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By Douglas Moran

"the Summit" (CompPlan): Forewarned is Forearmed

Uploaded: May 20, 2015

Life lesson: "Avoid meetings whose purpose is to have a meeting", and its related admonition "Avoid meetings intended for those who enjoy attending meetings."

City Hall has arranged a 9-hour meeting whose advertised purpose is to have a "conversation on the future of our City." This meeting is called "the Summit" on the Comprehensive Plan Update (aka "Our Palo Alto 2030") and is on Saturday May 30 (Pre-registration required).

I have had extensive participation in the meetings leading to the current Comprehensive Plan, as well as in several previous Updates to the CompPlan, and I have been an official member of several Advisory Panels. As such, I feel obliged to the several hundred who have signed up to attend to give them a heads-up, or more appropriately, a "Forewarned is forearmed." (below as ==B 4W=4A==) Read the below in this context, and not as my claiming that most discussion groups will be as bleak as described: They won't, and hopefully this 4W=4A will help attendees prevent some of these situations.

As for myself, I am going to skip this meeting because, based on too many similar meetings over the years, it has all the signs of being a waste of time. The first question one asks upon getting a meeting announcement is "Do I really need/want to attend?", which has the subsidiary question "What is its purpose?" Even if this meeting had an adequately thought-out purpose, the meeting format is one that has been too much abused.
After the defeat of 2013 Measure D (Maybell up-zoning) and the 2014 Council election, City Hall should have taken note of the extensive alienation of many residents and embarked on confidence-building before attempting a major meeting. I see no sign of that having happening—the "Our Palo Alto" series was advertised as doing this but was simply more-or-same—and thus no reason to even hope that "This time will be different."

Note: There are multiple minor variations of the Agenda in circulation, with minor differences in the duration of the various components and the splits between presentations and discussion. Subtracting out sign-in, breaks and a closing reception, there is about 6 hours of meeting sessions.

My first problem with this meeting is that about half the time seems to be allocated to speakers, that is, the attendees are being lectured to (proselytized, re-educated?) The attendees get no real time to digest what they have just been told, to seek alternative perspectives and additional information, to formulate good questions, ? before being expected to participate in discussions. This puts the ordinary citizen at a great disadvantage to City Staff and the organized advocacy groups. Many of us have pointed this out repeatedly over the years, and have asked for the briefing materials to be made available in advance, on the Web and elsewhere (example, my blog Why is Palo Alto politics so stubbornly pre-Internet? of 2015-01-07). For this meetings, I have already twice suggested this to Staff, to no avail. So I have to assume that this is an intended "feature" of this meeting.

Attendees: If you think you would have benefited from advanced materials, let the organizers know. It is going to take pushing from far, far more people than just "the usual suspects" to get this changed.

My second problem with this meeting is the other half of the time is spent in "Small Group Discussions". These have a long history of being ineffective for various reasons. In some cases, you get thrown into a group where most of the people have no background knowledge and the few who do wind up spending all the allotted time getting them up to speed. I walked out of an earlier Our Palo Alto workshop because the participants were being asked to make recommendations for which most of us, including me, didn't have the knowledge to provide intelligent, meaningful input.

In other cases, the different participants are pushing such a range of ideas that none gets adequate discussion.

Another too common case is that the discussion group is taken over by a members of an organized advocacy group who disparage and demean the perspectives of the other participants. In the two most recent City-sponsored workshops I attended, this is precisely what happened. An advocate for a special interest group was allowed by Staff to so aggressively interrupt other participants that they couldn't effectively participate—in multiple cases not allowing them to finish a single sentence. In one of those meetings, he crossing the line from what I would classify as badgering into hectoring/bullying. At one of these meetings, multiple of the participants assumed from his domineering behavior that this person was a member of City Staff, and became aware that he wasn't only when another (frustrated) participant complained to the actual Staff member "Is this your meeting or his?" Despite multiple complaints about this abusive behavior by this participant, Staff did little to rein it in, leaving it to the participants to try to push back.

==B Advice (4W=4A):== When a member of a discussion group is being disruptive and/or attempting to suppress others, it is crucial for other members to quickly step up and denounce that behavior, and then for additional members to step up to support the first round—bullies rarely give up easily.

==B Advice (4W=4A):== Have a thick skin and know what to let go unremarked: Expect to be demonized and to have what you say grossly misrepresented. Many people make the mistake of strongly pushing back because they see this tactic as only trying to silence dissenting viewpoints, either by silencing them within the group, or by causing them to walk out in disgust. However, this tactic is also used to drive the discussion so far off-track that other viewpoints never get a chance to be discussed. Thus, you need to quickly respond to this tactic and get back on-topic.
For example, in discussions of affordable housing, there may be a few individual advocates who impute racism to anyone who disagrees with them, usually with phrases such as "exclusionary zoning" and "exclusive neighborhood", but sometimes with explicit assertions. My experience is that such individuals often are well aware that the demonstrable facts are contrary to those claims. The best counter to such tactics is often to remember that it is just cynical manipulation to suppress disagreement, and ignore it.

