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On Deadline blog: Are there parallels between today's Palo Alto growth fights and the city's 1960s war?

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Jul 22, 2013

A longtime friend and observer of Palo Alto issues and politics asked me an interesting question recently: Is there a parallel between today's neighborhood-level squabbles over density and traffic and the build-up a half century ago to the community blow-up over growth and traffic?
Yes, I replied quickly, almost without thinking.
But it started me wondering what the parallels were, and whether today's neighborhood battlegrounds might merge into community-wide political warfare as happened in the early 1960s -- triggered by the rapid growth of the 1950s of south Palo Alto subdivisions and the birth of the Stanford Research Park (then Stanford Industrial Park).
The issues confronting neighborhoods today were exquisitely outlined in last week's Palo Alto Weekly cover story by Gennady Sheyner. It's a great primer for anyone who wants to get caught up with current community issues.
While specific issues vary widely in different parts of town, concerns over traffic, building height, density and even the integrity of the planning and development-approval process itself seem to be common denominators. They apply in the John Arrillaga plan for 27 University Ave. at the west end of Downtown Palo Alto commercial area. They apply in development proposals for central and south Palo Alto. They apply in the complex proposal to build low/moderate-income housing and a dozen single-family homes in the Maybell Avenue area.
And they apply citywide in terms of the current practice of the city negotiating (under the "Planned Community" zone) such things as extra height, density and parking exceptions in return for some type of "public benefit" from development. The city has a dismal record of even keeping track of promised benefits, much less of enforcing them when "public plazas" are converted to outdoor seating areas for restaurants, or hidden by landscaping, or simply trivial in value compared to the extras allowed for the project at hand. A cost analysis is getting underway.
As for parallels to the past, there may be important lessons to be learned. In the 1950s a booming economy was propelling Santa Clara County from an agricultural/orchard-based world into one based on technology and Cold War-fueled industrial growth. Think IBM and Lockheed, Hewlett-Packard and Varian and hundreds upon hundreds of others.
The economic base matched the public's intense demand for housing, mostly individual homes in sprawling subdivisions -- with an apricot or prune tree sometimes left standing in back yards, vestiges. In Los Gatos, the high school started a week later than others so kids could help bring in the fruit crop.
In Palo Alto, the dominant pattern was dairy farms in the undeveloped southern areas, supplanted in the 1950s by flat-roofed Eichler-style subdivisions to house the influx of engineers and others seeking better weather, better schools and better-paying jobs.
In the early 1950s, both the City of Palo Alto and Stanford University were in precarious financial positions, struggling to balance their budgets in the face of incessant demands for services and replacement of aging infrastructure. The City Council in Palo Alto had 15 members, nearly all of them men with a notable exception in the latter 1950s of Mildred Corcoran (later Justesen), often a lone voice against rapid growth and big projects. This was reputedly the most efficient council ever despite its size, with quick "calls for the question" and voice votes.
The parallels to today's neighborhood-level uprisings were proposals such as a high-rise office complex proposed for the former Mackay/ATT antenna farm southeast of the Embarcadero/101 intersection, or high-rise apartments proposed for the El Camino Ballpark north of the Caltrain station.
A large development was proposed for the former drive-in theater along Greer Road west of Highway 101, now the site of Greer Park.
By the early 1960s, the young Stanford Industrial Park was generating so much commuter traffic that two-lane Oregon Avenue was virtually gridlocked. Santa Clara County proposed a four-lane expressway, following up on the late-1950s construction of the infamous Oregon Underpass under Alma and the tracks.
The expressway proposal became the catalyst that congealed the mostly separate neighborhood-level resistance movements. The newly unified opposition forced it to a citywide vote in 1963. It was narrowly approved after a bitter fight that split the community, largely on north-south lines -- strongly evident in post-election precinct voting patterns.
One congealing factor was an individual, Robert J. "Bob" Debs, elected to the council in 1961. Debs "seems to be everywhere" from accident scenes to public hearings (one city official complained to me in the mid-1960s), giving rousing speeches against growth and "the Establishment."
He was joined by two other slow-growth, resistance advocates in 1963, Phil Flint and Kirke Comstock.
When the City Council majority later refused to dedicate park land to protect it from development, resident Enid Pearson launched an initiative campaign to force adoption of a park-dedication ordinance. Wildly successful, the 1965 campaign propelled Pearson onto the council, along with later state Assemblyman and Senator Byron Sher and the late Ed Worthington, becoming known as the "Residentialist" side.
This created a 6-7 voting-bloc split on the council, then 13 members on its way to the present nine members -- possibly to seven in the future. This was a serious split, with derisive name-calling and, in 1966, almost triggering a fist fight between Debs and Establishment Councilman Bob Cooley. The split extended even to approval of minutes and merger of agendas when unfinished business remained from a prior meeting. This meant some meetings were continued officially weeks-old, a mid-May meeting in late June. The city attorney at the time called it an "Alice in Wonderland" situation.
The Residentialist side was decimated in an all-council election in 1967. It recovered by the early 1970s, and in 1975 the two sides, now moderated, declared a truce.
In today's hot development climate, could the neighborhood-level skirmishes and protests become a citywide resistance movement, another revolt against too much too fast building and change and impacts?
Given community leadership and additional private meetings between staff and developers for case-by-case negotiations rather than following longstanding planning guidelines and zoning, a citywide backlash could well be the outcome. Yet the latter-1960s environment I experienced as a Palo Alto Times citybeat reporter was harsh and hurt many individuals. The hard question is whether such a revolt is necessary and justified in today's Palo Alto.
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

