Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 1, 2013

Around Town

COMMERCIALIZE THIS! ... The City Council swiftly put the kibosh on a proposal to place a city-owned digital billboard in Palo Alto in order to help raise up to $1 million for infrastructure fixes that plague the city. The idea became unpopular with residents almost as quickly as it was proposed, and the council voted 7-0 with Karen Holman and Gail Price absent to strike it from the books entirely. But before they could, they got an earful from residents, both in person and through numerous letters. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth by letter writers and vengeful Town Square commenters on PaloAltoOnline.com who complained that the idea didn't fit the character of Palo Alto, decried the vapid and garish nature of the signs, and bemoaned the disruptive effect the sign's presence would have on views of the picturesque Baylands and East Bay Hills. Annette Glanckopf, vice chair of the Midtown Residents Association, told the council she had gotten plenty of reaction from her neighborhood about the billboard idea, all negative. The digital board, she said, would distract drivers, endanger Baylands birds and prompt other businesses to pursue similar advertising means. "This is a serious step in commercialization of Palo Alto, with a slippery slope," Glanckopf said. City Manager James Keene was quick to point out that the proposal was, in fact, only a proposal and served to identify ways the city could theoretically make money for pricey improvements — like a new public-safety building. "This really is just a matter of leaving no stone unturned in a sense, as far as presenting ideas to the council," he said. The council's strong and unanimous reaction quickly put residents' anxieties to rest. So did Keene's assurance to Mayor Greg Scharff at the conclusion of Monday's quick discussion. "Just so we're clear with this, Mr. Mayor: We're done with this forever," Keene said.

CHALKBOARDS ... THE NEXT GENERATION ... If sometime in January you're confronted by a giant "smart screen" at a local library or community center and questioned about Palo Alto values, don't be confused or alarmed. The big screens are one of three channels that the city is proposing to reach out to the community before the City Council adopts the city's "core values" at its retreat early next year (the other two channels are Open City Hall, a website that allows users to comment on main agenda actions, and a video of Palo Altans talking about values). The outreach was prompted by the council's recent decision to reform its priority-setting process. In the past, official "priorities" included such feel-good-but-hard-to-define items as "civic engagement" and "youth well-being." This year, the council agreed to limit its list to priorities that are "actionable" and that take no more than three years to achieve. On a parallel track, council members agreed to come up with a list of "core values" that would guide all of the city's actions and that would be more permanent in nature, addressing things like environmental sustainability and the government's responsiveness to its citizens. Hence, the giant smart screens, which according to the report would be "50 inch and bigger" and that would "allow users to write on the screen, erase and save their work." Staff proposes to install two or three screens at various locations, including City Hall and possibly local libraries and community centers. The city would be able to later retrieve the entries. If electronic boards prove too burdensome, staff would pursue the cheaper approach known all too well to local startups. "A low-technology alternative could be the placement of traditional white boards at various locations to capture community interest," the staff report states.

PALY GETS PUBLISHED ... Several Palo Alto High School photography students made a splash this month when their photos were published on Lens, The New York Times' photography blog. This year, teacher Margo Wixsom required all of her students to submit photos to Lens for the blog's "My Hometown" contest, which set out to answer the question, "What does America look like to young people today?" The Times asked high schoolers across the country to submit photos of their lives and communities (they were even allowed to use cell-phone cameras). The contest was also linked to a lesson on a photography project launched in the early 1900s to chronicle life in the United States during the Works Progress and Farm Security Administrations. Paly photogs submitted tech-centric photos (one that got on the blog shows a student's parents and siblings all completely absorbed on their Apple devices, standing outside the Stanford Shopping Center Apple store) as well as scenes from the Baylands, local parks, the California Avenue Farmers Market and more. Some students' photos were selected to be archived in the Library of Congress (as photos from the Farm Security Administration project were in their time, too).

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