dramatically change that — although some candidates express residentialist concerns. The unusually small candidate field consists of two incumbents, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid; former two-time mayor and soon-to-be-termed-out Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss; attorney Marc Berman, a former volunteer for a successful school-bond campaign who recently served on a citizen committee that analyzed infrastructure needs; financial consultant Tim Gray; and former concert promoter Mark Weiss.

The Weekly recently asked the candidates whether they think the current council gives too much weight to the views and interests of developers or residentialists, or whether they think the council strikes "an appropriate balance."

Berman and Burt both said they think the council is striking an appropriate balance.

Kniss expressed caution, saying she's been hearing from the community that developers are "coming out ahead," a sentiment she agrees with.

"Regardless of the reality, the perception is an unbalanced approach in weight given to the developers," wrote Kniss, who as a former City Council member and a veteran Supervisor has ample experience negotiating with Stanford over land-use plans.

Gray, who calls himself a residentialist, is more outspoken in his view that developers are given too much weight. He pointed to Arbor Real, a townhouse development that was recently built on the former site of Rickey's Hyatt on El Camino Real and Charleston Road. The dense development has become a poster child for land-use watchdogs and residents decrying the recent trend toward massive and dense buildings.

"The community provided all the community amenities, and the value went to the developers, leaving the residents with increased demands on roads, water, sewer, and the experience of increased traffic," Gray wrote.

Weiss also railed against developers having too much interest. But Schmid chose none of the three options, stating instead that the council "gives way too little time to long-term planning that can help define how a mature and sophisticated community can continue to grow."

The term "Palo Alto Process" may be a pejorative in local development circles, but Schmid says he's all for slowing things down and hashing out a community vision before proceeding with negotiations on major new projects.

"I'm in favor of process, and I think the council and staff have the obligation to set the tone for the discussion, Schmid said.

The new era of civility and growth reflects both the composition of the current council and the economic and demographic changes Palo Alto has undergone in recent years. The political spectrum had narrowed by the end of the 1970s and, according to Winslow, political slates disappeared from elections in 1981, when "most of the council members agreed on major planning and zoning issues."

"Many goals of the early residentialists had been met, including a limit on industrial and residential growth, protection of the Baylands and foothills and extension of city government into social services," Winslow's book states.

Following years of complaints over developments by neighbors, a sort of moderate "residentialism" has set it on the council. Council members routinely spend hours fine-tuning proposed developments and delving into anticipated traffic problems and parking requirements.

Burt, a former planning commissioner who frequently leads the late-night design sessions, said expectations have changed for planned-community projects. In the late 1980's and 1990's, he said, the city had a big wave of such proposals getting approved with only "nominal public benefits." These days, developers are expected to provide more if they wish to exceed zoning regulations, he said.

"The projects we have now are expected to have very significant public benefits if they're to go forward," Burt said in a recent interview.

Still, council members' votes do show a leaning toward growth and economic development. Fazzino suspects the city's financial picture is driving this trend. With the city's revenues plummeting in 2008 as a result of the Great Recession and pension and health care costs rapidly rising, the council has been scrambling to find ways to maintain city services and fund needed infrastructure projects, including a new public-safety building.

"There's such concern about the city's fiscal situation and the need to promote economic growth — keep social media and other new companies here — I think that has driven a large part of what the council has done in terms of supporting these projects," Fazzino said.

Development approved today looks different than it did in the 1960s, however. In a nod to residents' desires, the council has been limiting new buildings to areas near transit sites (mostly near University and California avenues), away from the residential neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. And some of the council's positions — including its heated and unanimous opposition to California's high-speed-rail project and its dispute with the Association of Bay Area Governments over the number of new homes the regional group expects the city to accommodate — probably wouldn't have been as popular among the 1960s group.

But whichever way they tilt on a given issue, current council members tend to tilt together, much like the 1960s establishment. Fazzino said there is "less of a gulf" on the council now and that the political spectrum is "more concentrated" than it was even 10 years ago.

"The folks on this council are pretty close to each other," he said

The united development front hasn't gone unopposed by the city's lingering residentialists, though. Neighbors of new developments still speak out, often decrying proposed buildings' size, density and potential parking problems. More broadly, Bob Moss, a veteran land-use watchdog, led a successful grassroots drive in 2009 to force private developments to have wider private streets — a proposal spurred by the approval of the Alma Plaza redevelopment, which includes 52 homes and a grocery store. After Moss gathered more than 2,000 signatures for his effort, the council agreed in July 2009 to adopt the private-streets ordinance outright rather than sending it to the voters.

