The National Citizens Survey, compiled by the National Research Center and the International City/County Management Association, in many ways reflects the growing pains Palo Alto officials have been grappling with over the past year — too much traffic, not enough parking and new developments that get widely blamed for exacerbating these trends.
In response to widespread community criticism, the City Council adopted on Saturday "comprehensive land use planning and action" as one of its top priorities for 2014. The first bit of action took place on Monday night, when the council suspended the controversial "planned community" zoning, which allows developers to get zoning exemptions in exchange for public benefits, and agreed to reform it.
The council also approved on Monday night a new campaign called "Our Palo Alto," which aims to get residents involved in a conversation about the city's long-term future and reach out to people who don't typically attend council meetings. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called the new initiative "an opportunity to engage in a community conversation but also take action and lay a foundation for the city's future for many, many years to come."
The National Citizens Survey results suggest that this conversation can't come soon enough. Over the past year, the council has been flooded with citizen complaints about new developments, with many lashing out against the glassy minimalism of modern architecture and others complaining about dense new buildings with insufficient parking. In the category of "land use, planning and zoning," a mere 36 percent of respondents rated Palo Alto as "excellent" or "good" in 2013, far below the number in other cities. This was also a staggering drop from 2012, when 51 percent gave the city the top two grades in this category. When asked about the "overall quality of new development," just 44 percent of the respondents gave the city high marks, compared to 56 percent in 2012.
Not surprisingly, parking and traffic were the major drivers of this trend. On "availability of parking," only 39 percent ranked the city as "excellent" or "good," a marked decline from 2010, when 60 percent gave these marks (the number dropped to 54 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012). When asked about "traffic flow on major streets," 34 percent gave the city high marks, down from 36 percent in 2012, 40 percent in 2011 and 47 percent in 2010. Bus and transit services also scored poorly, with only 49 percent of respondents rating them as "excellent" or "good," compared to 58 percent in 2012.
Though the Maybell referendum last November drew most of its support from the Barron Park area close to the housing-project site, the survey underscores the message of the election, in which a vast majority of precincts opposed Measure D — frustrations over new developments aren't exclusive to any particular section of the city. On the issue of parking availability, 41 percent of the respondents from north Palo Alto (north of Oregon Expressway) gave the city the highest ratings, compared to 38 percent from south Palo Alto. On traffic flow, frustration was also equitably distributed, with 33 percent in the north and 35 percent in the south giving the city high marks.
The city's grades when it comes to "affordable housing" remained fairly steady from the previous year. Only 13 percent gave the city the highest two grades in the "availability of affordable quality housing," roughly the same as in 2012 and 2011 (12 percent and 14 percent, respectively).
These two topics should loom large at City Council's Feb. 10 meeting, when members will consider staff proposals for a wide range of measures meant to get drivers to switch to other modes of transportation. Options on the table include an expanded city-shuttle program, a satellite parking lot east of U.S. Highway 101 and new garages downtown and around California Avenue.
If there is a silver lining when it comes to getting around Palo Alto, it's the pleasure local residents get when they travel without an engine. An overwhelming majority of respondents praised the city for "ease of bicycle travel" (78 percent) and "ease of walking" (82 percent), rates that are "much above" the benchmark, the survey states.
An even brighter silver lining lies in the fact that these pressures stem directly from the city's economic success. Even as residents complain about growth and development (including population growth, which 60 percent of respondents deemed to be "too fast"), they feel good about jobs and personal finances. Just 30 percent of the survey respondents rated job growth in Palo Alto as "too slow," a huge drop from 44 percent in 2012 and 64 percent in 2011. And when asked to rate their "personal economic future," 33 percent said it was "positive" or "very positive," up from 22 percent in 2012 and 12 percent in 2011.
In fact, when land use and traffic issues are taken out of the equation, Palo Alto generally gets sterling grades from its residents. Despite the recent land-use funk, residents love their city, with 91 percent rating its overall quality of life as "excellent" or "good," 90 percent praising the city's "overall image or reputation" and a vast majority (87 percent) saying they plan to stay in the city for the next five years. The survey suggests that despite the recent political turmoil, the city continues to be the envy of its peers. In comparisons with "benchmark" cities, Palo Alto scored above the norm in 21 of the 31 categories, below in two categories and somewhere near par in the remaining eight.