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About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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Greg Scharff reviews his 'too short' year as Palo Alto mayor: It was fun

Uploaded: Dec 23, 2013
Outgoing Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff sums up his "too short" term as mayor as a year of accomplishment and moving forward but with a couple of frustrations.

Overall it was fun, he says in his outgoing style.

The frustrations, not surprisingly, relate to traffic and parking, most notably in the downtown Palo Alto commercial area and its flanking residential neighborhoods as well as to other areas near commercial centers, such as California Avenue. He said he regrets not having a new parking structure under construction in the downtown area, and that the "overflow parking" impact on neighborhoods still needs critical attention.

And he has changed his view on whether Palo Alto needs a directly elected mayor, an echo of the late Gary Fazzino, who long favored a directly elected mayor. Scharff said he now would favor electing a mayor for a four-year term rather than the informal tradition of a one-year term for a mayor selected by a majority vote of the City Council.

The vote will come up at the first meeting in January, set for 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, when current Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd will likely become the 2014 mayor. For nine council members who can't officially talk privately together as a majority (because of the state's Ralph M. Brown open-meeting law) it's always a puzzle how a new mayor's family manages to show up at the meeting, sometimes from many miles away, to honor the selection.

And serving as mayor of Palo Alto is an honor, Scharff said in a recent interview as his year ran out. It's been both an honor and a great deal of fun, he said -- something not all mayors would echo over the years of sometimes rough-and-tumble politics and challenges.

The honor reflects the city itself, he said, echoing points he made in an extended State of the City speech nearly a year ago, delivered at the Tesla electric-vehicle headquarters.

It's an amazing city, he emphasized, dubbing the year "Lucky 2013." (For full text, see .)

It's "lucky," he said, "because simply put Palo Alto in 2013 is the most desirable place to live, work and raise a family in the United States, if not the world.

"Palo Alto is "the innovation capital of the world. The ideas that change the world start here. In a garage, or in a coffee house, in our homes, or offices, the future continues to be invented here in Palo Alto."

In addition to having "the most educated citizens in the country," it has "fantastic schools," 34 parks, 4,000 acres of open space, an urban forest, a "great sense of community and a shared sense of core values." It's also "walkable, bikable and has wonderful commercial areas." And to top it off 91 percent of citizens surveyed felt Palo Alto offers a high quality of life.

Speaking at the Tesla headquarters was appropriate, he said because Tesla is the future of the American automobile and "embodies Palo Alto's core values of innovation, sustainability and a bright future without limits."

Looking back a year later, Scharff cites good progress most of the objectives he outlined, along lines of the city's three priorities for the year: the future of downtown and California Avenue commercial areas; infrastructure funding and strategy; and technology and a "connected city." The city is moving ahead with a wi-fi wireless-access program citywide, as a first step toward the decades-old goal of "fiber to the premise," or FTTP, Scharff noted.

But downtown Palo Alto remains a dilemma: "We are blessed with probably the most vibrant small city downtown in the world, ? an economic engine that drives technological innovation throughout the world. ?" But the "almost unlimited demand for space" creates "parking intrusion into surrounding neighborhoods that needs to be alleviated," in part by ensuring that all new projects in downtown are either fully parked or pay into the parking fund to create more parking structures.

Pushing alternative transportation is another facet, through Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs, he said. Next year the city will start requiring employers in downtown, California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park to ensure that 30 percent of their employees carpool or use alternatives to single-occupant vehicles to get to and from work, Scharff said. This will likely require combined efforts for success, he said.

Responding to critics who feel the city has been too soft on developers, Scharff agreed in part but said this council has been pretty hard-nosed, requiring developers to contribute several million dollars into the city's parking fund or to expand their on-site parking substantially. The withdrawal last week of the big Jay Paul project may reflect that firmness.

Scharff said past city planning officials resisted requiring full on-site parking because they felt that "if we build more parking we would draw more traffic." But the correct response is to build more parking and push harder on alternative forms of getting to and from work, he said.

Parking overflow "has not been solved, and I feel bad about that, and I wish we were futher along on TDM." s

Overall, Scharff said, "My perception is we've really been tough on developers."

One subject that will impact a good number of persons is the expansion of no-smoking areas, including a ban on smoking anywhere in the downtown or California Avenue commercial areas -- expanding larger and larger non-smoking areas. Having commercial areas free of second-hand smoke will please health-conscious nonsmokers and irritate smokers, some of whom feel that lighting up is something akin to a constitutional right.

Jay Thorwaldson is the former editor of the Weekly. He can be e-mailed at or
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Rupert of henzau, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Another year, aNother mayor congratulating himself on a job well down( aided by the always favorable coverage of him by the weekly) And wait until the 6th, when the rest of the city council get to pat him on the back and tell him how wonderful his year as mayor was. Naturally, the chamber will be full of the good old boy network of former council members and mayors, cheering on those they have deemed to be worthy of getting their endorsements for the council ( aided and abetted by the weekly getting the word out on who the unwashed masses in Palo Alto should vote for ).
Maybe the weekly should do an article about how the council know who will be elected as mayor, since you do point out the brown act issues involved. But of course, that would upset your buddies on the council.
What a mayor. What a city council!!!! And what a subservient to the council local " newspaper"-- the PA Weakly.

