After years of service, Palo Alto neighborhood leaders would like to step down, but who will take their place?
by Sue Dremann
When the Barron Park neighborhood association in Palo Alto sought to recruit more members recently, board member Lydia Kou launched Celebrate Cultural Diversity, a series of events designed to embrace residents from different backgrounds. More than 100 people attended the inaugural event on Feb. 9, a celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Women of Chinese heritage taught neighbors how to make dumplings, and people shared "trays of togetherness" laden with traditional foods. Based on its success, Kou set about organizing a second event — a spring Holi festival to celebrate the neighborhood's Indian population. But just two weeks before the March 23 date, Kou canceled the festivities. She hadn't received any help and said she couldn't take on all of the work herself.
"It seems so hard to bring in new members," she said.
Neighborhood associations throughout Palo Alto are facing the same conundrum: how to get people to do some of the hard lifting that makes a neighborhood flourish.
Leaders from even the strongest and most visible associations said they are struggling to get new recruits. Many said they remain in leadership roles for years by default. They stay because they are passionate about the value of associations as the neighborhoods' glue, but they are seriously concerned about the future viability of the associations.
For all the leaders' decades of hard work and volumes of email and newsletters sent out, some residents don't know that an organization exists to inform them and help them get connected.
"I still meet people at parties, and they are clueless. They say: 'Oh? We have a neighborhood association?'" Midtown Residents Association Vice Chairwoman Annette Glanckopf said.
Associations often accomplish significant change for their neighborhoods: Barron Park Association, worried about chemical leaks at nearby Communications and Power Industries (CPI), forced the company to reduce the amount of hazardous materials stored on the site; Green Acres II residents successfully lobbied for a plan to calm traffic along the Charleston-Arastradero corridor in 2006; Midtown Residents Association worked to revitalize the deteriorating Midtown shopping district; the College Terrace Residents Association succeeded in fighting traffic problems and developed the city's first residential-parking-permit program; Professorville neighbors prompted the city to study parking that was spilling over into their neighborhood from downtown.
But by its nature, association activity is often cyclical. When a major issue surfaces, latent activists step forward, but they drop out again when the issue is resolved, leaders said.
University South Neighborhood Association was its most active from 1998 until about 2003, when high-density housing projects were popping up in the area south of Forest Avenue near downtown. The association took an active role in the discussions over the Summerhill Homes development on Channing Avenue, the 800 High St. condominiums, a proposed police building, and development plans commonly known as SOFA 1 and SOFA 2, which included the former Palo Alto Medical Foundation property, the AME Zion Church and historic French Laundry.
The Fairmeadow Neighborhood Association in south Palo Alto saw a resurgence in membership when issues such as the Alma Plaza redevelopment and regulating second-story additions to homes arose.
University South President Elaine Meyer still comments before the City Council on major developments proposed for downtown. But otherwise, both associations are currently in quiet mode, their leaders said.
"While there were about 200 folks active in Fairmeadow Neighborhood Association during the days of the Friends of Alma Plaza, we now have about 50 active members on our email list," said Len Filppu, president of Fairmeadow's association.
"I am now what I refer to as 'the placeholder leader,' a natural organizational outgrowth from my efforts with Friends of Alma Plaza, although I've not been formally elected. Basically, I'm volunteering to keep things moving forward," Filppu said.
Lynnie Melena, president of the Barron Park Association, said she initially joined her association in 2007 because she was interested in the formation of an environmental Green Team.
A retired city planner, Melena has lived in Barron Park for 42 years.
"Community building is my constant theme. The value of the association is so you feel like you're a part of this physical place. Your world isn't just your work or school. And you're there when an issue comes up; you're ready to go or almost ready to go.
"I think the city government respects the neighborhood that is organized. When you go to a meeting to present an idea, you're not just one person who stands up," she said.
Melena threw herself into the work, first as a board member, then as president.
"I was retired and I was used to going full steam. I had the time, so I did," she said.
But more than five years later Melena is weary. She will step down in June.
"I could not get anybody to replace me. I just threw down the gauntlet. You only get it to happen when you do that," she said.
Art Liberman, vice president and membership chairman, has been the neighborhood watchdog regarding hazardous materials at CPI, but he is also the membership chairman and helps with the newsletter and website. Almost all board and committee members must wear multiple hats to cover all necessary neighborhood activities, he said.