Comments (37)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Jay, simple question: Where do you live, now? Just town and street, not specific address.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Let's vote
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Why does it matter where jay lives and why do you feel that it is your business, Craig?
I suggest that we bring it to a vote.
Though I do find jays use of the description " exquisite" to be amusing.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Craig, simple question back. Why? Does it matterD Do you have (or not have) anything quality to say back in response to Jay? If so, can you say it without knowing where he lives based on the content of his piece?

- Or are you just looking for that snappy but oh so simpleton "nimby" name calling comback that makes it so easy these days for pro developer, pro HSR, pro union, pro ABAG spouters to not have to make any actual good arguments in favor of their own position?

Why do you need to know where Jay lives in order to respond to, agree with, or rebut his position? Just curious


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laugton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2013 at 5:16 pm

>Why does it matter where jay lives and why do you feel that it is your business, Craig?

I want to know if he has skin in the game. Or is he just standing back, and delivering a lecture?

Jay, where do you live?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Lets vote
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Oh, I see, Craig Laughton wants to see if jay has "any skin in the game" . Well that changes everything. If Craig wants to know if jay is " just delivering a lecture" , then surely jay should comply immediately and reveal his address. Because if Craig wants to know, then.............
I say we bring it to a vote


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2013 at 5:37 pm

>I say we bring it to a vote

I am all for voting on major issues, like BMR and other subsidized (welfare) housing. However this does not get Jay off his hook...he needs to stand up to his own stance...skin in the game.

Where are you, Jay? I am quite willing to engage you on this blog...are you willing?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Let's vote
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Jay, why don't you respond to Craig's demands.. When says that he needs to,know your address you need to respond immediately. After, all knowing if you have any skin in the game is critical to understanding your column. That is what Craig said, so it has to be true. Anyone that comes with the expression "stand up to his own stance" has to be right all the time.
Of course, on the other hand,Craig, maybe jay does not care one way or another about what you think or wether you want to " engage" him or not.
Personally, I think you are just bored and stumbled on to this thread and decided to play your puerile games.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

All these years I never realized the Oregon underpass dates to the late 50's. Thought it all went in together in '63 when I remember classmates' houses getting bulldozed. When was the California Avenue railroad crossing closed? Those long arms are a vague childhood memory. Thank you for the history refresher.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2013 at 6:55 pm

A lecture? I don't see how the above blog posting comes across as a lecture at all. It's a history lesson if anything. Take it for what it is --- certainly not telling anybody how to think about Maybelle or any other development.