Posted by Maybell opponent, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I for one, am not sad to see this guy go.

Posted by Rupert of henzau, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 7:21 pm

He is not really going. He will still be on the council. And the weakly does an annual story in which the outgoing mayor gets to wax poetic about his tenure-- all written in worshipful tone by the weakly " reporters".
Would be nice if the weakly did a real story on the mayors tenure-- with serious analysis and criticism.

Posted by Retired Staffer, a resident of another community,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Difficult parking environments are the result of a prosperous economy. There are many factory towns in the Midwest that pray for parking problems.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 6:34 am

I would have preferred an interview where Jay delves more deeply into the issues that Scharf had. For example, the Lytton Gateway project donated money for a garage, but it will be many decades before the next garage is built at the rate the fund is growing.

Another issue is what zoning exception, PC zoning, or appeal did Scharf actually go against the developer.

Another issue is the Measure D - how could be represent the pro-Measure D in the debate, yet be Mayor of the City?

Another issue is how he ran the council - creating more committees with himself, Price & Klein on many of the committees, and directing council work to those committees - essentially marginalizing several of the other council members (Schmid, Holman, Burt).

And are the local issues better or worst: traffic, crime, etc?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 10:22 am

"My perception is we've really been tough on developers," says the mayor who commented that an office building itself is a public benefit and approved multiple projects with insufficient parking.

Who does he think caused all the traffic congestion and parking problems throughout the city?

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 10:44 am

To provide a frame of reference for the discussion, 611 Cowper began
construction this past week. It is a four story 34,700 sf mixed use building
near the corner of Hamilton 53 spaces under parked and is not in the
downtown parking assessment district.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 11:49 am

> Another issue is the Measure D - how could be represent the pro-Measure
> D in the debate, yet be Mayor of the City?

The ordinance being contested by Measure D was a Council action to begin with--so it seems only reasonable for someone on the Council to represent the Council during the campaign to overturn the ordinance. Presumably the Council chose the person that was their "best talker".

A poster calling himself: "A Retired Staffer" wrote--

"Difficult parking environments are the result of a prosperous economy. There are many factory towns in the Midwest that pray for parking problems."

This is an incredibly short-sighted point-of-view, that suggests the poster has no idea of how to frame capacity/demand situations--which is what we are looking at in the downtown Palo Alto case. His second comment about parking in a mid-west town is almost comical--given that there is nothing in the mid-west but open space. Factories, in the past, often chose to locate there because they would not have to contend with urban problems, such as transportation, parking, and the over-reaching attempts at centralized planning found in so many large cities.

White staffers like this one making decisions--it's no wonder we have the problems we have in this city.

As to Scharff, it's clear that if he feels that his time in the Mayor's chair was "fun", then he really didn't plan to get much done during his year at the helm.

Scharff's comments about his wanting to be Mayor for four, or more, years--should be truly frightening to the homeowners, who want the character of Palo Alto to say residential, and to not see any significant growth, in the coming years. Scharff's lying to the electorate about PC zoning needing to be "fixed", and then, once elected, kicked those who voted for him in the teeth by helping to abuse the PC zoning code with large, ugly, under-parked buildings claiming: "the building is the benefit" should be more than a warning to all of us that an elected Mayor, which more power, coupled with less accountability and transparency, would be the death knell to the town that most of us bought into long ago as a great place to live, raise children, and grow old in. Greg Scharff wants none of that, it would seem--based on his brief tenure as Palo Alto's Mayor.

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 6:33 pm

@Retired Staffer
Regarding parking problems, the issue is that local government can make
things worse or make things better. In Palo Alto the City created the problem by its land use and zoning policy decisions allowing mega under
parked buildings, its failure to manage properly existing parking resources, and then its failure to respond in any way to the problems it created and on the contrary continuing to make things worse ignoring the problems. This is a case study of failed government on a grand scale with
serious consequences in terms of neighborhood character and safety, traffic
and congestion, environmental impacts.

Posted by long enough, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 29, 2013 at 8:00 am

The most memorable quote from Scharff and Sheperd on Lytton "Gateway"

"Scharff praised the package of public benefits and said that the building itself can be considered a benefit.

"I think this is a prime site and having an office building -- a Gateway project -- is itself a public benefit," Scharff said.

Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd shared his view and lauded the project's design. She said she considers the building itself a contributor to the public-benefit package."

With PC, a year is long enough to do some real damage.

Posted by hoplandhophead, a resident of another community,
on Jan 9, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I am saddened that as downtown Palo Alto is replaced with 50' office buildings that the mayor sees parking as the only problem.

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