My third problem is with the implications of the titles of the sessions: They contain long-established code words for particular ideologies. This indicates that in the 18 months since the defeat of Measure D (Maybell Up-zoning) that City Hall has learned nothing: It is going to push a highly partisan agenda regardless of what residents want.

1. One of the sessions is entitled "Housing the Next Generation of Palo Altans?And Their Grandparents", and is standard code for promoting the building of high-density housing without regard for supporting infrastructure. It is about building numbers of units, without regard to aspects such as "sense of community". I am of an age where many of my friends are dealing with moving their parents into senior facilities (I have already had this experience), and others are looking at moving themselves. There is a near-total disconnect between these discussions, both in terms of facilities and financials, and what one hears from City Hall's professional planners, both Staff and consultants. (foot#1)
Based on my experience with these workshops for over a decade, don't expect that the discussion will take into account what Palo Alto seniors actually want or need—attempts to interject this by participants typically fail. Similarly for the reasons that so many seniors decided it is not feasible to move out of their current houses into smaller units (not just senior facilities). What you should expect is a discussion dictated by planning ideology and the supposed "economics" of the situation (code for what benefits the favored interest groups). (foot#2)

==B Advice (4W=4A):== The long-established focus of the advocates for senior housing has been on "affordable" units, and this has the easily predicted, and oft pointed out, consequences of serving primarily seniors from elsewhere in the region, but providing little, if anything, for Palo Alto seniors. However, these consequences aren't visible in higher-level discussions of the programs, but only when you get down into the details of how the programs will be administered.

2. Another session is entitled "Sustainable Prosperity: Effective Growth Management Tools". Although I haven't seen this particular title before, the words and sentiment are familiar. "Sustainable Prosperity" is code for ever increasing income inequality. It starts with the assumption that "prosperity" requires significant ongoing increases in jobs located here and large-scale influxes of people to fill those jobs. I can't help but picture a shipyard from the early 1900s where more and more riveters were needed to build each generation of larger and larger ships (think the "Titanic"). Or earlier, a gold-rush era mining camp.

To hear the advocates of this point of view talk, you would think that companies such as Google are so badly managed and so inept in the use of technology that they have no alternative but to centralizing their work forces on massive campuses. And that they are in such financial dire straits that their businesses will be unable to move forward without public subsidies, such as zoning exemptions that allow them to dodge paying for their fair share of infrastructure.(foot#3) The power of ideology is such that these advocates can't even hear the absurdity of what they are saying.

In this context, "sustainability" is code for lowering expectations and the quality-of-life in order to support population influxes that cannot be accommodated with existing resources. An alternative version of "sustainability" would be a tradeoff between resources, quality of life and a healthy economy for natural growth of the current population. My experience is that this and similar alternatives are not open for discussion.

City Hall seems locked into a version of "prosperity" defined as enriching those who benefit most from making this area more and more expensive for the rest of us, not just by promoting demand that outstrips supply, but by having the public subsidize those changes, for example, through zoning exceptions and policies that ignore the actual costs of new developments (aka, "Privatize profits, socialize costs/risks").(foot#4) Some of this is dictated by the State government via ABAG, MTC?

3. The third session (first on the schedule) is "Mobility and Convenience: 21st Century Transportation". This is a fairly honest title in its way: The promoted policy is to greatly reduce your mobility to whatever the advocates consider is convenient for the government to provide. The ideology underlying this session has been so firmly set for so long that any input, either pro and con, is irrelevant, redundant, whatever. The basic theme will be how to (deliberately) increase traffic congestion, without regard to whether people have viable alternatives.(foot#5) Don't be surprised to wind up in a discussion group dominated by advocates who see nothing wrong with forcing people to spend several extra hours a day commuting "because using public transit is good for the planet." The pro-congestion/anti-automobile ideology is so strong that City Hall has rejected changes that would improve safety for bicyclists because it would also benefit drivers.(foot#6)

Similarly, advocates want to remove signage warning pedestrians of dangerous situations that they could easily be unaware of, with one of their prime examples being on a major route to Barron Park Elementary School.(foot#7) As I understood the rationale, these warning signs are bad symbolism, contrary to the ideology was that everywhere should be safe for pedestrians (Note: they only wanted to remove the signs; the safety problems would remain). If you think that the safety of actual people is more important than minute adherence to dogma, you may well be frustrated in these sessions. Ditto if you worry about a shrinking quality-of-life imposed by congestion.