Concerns from Downtown North residents this year about the parking problems that could arise from the proposed Lytton Gateway development at Alma Street and Lytton Avenue prompted the council to add a host of conditions relating to parking as part of the approval, including a $2 million payment for future parking improvements such as a new garage.

Moss is also opposing the new Arrillaga plan, which he called the "most appalling proposal" he has seen in the city in 40 years. The council, Moss said in a recent interview, is notable for both its tendency to "rubberstamp" staff recommendations and for approving new developments.

"This council is the most pro-growth council in at least 15 to 20 years, maybe more," Moss said.

The council appears to be influencing the tilt of local boards and commissions as well, which provide recommendations to the council, relegating residentialist voices to the fringe. The two Planning and Transportation Commission members who have been most critical of dense new projects — Arthur Keller and former Vice Chair Susan Fineberg — both ran into major resistance from the council in their efforts to seek additional terms. Keller, who is prone to wonky monologues about traffic and who frequently attaches technical conditions to his approvals — retained his seat on the commission by a 5-4 vote last year. Fineberg, well-known for her advocacy of transparency, her encyclopedic knowledge of the city's Comprehensive Plan and her exceedingly thorough analyses of environment documents, ended her tenure in July after the council decided not to reappoint her — a vote that was not lost on Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident.

Before the council began its discussion of the Jay Paul proposal on Sept. 10, Balin urged members to take their time to make sure the process is transparent and that potential problems caused by the project are thoroughly — and independently — vetted. Balin also said he and others who follow land-use issues were "incredulous" over the council's decision not to reappoint Fineberg.

"Because in her presence in public, on the dais, Susan Fineberg embodied all these valuable and needed traits — a model commissioner. And therefore, the public's only logical interpretation is that the council majority does not value one or more of these attributes as much as something else the public is not privy to," Balin said.

Pearson, a conservationist and veteran of countless political skirmishes, says city officials who harbor residentialist sentiments get punished politically these days. She points to the council's recent decision to name the more recently elected Scharff over Schmid as its vice mayor, despite Schmid's seniority, and its decision not to name former Councilman Jack Morton — a frequent critic of new developments and a man whose off-the-cuff diatribes often enlivened council meetings — to the mayor's position.

"You've got to be able to debate these things," Pearson said. "You should be able to argue out loud. You should be able to get angry at a council meeting."

The terms of the debate have changed, she said, and just about everyone claims to be a "residentialist" — just as everyone claims to be an "environmentalist" — even as they then go on to approve major development applications.

"I'm not considered an environmentalist anymore," said Pearson, who has an open-space preserve named after her and opposes construction of a composting plant in the Baylands. "I'm now considered an obstructionist."

Pearson suspects that would-be activists for residentialist causes just don't have time to stay engaged in citywide issues — an observation supported by the fact that the six-candidate pool in the current election is the smallest since 1985 (every election since 1999 has had at least 10 candidates).

"It's not that residentialists don't exist; it's just that life is too hard for them to be able to give the time you need to protect the residential character of neighborhoods," Pearson said. "They can do it with surges of activity, but they can't do it all the time. They have children to raise, and they have mortgages to pay on the house, which they need two people to pay for."

Ray Bacchetti, a former school board member and current member of the Human Relations Commission, attributes the small candidate pool in part to the wide range of opportunities Palo Alto residents have to volunteer — including school activities, emergency preparedness and library fundraising. The time-consuming nature of city government also serves as a deterrent, he said in an email. Many people in Palo Alto, he wrote, "are used to getting things done quickly, in part because in their career they have a lot of control over circumstances, resources and people."

"When they look at government, they see 'process, process, process,' and they don't understand or respect the reasons why political settings require it," wrote Bacchetti, who is one of the city's leading proponents of civic engagement,

The tough fiscal situation doesn't help. The city's lack of resources, he wrote, "means that a lot of your decisions will hurt, and your opportunities to do big things are severely limited, if not altogether foreclosed."

"Of course, Palo Alto is better off than most, but the implications for governance are relative, so nobody has much fun governing these days, regardless of their city's financial starting place," Bacchetti wrote.