I don't disagree that there is a storm brewing in PA (rightly so), but cut some slack will ya?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Let's vote
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Craig, are you assuming that jay is actually reading this thread?
Obviously if he knew that you are demanding his address, he would immediately comply perhaps you should call the Weekly office and demand his phone number. Maybe you could explain to us what is the import of knowing his address as it relates to his blog.
Of purse those of,usnthatnfollow your shenanigans on this forum, know how you always play the " what is your address" game. Not sure what issue you have or what pleasure you derive from these games. Are you bored? Let's put it to a vote


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Address
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Of course anyone who is curious could look up Craig's address on Whitepages.com. I'm sure he would welcome your interest, since he continually demands to know where everyone else lives.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 22, 2013 at 8:42 pm

And yet - still no quality rebuttal or commentary back from Craig. Craig, what exactly is the relevance of the address of the author to the correctness or incorrectness of what he wrote? I'd like to see your powers of logic and critical thinking - what exactly is incorrect about what he wrote?

And how would knowing his address change your answer? Lets say he lives in India - what becomes magically correct/incorrect about the written words above? Lets say he lives in Mountain View, or France. How does that change what has been written?

Frankly, you sound like a pure idiot for asking - anyone knows Jay has been integral part of the Palo Alto landscape for longer than many of us have even been alive- regardless of where he lives.

In fact, Craig, the more relavent question - where do you work? Where does your income come from, and what connections do you have to unions/developers/real estate/building/transportation industries and/or ABAG. This would tell us a lot about whether we should give you the time of day. We already know who Jay is.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 22, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I've wished for a thumbs-up button. Now I'm wishing for a thumbs-down button. Oh, there it is.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2013 at 9:08 pm

I live on Harvard St. in Palo Alto. Where does Jay currently live?

It is easy to lob mortars over the hills, if one does not have skin in the game. Give it up, Jay...where do you live?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm

We didn't ask where you live Craig. That has no meaning in the conversation. What are your connections? Where is your financial bread buttered? What's your critique of the piece? What do you feel is incorrect about the information given in the article? Based on your obvious monster powers of critical thinking - what's wrong with the article?

Or did they not give you that in the talking points memo for deflecting articles or blog posted information unflattering to the cause: 1. Call "NIMBY" to deflect anything not in support of the pro development agenda. 2. Call "NIMBY" for anything not in support of the Union/Pro development agenda. 3. Call "NIMBY" for anything not in support of the ABAG/Union/Pro Development agenda. 4. Call "NIMBY" for anything not in support of HSR/ABAG/Union/Pro Development agenda. 5. Refuse to debate on merits, certainly don't try to support the positions of the cause - just make sure you find out where the author lives so you can use "NIMBY" as your answer to any of the above situations.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2013 at 9:41 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 23, 2013 at 9:16 am


The history of Palo Alto, and the Silicon Valley, during the 1950s and 1960s, is truly fascinating---and largely unknown by people who didn't live here during those times. There is no single source of detailed information as to what went on during those times. There are microfilms of the Palo Alto Times, and the City Council publications, that can be referenced—but that is a lot of reading. None of this material is digitized, so it must be accessed via microfilm readers.

I'd like to throw in that the Bank of American building downtown was also a factor in the Recall of '67. There was move afoot to build four of these buildings—called "SuperBlock" by the developers, in the downtown area. This didn't sit well with the residents. If there is going to be an attempt to develop parallels between those times and this, we probably want to compare the reactions of Palo Altans to the idea of a "SuperBlock" and the Arrillaga Project.

Which brings us to the Recall of '67, and the possibility of the Recall of 2014?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

You might enjoy reading Matt Bowling's stories in "Palo Alto Remembered: Stories From a City's Past". See: Web Link

It has an interesting details about the Oregon underpass. The 1967 recall is described here: Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2013 at 11:33 am

>infamous Oregon Underpass under Alma and the tracks

>One congealing factor was an individual, Robert J. "Bob" Debs, elected to the council in 1961. Debs "seems to be everywhere" from accident scenes to public hearings (one city official complained to me in the mid-1960s), giving rousing speeches against growth and "the Establishment."

Does that sound like fair journalism? Sounds like a point of view/cheerleading to me. The current neighborhood uprising is due to rezoning in Barron Park to allow PAHC to have its way with a compliant/complicit city council. I fail to see the parallels with the late 1960's (I was here, then, btw).

Note I have lived in Palo Alto, proper, since 1972. I think one needs skin in the game to do opinion pieces that are credible.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 2321
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2013 at 11:42 am

"Does that sound like fair journalism? "
Retake your journalism class, Craig. Jay is reporting on what happened.

