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By Jay Thorwaldson

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

Uploaded: 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 [email protected] with a copy to [email protected]

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