Fazzino agreed that residents these days have less time to devote to volunteering. Fewer candidates step forward and some who do get elected — Peter Drekmeier, Sid Espinosa and Yeh — only stick around for one term. Both Espinosa, who served as mayor last year, and Yeh, the current mayor, announced this summer that they would not run again, citing their desire to explore other opportunities.

"I do think it's much more difficult to attract people to run for the City Council because of the time commitments," Fazzino said. "People are focused on their careers. I see a smaller pool of people stepping forward like Marc Berman (has) — who have a real interest in government and public policy."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2012 at 11:00 am

The City Council has done to this city what the rooster did to the hen.

Just look at the fiscal mess, inflated pensions, decimated infrastructure, and the bloated management at City Hall. Add to that the corruption of channeling Utilities' profits to the general fund, which subverts the will of the people expressed in Prop 13.

Then look at the massive overdevelopment, of condo complexes sprouting like mushrooms, so that the city can get more revenues to pay for more pensions and lifetime medical benefits.

The word FUBAR comes to mind.

Like this comment
Posted by Marvin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I will only vote for the person(s) that will get these outrageous city employee pensions in check. Police and fire employees retiring at age 55 with 90% of their salary for the rest of their life- insane!

Like this comment
Posted by Cc
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm

I demand all the council members be Palo Alto residents. This applies to all decision making city employees as well.

Like this comment
Posted by Voter
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

Well, it's certainly a weak field.

Burt and Schmid voted in favor of letting Measure D hit the ballot (helping the public start to put a stop to Fire Union abuses), and Gray seems to have a head on his shoulders regarding basic financial responsibility. After that, though, I might have to leave a blank, and will be searching for the lesser of evils:

Those I'd need a shower after voting for:

Kniss: Career politician who has completely failed to protect taxpayers from special interest unions in the past.

Berman: A greasy lawyer if there ever were one, and pro-bureaucrat as well. Read great article about how he sought the Labor Council's endorsement, but then said he didn't. He's clearly a union-shill. He's said as much in the past in all of the typical ways, "we can't fix the deficit on the backs of public employees, etc"

Weiss: A pro-tax socialist if there ever was one. Even in the outrage over six figure pensions starting around age 50,

Like this comment
Posted by Voter
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

(continuing previous post),

Even in the outrage over six figure pensions starting around age 50, Weiss can be found on this site repeatedly taking the apologist position for the overpaid bureaucrats.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Ward Winslow was one of my editors at Times Tribune during my internship there, in 1984. He wrote me a nice note predicting I would be a credit to whatever field I choose. I would not have imagined running for Palo Alto City Council, however, but maybe he did.

Beyond "railing" against developers, I have posted about 30 short essays at my campaign blog here:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Mark Weiss,

Instead of asking a voter to read your 30 short essays, or rely on a 1984 referral,

can you please state what you think about the Arrillaga/Stanford office complex plan on University and Alma?

1) do you agree on giving away dedicated parkland for it
2) on exempting height code from 50 feet to over 100 feet?
3) do you think there are real and specific reasons Palo Alto "needs" such a complex?
4) do these reasons outweigh the costs to the city?

irrespective of how one feels about developers, at the end of the day it would be nice to know how people think about a specific situation. Or just how candidates think.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Regarding 27 University, and in response to a posted comment directed to me here, I have read the full staff report, dated Sept 24, and have two hundred and seventy (270) places that I've marked that merit further looking into, questioning and in some segments and maybe in entirety simply ridiculing and denouncing as a travesty, as commissioner Bob Moss was quoted as saying.

In fact, on March 6, when Council made public the existence of this proposal, (although now the report says secret meetings started in August, 2011!), I texted council members with my dismay, commented here at PAW site (some of which were subsequently deleted, for comparing their euphemisms about the instigator to pr for a famous historical figure --whether "philanthropist" was the right term, versus "developer" or "billionaire"), and wrote an indirect counter-attack on my personal blog -- as distinct from my new campaign blog - by quoting from a famous Allen Ginsberg poem, where he compares the skyscrapers outside his window to Biblical monsters called "Moloch".

I hope to somewhere get the chance, or multiple chances, to speak more directly and oppose this project.

Briefly, this is example of an oligarch and plutocrat basically taking government hostage and trying to force his way; I am concerned with process as much as product or outcome. I am concerned in many ways about Democracy, on local and national levels.