Barron Park's membership has more than doubled from 200 a decade ago to 450 to 500 members. But while the organization is growing, getting people to take on one of the 10 board or 11 committee positions is more challenging, he said.
"In reality there will never be a large percentage of people involved. But those that are represent the thinking of a lot of people," he said.
Barron Park's association is strong because the neighborhood has a special history of being more "rambunctious" than others, Liberman said. Resident activists take charge of issues such as cut-through traffic, bicycle safety, creek contamination and the planned closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
The problem remains getting people to commit time, Melena said. When the association wanted to upgrade its website, the board sent out a notice asking for members' help.
"We have some of the smartest Internet people in the world in the neighborhood, but we couldn't get anybody to put together the website," Melena said.
Liberman said the neighborhood is going through a transition, with more new families moving in. On Melena's street alone there are five new households with kids, and three more homes are being sold.
Attention to family, education and jobs leaves little time for residents to take on added responsibilities. And land prices are so high that new families have an added pressure to just keep up with the mortgage, Melena said.
Glanckopf of Midtown agreed. In a recent neighborhood survey, 57 percent of residents said they are too busy to take on association duties.
Elaine Uang, 34, a Downtown North resident, recently became interested in the effects of large commercial development on her neighborhood. But she said she understands the general sentiment against community involvement. Raising a family, working a full-time job and taking care of a home leave little time for community activism, she said.
Being in a leadership role means attending meetings and representing the neighborhood's interests in front of the Palo Alto City Council.
"Who has time to spend four hours every Monday night? It takes too much effort. You have to be kind of a masochist or a weird urban nerd like me to go looking for it," said Uang, an architect who works in San Francisco.
The amount of time one dedicated individual puts in can be the equivalent of a second job.
At one point, Sheri Furman, Midtown Residents Association chairwoman, worked her full-time Silicon Valley job and easily dedicated 40 hours a week to the association, she said. But that was the price of accomplishment.
"You have to have leaders who are willing to put in the time," she said.
Evergreen Park Neighborhood Association President David Schrom agreed.
"I can tell you exactly how much time I put in: 7,000 hours of my personal life and 3.5 years of full-time work over a decade," Schrom said.
Those hours pertained to just one issue: cut-through traffic. Schrom and other residents worked relentlessly in their neighborhood just east of El Camino Real and north of California Avenue in the 1970s.
"In the absence of a committed fanatic, you're not going to get the job done," he said.
Demographic shifts also play a role in lowering participation, neighborhood leaders said.
Melena said the board has had "many, many discussions" around how to include new immigrants and to make them feel a part of the community. Barron Park has had a large influx of Chinese, Koreans, Indians and Russians.
According to Kou, the newcomers moved to Palo Alto for a fine education for their children, and that is where their focus remains. The concept of community involvement might not be a part of some immigrants' culture, she added.
The Greenmeadow Association is likewise trying new strategies to increase participation among immigrants. Exclusion due to cultural differences has the potential to split the neighborhood, Karen Pauls, membership committee chairwoman, said.
"They are under-represented. We don't seem to be connecting with them," she said.
The membership committee will try a "targeted recruitment" to bring new people into each committee "so we don't end up with a divided community. We need to look around for the right individual who is the crossover between the two communities," she said.
Greenmeadow is also looking at its heated pool as a big draw for membership, she said.
Developer Joseph Eichler built the 270 homes around a small park, pool and community center. On March 23, a swim party kicked off the pool season — and a membership recruitment drive.
Due to the economic downturn, membership — which costs money but gives access to the pool and the right to vote on association issues — dropped 25 percent in 2012, Pauls said, so the association is adding different levels of membership.
For 60 years, Greenmeadow memberships have been based on households. A family membership costs $1,050 per year. But some homes only have one swimmer in the family, so a pilot program now offers individual memberships for $650. Seniors can join for $225 to $300 per year.
The association also offers memberships to residents outside the original subdivision, although those households do not have voting rights.
"We'll get fliers out to the schools. We're hopeful. Things are looking up this year," Pauls said.
Neighborhood leaders said involvement in an association, for some, takes not only time but also expertise due to the complexity around issues such as traffic, changes in land use and hazardous waste. There are meetings, strategizing and negotiations that can go on for months or years.
