The race for the Palo Alto City Council got more crowded Tuesday as two more residents declared their intentions to run for a seat in November, raising the number of candidates to 10 and further underscoring community anxieties about new development.
Lydia Kou, a Barron Park resident with a history of civic activism and an affiliation with the watchdog group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, on Tuesday submitted her statement of intent to seek a seat on the nine-member council and filed paperwork to form an election committee. Kou, a Realtor at Alain Pinel Realtors, joins a growing faction of council candidates who say they are concerned about the effects of dense new developments on the city's neighborhoods. The group also includes Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth.
Richard Wendorf, a downtown resident, also filed his statement of intent Tuesday, according to City Clerk Donna Grider. Wendorf, who lived in various churches and motels before moving into Alma Place in 2002, told the Weekly he is interested in the city's "homeless situation" and opposed to "all the building that is going on."
In addition to DuBois, Filseth, Kou and Wendorf, the ballot will include Claude Ezran, a former member of the city's Human Relations Commission; retired high school teacher John Fredrich, who considers himself a slow-growth "residentialist" but isn't affiliated with Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning; College Terrace resident Seelam Reddy, a retired aerospace engineer; and incumbent councilmembers Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Mayor Nancy Shepherd.
Five candidates -- DuBois, Filseth, Kou, Fredrich and Holman -- come from different backgrounds and aren't officially a "slate," but their campaigns have plenty of overlap. DuBois, Filseth and Kou all vocally opposed the construction of a housing development on Maybell Avenue and took part in the successful referendum to shoot down the project, Measure D, last November.
Holman, the council's leading skeptic when it comes to new development and downtown growth, and Fredrich both supported the Maybell development but are otherwise opposed to dense new projects.
Underscoring the overlap in their positions, Holman is joining DuBois and Filseth at a private "meet the candidates" party this Wednesday. Kou, for her part, said that even without a formal "slate," she is happy to join her colleagues from the nascent watchdog group in the council race and may join them for campaign events in the future.
"We do have a lot of priorities that are the same," Kou said.
Like Filseth, DuBois and Fredrich, she told the Weekly she is running because of her concern about growth and dense development, a trend that she believes will continue.
"I saw that a lot of residents' voices aren't being heard in terms of having more input in how the city's development goes and the identity of the city, as well as the recognition that we do have traffic congestion and parking issues," Kou told the Weekly. "There has to be a way to address the certain basic-foundation things before we pile on more dense buildings, commercial and office in particular."
A former owner of a video store, Video Regency, Kou has been a familiar presence at City Hall over the years, often focusing on neighborhood issues and emergency preparedness. She was a leading organizer of Quakeville, a disaster-preparedness exercise that the city put together in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The events included campouts with simulated disasters that tested the residents' ability to respond.
For her volunteering efforts, Kou received an Achievement Award from the city in 2012, the same year that she was named by the Weekly as one of the city's "people of the year." Kou was born in Hong Kong, lived in Sudan and Guam and moved to Palo Alto in 1998. A long-time Barron Park resident, she last year organized a series of cultural events aimed at celebrating diversity, including celebrations of Lunar New Year and the Indian Holi festival.
During the Measure D battle, Kou was one of many neighborhood leaders to oppose the council's unanimous decision to approve the Maybell development. At a June 2013 public hearing, she said that with "all the congestion City Council and staff have already created, it is irresponsible to increase zoning."
The growing slate of slow-growth candidates in some ways harkens back to the 1960s battles between "residentialist" and "establishment" council members, with one key difference: There is no one waving the "establishment" banner this time around.
The schism on today's council isn't so much ideological as a difference in tone and in degree of "residentialist" leanings. Like Holman, Councilmen Greg Schmid and Pat Burt have been vocal in their criticism of new developments and often questioned city data on topics such as traffic and density.
The rest of the council, while more willing to consider new proposals, has nevertheless been cautious about new developments and their impacts on local neighborhoods. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, no one on the current council argues that the city should aggressively push for new developments (other than a new police headquarters to replace the small and seismically unsound station inside City Hall), encourage new density (except near transit hubs), welcome high-speed rail (all nine council members took a "no confidence" stance on the project); criticize Caltrain; or promote development on open-space preserves (aside from the proposed waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park, which continues to frustrate local conservationists).
Since the defeat of Measure D, the council unanimously suspended the city's "planned community" zoning, which grants developers exemptions in exchange for negotiated public benefits. And while some council members have been more open than others to relaxing the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments, even they agree that this should only be done in close proximity near Caltrain stations. Scharff and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss have both criticized the "planned community" process; and Councilman Marc Berman has largely voted with the majority and based his decisions on data rather than ideology.
The two council members who have been most open to new development proposals, Larry Klein and Gail Price, will be stepping down this year, with Klein (who was considered a "residentialist" during the movement's heyday) being termed out and Price choosing not to seek a second term.
Even so, the November election could further tip the scale toward the slow-growth camp at a time when the city's is upgrading its land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. Nearly every non-incumbent candidate is talking about preserving the city's "quality of life" and protecting neighborhoods from traffic and parking problems resulting from growth. In a statement, Kou said her priorities will include "preserving the unique character of residential neighborhoods, addressing zoning and development with a responsible and sensible method, ensuring reliable and sustainable infrastructure and adequate city services, and increasing government accountability and transparency.
"In the race to make Palo Alto 'world-class' in innovation, environmental leadership and technology, our leaders have often not considered the effect on residents," Kou said in a statement. "For many residents, Palo Alto has been the ideal town to call home and to raise children, myself included. So that current and future generations have that same opportunity, I want to ensure that residents' views are at the forefront in future decisions that affect their quality of life."