Also expect Staff to support the elite bicyclists in their belief that they deserve to be spared the slightest inconvenience regardless of the costs to the rest of the community (pedestrians, drivers, non-elite bicyclists). I shutter to think how many workshops I have been in where the bicyclists became incensed, even belligerent, at the mere suggestion that the overall system would work better for everyone if the bicyclists were willing to detour as little as a single block to use a route that the City had already invested in improving for cyclists.

If there is even a fleeting, halfhearted attempt to discuss how the transportation system could be balanced to serve the many varied needs of a diverse community, it will be a first.

----Request for Comments----
If you are a veteran of these affairs, what is your most important advice to new participants?

---- Footnotes ----
1. Housing for seniors: The Measure D campaign—Maybell up-zoning that would have had low-income senior housing on a lesser portion of the property—demonstrated the focus on unit count. The proponents said that it promoted walkability, but a significant portion of the route to the destinations didn't have sidewalks—the seniors would have had to walk in the travel lanes of a busy street. And those "destinations" were widely ridiculed: Walgreens Drug Store as the local grocery store, Planned Parenthood as the medical clinic?
People who had been considering apartments for themselves or their parents looked at the proposed building and said it was poorly designed. The first thing they noticed was the absence of balconies: Residents who wanted fresh air—while reading, conversing?—would need to take the elevator down and go out into the parking lot or go across the street to a City park that isn't configured for them.

2. Many years ago, there were consideration of how the City might encourage some higher density developments to have housing units arranged horizontally, rather than vertically. This was regarded as promoting affordability because it would facilitate three-generation families. There are lots of situations where the grandparent can't quite live independently, but the cost of having others provide care, either in-home or in a facility, is daunting. That grandparent can be capable of contributing significantly to household, such as supervising the grandchildren while the parents were at work, and by offloading chores from the overworked parents. Plus the benefits of an extended family. Win-win-win.

The problem with vertical configuration are the stairs.
1. The most obvious is that they inhibit movement between the floors. But falls on stairs kill lots of seniors indirectly: While they survive the fall and they recover from the specific injury, many never recover from the recovery.
2. If you want the grandparent to have his/her bedroom on the ground floor, it is often impractical: That floor is configured as a garage and laundry room. As one friend observed: "No way I would put my mother there. I wouldn't even inflict that on my mother-in-law."

So why didn't this get more than token consideration? What I was told was that developers opposed it because housing units in vertical configurations could be sold off individually, fetching better prices and simplifying sales.

Historical aside: I vaguely recollect current mayor Karen Holman being one of the major advocates for horizontal configurations those many years ago.

3. Corporate welfare: Example: Stanford Research Park: Four of the major intersections serving the Research Park have long been over-capacity, with growth in the Research Park being a major contributing factor. Two are on Foothill Expressway at Arastradero and Page Mill, where the County is considering very expensive changes (news article: County Looks to Revamp Palo Alto's Expressways), The other two are the I-280 interchange at Page Mill, and Page Mill at El Camino. Cumulative expansion in the Research Park could have triggered requirements for Stanford to contribute to the costs of the infrastructure upgrades, except there isn't a Stanford Research Park from certain legal perspectives. Instead it is composed of many trusts held and administered by Stanford, and expansion on property owned by one trust is treated as entirely independent from expansion within any and all of the other trusts' properties.

4. Privatizing profit: President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), a conservative Republican who belatedly came to understand the dynamics of the Great Depression, famously said "The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they're too damn greedy."
An indication of how far the political landscape has shifted is that policy positions that 50 years ago would have been held by moderate Republicans (aka "Rockefeller Republicans"), and 20 years ago would have be labeled RINO (Republican In Name Only) now sound like they come from Marxists (Karl, although I favor Groucho).
Notable current example: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was a Republican into her 40s (1995), but is now routinely described by the media as a "leftist".
Aside: During the 2014 Council campaign, I heard from several people that they had heard the term "working class" used in the sense common in the late 1800s, that is, people whose income comes predominantly from wages (pay for work done) rather than from ownership and investments. Current common usage has "working class" centered around manual laborers, and does not include "knowledge workers". However, at least one of the speakers was unambiguous in including the later, using the example of "Google engineers" as potential occupants of housing that needed to be built for the "working class". Since I wasn't present, I couldn't ask the speaker the interesting question about the categorization of employees who are paid partly with company stock, especially with options that need to be vested.

5. Deliberately increasing congestion: A recent example of this was a meeting co-sponsored by City Hall (with Palo Alto Forward) that I reported on in an earlier blog entry El Camino/Page Mill intersection needs more pedestrians?

6. Rejecting improved bicycle safety because it would have benefited drivers: See The Palo Alto Bicycle Lobby: Impeding more and safer bicycling?, paragraph 8.

7. Removing safety warnings for pedestrians: Discussed in paragraphs 3-4 of blog entry El Camino/Page Mill intersection needs more pedestrians? (also cited in above footnote).

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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