" I think one needs skin in the game to do opinion pieces that are credible. "
Everyone has their own opinions. Jay has been a reporter here for decades. I think he knows what has happened in the city and is free to write a blog about it.
You, Craig, have still not said what is wrong with his comments.
All you do is keep repeating two of your favorite catchphrases--"skin in the game" and "where do you live". As if they mean anything. You have taken quite the beating on this thread due to your comments, yet all you can come back with is comment about "cheerleading" and regurgitate your "skin in the game" comment.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 23, 2013 at 11:44 am

> Palo Alto Remembered: Stories From a City's Past

This is useful to get going understanding Palo Alto history.. but there is not much focus on the business, and political, goings-on of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Palo Alto Times is the best source for details. The San Jose paper also has a lot of information for the happenings of the greater Santa Clara Valley.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2013 at 11:56 am

>I think he knows what has happened in the city and is free to write a blog about it.

Not exactly. He reports on a set of events, but shades it with his opinions. It is not an objective history. It is Jay trying to nudge the current neighborhood struggles into a narrative that he is driving.

I don't dislike Jay...never met him...but he has his own view of things, and it would be more credible if he actually still lived in PA. That way, he would need to live with whatever results from his agenda/missives. For example, Jay once wrote a column saying that he was part of utopian group led by Jim Burch, former mayor of PA, and a strong proponent of low-cost housing. If Jay currently lived in a PA neighborhood where rezoning was being pushed by PAHC, in order get such housing, he would have skin in the game. If he no longer lives in PA, then he can stand back and write narratives, free of consequences for him.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 23, 2013 at 12:09 pm

> He reports on a set of events, but shades it with his opinions

That's what a "Blogger" does. No one is obliged to read Thorwaldson's writings--and they certainly are not obliged to trust that they are 100% accurate.

For instance, I researched the Oregon Avenue Expressway issue once. Along the way, the name Neal Porter, an HP Vice President, came into play--as one of the mover-and-shakers of the Expressway/Underpass projects. I was led to believe that HP "wanted" better access for their workers to their site in the Stanford Research Park--and they got it.

I suspect from reading a large number of the old papers that the reality of those days can not be condensed into a very short opinion piece.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2013 at 12:27 pm

>For instance, I researched the Oregon Avenue Expressway issue once. Along the way, the name Neal Porter, an HP Vice President, came into play--as one of the mover-and-shakers of the Expressway/Underpass projects. I was led to believe that HP "wanted" better access for their workers to their site in the Stanford Research Park--and they got it.

I am aware of the HP connection. What makes that "infamous", as Jay described it?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Let's vote
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 23, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Craig-- so relieved to her that you do not dislike jay. I assure he is breathing a sigh of relief now.
You like to ask questions and demand answers, so please answer the questions that parent asked you yesterday.
We need to know if you have any skin in the game. We need to make sure your comments are credible and that you are not just lobbing mortars over the hill.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2013 at 5:38 pm

>We need to know if you have any skin in the game. We need to make sure your comments are credible and that you are not just lobbing mortars over the hill.

Of course I do! I live here, and will suffer the consequences of any major decisions made (that is skin in the game). However, I have no economic connection with any of the players. I just want to defend PA neighborhoods, because they are under attack. I am not anti-growth, I am just pro-neighborhood. Does this concept shock you?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Address
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Since he isn't a registered user, how can we be sure this is the real "Craig Laughton, who has skin in the game"? Of course, you can register as anything you want, so that wouldn't help us either.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2013 at 6:16 pm

>Since he isn't a registered user,

I am a registered user. If this thread gets shut down to registered users only, I will continue to respond. Trust me, if someone is using my real name, and it isn't me, you will hear from me!