College Terrace Residents Association has fought a tireless battle against overparking and thorny traffic. Surrounded by Stanford University to the north, Stanford Research Park to the south, and the California Avenue business district to the east, the neighborhood has been inundated with dangerous speeders, noise and streets clogged by workers who park their cars all day.
Residents fought for and received speed bumps along Stanford Avenue to slow cars and bollards to prevent cut-through traffic. They designed a parking program that allows residents to purchase a permit to park in front of their homes; others have to keep moving their cars throughout the day.
College Terrace Association President Brent Barker said it often takes professionals to deal with city processes, legalities and consultants' reports. College Terrace has professionals in key liaison positions with the California Avenue District, City Hall, Research Park and Stanford. Retired planner Margit Aramburu understands the ins and outs of city development; Ed Schmidt, a retired chemist, has an analytical mind and is spearheading a traffic study.
Carefully cultivating relationships with all of the players in any issue takes time. Building relationships builds respect, Barker said.
College Terrace is now working to prevent traffic and parking problems it anticipates will result from an expansion of the research park and construction of the 250-unit Mayfield Housing Development starting next year.
The association's leaders are sifting through a morass of paperwork, meeting with Stanford and city officials and hosting presentations for residents. As a result, more than 100 residents attended a March 14 meeting with Stanford officials to discuss the Mayfield development, some attendees well-armed with information, Barker said.
While the association does the grunt work, he emphasized it does not usually take a stand.
"You're not imposing your will. The association provides an outlet for people to come with concerns and grievances. It's an early-warning system; it's like a magnet. I think what's important is to encourage freelance activists," he said.
Barker has been president for four years. He recently reflected on how taxing the role can be.
"You get trapped. You get invested. I think about stepping away, but I've got this Mayfield thing," he said.
The results of such hard work are often worthwhile, Schrom said. The Evergreen Park street barriers eliminated 10,000 car trips through the neighborhood, he estimated. With increased traffic, that figure could be much more today.
Evergreen Park residents also planted dozens of trees. The projects have had a lasting effect on neighborhood cohesiveness, he said.
"Getting the trees planted, getting the streets closed, we came together for the common good. These were achievements you could see. It planted the seed of sociability. For a new resident today, if you met one of us, you were instantly introduced to a dozen of us," Schrom said.
Furman said because of association activism, neighborhoods have gained credibility with city leaders.
"At least they're not hostile anymore," she said.
Glanckopf, who was an association founder in 1994, said it helps when City Council members reach out. She credits former mayors Sid Espinosa and Yiaway Yeh in particular for a recent attitude shift.
Yeh instituted a Mayor's Challenge of recreational events last year and co-authored a just-funded neighborhood-grants program. Grants of up to $1,000 each will be made to support neighborhood projects that build a sense of community, the city announced on April 12.
Furman, who is chairwoman of an umbrella group known as Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), said there is also strength in numbers, which has been satisfying. Neighborhood groups formed PAN, which she called "an action-oriented support group," in 1998. Leaders representing 38 neighborhoods share with one another how they've approached similar neighborhood concerns.
Through Glanckopf, PAN developed a robust emergency-preparation program that pushed the Block Preparedness Coordinator program. The program is now embraced by the police department and has integrated emergency response with the city's Office of Emergency Services.
PAN also lobbied for government transparency by having the city release public documents the Thursday before council meetings. Residents now have time to be informed and comment on important matters.
PAN has given residents more clout by raising the visibility of neighborhoods overall, Furman said.
"In 15 years we've gained credibility. When we do come forward on an issue like Arrillaga (the proposed development at 27 University Ave.), they pay attention."
Furman wishes more people would be committed to the association. Over time, she and others won't be able to keep up the pace, she said.
But she remains a leader as a labor of love.
"You do it because somebody has to represent the neighbors' interests. You always have to be there — even if they're not."
When she looks out over Matadero Creek, where the city once wanted to build a gigantic cement retaining wall, Furman said she feels gratified.
"I can't change things on the state or federal level. But I certainly can do one or two little things at the local level to improve the quality of life in this town. Every time I look out and see a wall that is 5 feet instead of 7 feet and a raised sidewalk that still lets children look into the creek, I feel I influenced that."