Issues facing our City today
By any reasonable measure, the Bay Area is a spectacular success story. We just led the country, even the world, out of the worst recession since the 1930’s; and even after many decades we continue to lead the global tech industry, creating vast numbers of good jobs and financial stability for literally millions of people.
Yet this success has come with challenges – challenges many other regions and cities would love to have, but challenges nonetheless: congestion, affordability, traffic, and quality of life among them. And like every Bay Area city, Palo Alto has challenges we share with the region, and also some unique ones of our own. It’s our role as City Council to establish wise policies that will sustain and enhance the charm and livability of our community, not only for now but for many decades yet to come.
Some of the most important policies we must pursue for Palo Alto include:
- Growth must not outpace our city’s ability to keep up
- Housing growth must be moderate and careful
- Address Traffic Problems
- Protect Community-Serving Retail
- City Financial Stability
Video clips from Lydia’s Kickoff Party speech are included for each topic. The full text of her speech is here.
Growth must not outpace our city’s ability to keep up,
or compromise the things we love about our city. Palo Alto must evolve as a better Palo Alto, instead of turning into Manhattan or San Francisco.
- Extend the annual office growth limit. Aggressive job growth has driven many of the challenges we now struggle with. We should continue to slow that growth while we digest its impacts.
- We need to zone for what we want, and update our codes more quickly as circumstances change, such as employee density. 250 square feet per employee is ancient for today’s tech startups.
- Our planning must not rely on unproven assumptions about future lifestyle and transportation innovations. We need to see those things actually work in Palo Alto, before we change our land-use policies around them.
- Retain the fifty-foot height limit. People will always find arguments for this or that project to exceed it. But our low-rise appearance and views are part of our long-term uniqueness, and will become more unique as neighboring cities continue to build higher and higher.
Housing growth must be moderate and careful,
and not exceed the capacity of our schools, parks, streets, playing fields and other city amenities to support it. And our policies should place their strongest focus on helping people who add extra value to our community by being physically here – such as teachers, city workers and first responders.
- As a residential realtor, I have spent my career helping people find homes to live in. I understand what people want. I have learned that people do not rent or buy “housing units” – they rent or buy Homes, which means people, communities, schools and parks. These things are more important than just four walls and a bed, and must not be compromised.
- Our current Housing Element meets ABAG mandates, which are already above Palo Alto’s long-term growth rate of about .5% per year. We should conform to our Housing Element and not try to exceed it or the ABAG requirements.
- Housing demand in the mid-Peninsula is so great because, as the staunchest pro-development advocates like Stephen Levy acknowledge, “the Bay Area economy is not in a bubble. Jobs and income are not poised to decline. Major companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and LinkedIn have major expansion plans underway as well as millions of customers and $billions in revenues, still rising.1 A wise City Hall must design our policies in light of this reality, not around fantasies of easy solutions to affordability in Palo Alto.
Address Traffic Problems
with technology, good planning, and wise transportation investments, even as we simultaneously reduce dependency on automobiles. Yet we must recognize that it is unrealistic to expect most residents to suddenly stop driving vehicles. Our policies must be practical, strategic, and based on providing incentives and alternatives rather than simply punishing cars.
- For many of us, scheduling our trips around traffic hours is a minor inconvenience, but for some they are more significant. I have heard from seniors that they have stopped going altogether to morning exercise classes, even physical therapy, because of the strain of the trip. Other seniors say they have largely stopped going to lunch and activities at Avenidas senior center because of traffic. This is a problem!
- Menlo Park’s traffic-impact standards are tighter than Palo Alto’s. We should adopt theirs. It’s unreasonable that a project which other cities see as a traffic problem should get a “No Impact” pass in Palo Alto.
- We should continue opposing the VTA’s plan to take El Camino Real lanes. There’s no evidence it will increase bus ridership, but even the VTA acknowledges it will divert car traffic onto residential streets.
- We must find a way to fund Transportation Demand Management (TDM). But this should come from the businesses whose commuting workers will use it, not from residents’ taxes. Transporting workers to their jobs is an operating cost of business.
Protect Community-Serving Retail
- Local stores are an important part of the public space, and not just to provide supplies. You bump into friends and neighbors there. Just seeing each other reinforces a sense of community. Casual interactions can lead to opportunities. The further away the store the less chance to enjoy these encounters.
- All local retail is under pressure from on-line competition. In Palo Alto, retail is also under additional pressure from the demand for R+D office space, which generates higher lease revenues than retail. Without careful zoning, retail will continue to be driven out of Palo Alto. So we must act to prevent this happening. I support our ground-floor retail and retail-conversion ordinances.
- Much of the same also applies to community-serving services such as dentists and accountants, who are also at risk of replacement from large corporate tenants.
City Financial Stability
- We can only support the services we want if our finances are healthy.
- While Palo Alto is in better financial shape than many cities, we still have an unfunded public pension and health liability of roughly $500 million hanging over us.
- We face significant expenses for infrastructure, including the new Public Safety building, overhaul of our waste treatment facilities and storm drains, bicycle infrastructure expansion, and soon grade separation for Caltrain.
- At the same, most costs in the Bay Area continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation
- Currently the City basically breaks even. But in the long term, this is not enough to fund the above things and still maintain the services we want.
- We must place sharp focus on controlling the growth of staff in City Hall – no easy trick since many areas are already highly loaded. But we must do it.
- We must prioritize our spending and our City Hall focus to the programs of greatest benefit to residents.
- We must also begin setting aside money to pay down our long term pension and health liabilities. The city has wisely instituted a mechanism to do this; now we must have the fortitude to fund it. We must not pass this burden down to our children and our children’s’ children.