Thanks for you concerns. If you want to be more genuine about it, you can use your real name, like I do.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Nice try for a reasoned conversation and deriving lessons from history, Jay. But you spectacularly demonstrated Gresham's Law for blogs: bad blogging drives out the good.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2013 at 9:46 am

Don't feed the troll! The more you do, the more the conversation goes off track.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Enid Pearson
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

Here are a few corrections re PA history. Noel Porter was a VP at HP and he announced that he was on the council for one thing - to get better access from 101 to HP's plant. The Kelly bldg was supposed to have a companion next to it on the site where the B of A is currently.
Super Block was a huge development proposed for the SE corner of Bryant and University. Three 21 story bldgs were proposed for El Camino Park. The City Manager proposed that the police station be relocated on Rinconada Park with a firing range underneath. SC County suggested locating its North County Court House on Mitchell Park. The City ex-panded the city by annexing the foothills (10 Sq Miles) to PA, connecting it by a dog-leg piece of land through Stanford's land.
And, I could go on about high-rise on North Middlefield, filling in
600 acres of Baylands for a "Palo Alto Industrial Park - modeled after Stanford Industrial Park (this was stopped by a lawsuit filed by Debs, Pearson, Fletcher, Tubbs - which we won).

Yes, I think the development proposed now is comparable to the 50's and 60's. The traffic was awful then and is even worse now. This whole
area, not just Palo Alto, is under siege by development. Citizens
need to make sure all councils are aware of what they want. Preserve
your residential neighborhoods or develop every last inch of land.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 25, 2013 at 10:44 am

Enid,

Do you support or oppose the Barron Park re-zoning for intensified density, in order to facilitate senior low-cost housing?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 2321
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2013 at 2:46 pm

"Enid,
Do you support or oppose the Barron Park re-zoning for intensified density, in order to facilitate senior low-cost housing?"
Just wondering why you think that is any of your business???
How people will vote is their own business. You seem interested in other peoples personal information--addresses, voting record etc.
Perhaps you can provide us with your tax returns


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm

> (Enid) Do you support or oppose the Barron Park re-zoning for intensified density, in order to facilitate senior low-cost housing?"

>Just wondering why you think that is any of your business???

Because it is a matter of current, and important, interest. It could lead to an important vote in PA.

I would ask Jay the same question. Jay? BTW, Jay, please explain your stake in the game, especially where you currently live.

> Perhaps you can provide us with your tax returns

My tax returns are very boring, and there is no there, there.
Try some other angle, if you must, 2321 (which is my address on Harvard St., btw). I cannot be intimidated, no matter how you try. You might be better off by using your own name, but I doubt that you have the nerve...please prove me wrong!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Jul 29, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Ah, deepest apologies, folks. I have not been following this topic due to some serious whitewater rafting, hiking, family gatherings, yard work, carpentry and miscellaneous other activities. As I believe was announced when I retired as editor more than two years ago, I have located to the Sierra foothills to a very tiny town called, believe it or not, Cool -- south of Auburn along Highway 49. When still in Palo Alto I rented a studio along Ross Road in south Palo Alto, and earlier lived briefly on Edgewood Court -- and above La Honda, along Skyline Boulevard and for a goodly time in Menlo Park. In the latter 1960s, I commuted in from Los Gatos for several years.

But since the early 1960s my mind and heart have been engaged in Palo Alto as a community, drawn initially to the Palo Alto Times, as well as to the intellectual hotbed of innovation, and the quality of its active people -- even those who ask befuddling questions. ;-)

Every two or three weeks I spend several days in Palo Alto meeting with officials, friends and family, catching up (or trying to) with what's going on. Craig, I have no "skin in the game" and I fail to see the relevance of a physical location to the column on a topic of local political history -- unless I owned a big chunk of land in town. Beliefs and active advocacy are better indicators of "skin" I would think than where one resides.

Again, apologies for being AWOL from the comments, but perhaps enough time has been taken up by this diversion. -jay


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2013 at 1:44 pm

>Craig, I have no "skin in the game" and I fail to see the relevance of a physical location

Jay, thanks for the reply. Glad to hear that you are having a "Cool" time in the Sierra Nevada foothills. From your response, you have not been a property owner in Palo Alto, ever. You claim that it doesn't matter, unless you are a relatively large land owner. Let me assure that it does. Our neighborhoods are under attack, and I will always call out those who provide various histories/opinions, if they are not subject to their own narratives.

For example, Jay, do you support subsidized/BMR housing in Palo Alto? You were part of Jim Burch's group, so I would assume that you do, but please correct me, if I am wrong. If you do, what effect would that have on you, since you have never owned in PA, and you are well out of PA...no matter how many times you drive here from "Cool"?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Just for the record
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Just for the record, Jim Burch was in favor of pretty much all development, not just Below Market housing. He was closely associated with the Chamber of Commerce as well.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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