We have already spent upwards of $200,000 in defense of this attack, staff and consultant time, not to mention three hours from the dais Monday.

I would rather community via an inclusive and Democratic process decide our needs (be it office space, arts venue, intermodal transit improvement or whatever) and then find the way to enact our will and NOT as in this case merely be responding, as if under siege, to the will of a billionaire.

Also, what is clear to me in the report as distinct from reporting on such is that there is nothing in writing that states that the 260,000 sq feet of office space (for a corporate headquarters of a mature tech company and not an incubator on innovator per se) will be donated to Stanford; if anything, that is between Stanford and the individual. Even if staff seems to in good faith think he is promising verbally to do that, it should not be a consideration in the merits of the proposal, and its drawbacks.

So here is from March 6, since you asked, my posted response elsewhere, if you can work thru the long quote from a poem -- since you asked how my or our, including my fellow candidates, minds work: and I think after hearing bureaucrats talk in double-speak and jargon on so many cases it is good to throw a little poetry and art reference into the mix, feel me?
Web Link

For "another voter" to be specific:
1) NO!

2) NO!
3) maybe
4)Probably not. Or prove it to us. And don't kowtow or capitulate to power.

Like this comment
Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Mark Weiss,

I am a new resident and the first thing I knew about buying here is that I cannot renovate my own home restriction-free, especially the upstairs.

Hearing that the City is promoting four exceedingly tall buildings, has made me tune in to the elections. Also the shock at the podunk incestuous politics that drive City staff to stupidity.

They are moved by 1 billionaire in a town that practically has a billionaire per neighborhood. Palo Alto could do much better for the City and its residents if it would be in charge of its own destiny, respect its own values, and not feel itself out to the first glossy plan that comes around. I completely agree with what you say

''would rather community via an inclusive and Democratic process decide our needs (be it office space, arts venue, intermodal transit improvement or whatever) and then find the way to enact our will and NOT as in this case merely be responding, as if under siege, to the will of a billionaire."

I will tune in to your website.

Like this comment
Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Mark Weiss,

So you went to Gunn and Dartmouth, nice schools

You're kind of wild and crazy with your Moloch stuff, but what is crazier than 27University?

You need to get Cliff Notes version of your platform on your site. You have some nice ideas, good humor, I like what you say about the Arts in the PA Weeekly interview. The long acronym SVAYAMBH-PA sounds too complicated and what does it mean anyway. New Residentialist platform sounds good.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 30, 2012 at 1:16 am

Google says "svayambh" means "self-generated" in Sanskrit. I don't understand anything of the Weiss campaign, maybe because I went to Cubberley.

Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm

"Just look at the fiscal mess, inflated pensions, decimated infrastructure, and the bloated management at City Hall."


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 30, 2012 at 10:37 pm

I went to Fremont Hills, Terman and Gunn. I have a lot of classmates and friends who started out at Cubberley, which closed after our freshman year.

Between 1994 and 2001, I produced my event series, for Earthwise Productions, at Cubberley. Cubberley lives on via the alumni network of those who attended and hold it fondly in their hearts, and to a lesser extent to those of us who were or art part of the Cubberley as community center scene.

Although I do digress into arts and literary references, most of the time I write more plainly.

I am a residentialist as opposed to those who give too much sway to Downtown interests, special interests and especially the Commercial Real Estate Developers.

I have a lot of sympathy for the underdog, for whatever reasons, but doubt that makes me a "socialist".

Thanks to the dude who says the 27 University project is crazier than my "Moloch! Moloch!" riff.

I hope enough readers, voters and citizens will see the method to my madness.

"I am mad as hell and not taking this any longer!"

Read my blog. Vote November 6. Peace out.

Remember the Cougar! (they say, and I respect that; Go, Titans)

Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I ask all of the candidates:

1) What are you going to do to rein in the never-ending rise in PA Utility rates and whether you'll at least cut back their marketing budget. We've already decided our positions so enough.

2) When will someone on the Traffic and Planning commission do something about the ridiculous traffic light timing around Town & Country. Kids aren't in school at 2AM so how about at least eliminating one unnecessary red light.

2a) Has anyone looked at the lost sales tax revenue resulting from the traffic situation forcing shoppers like me over to the Menlo Park Trader Joe's instead of shopping here?