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By Jay Thorwaldson

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 [email protected] or [email protected]