Palo Alto City Council members had better be rested after their month-long break, because they have a volatile set of issues lined up for as far as one can see.
Monday night the topic will be a proposed phase-in of a ban on sleeping in vehicles, an issue that has been cycling through city processes for the last five years without resolution. Originally planned for consideration in September, the timing of next week's discussion, during a week when more families are probably away on vacation than in town, suggests a desire by Mayor Greg Scharff to get this issue behind it with as little tumult and visibility as possible.
It will be an uncomfortable meeting regardless, as there is great compassion and concern for the homeless among Palo Altans and an organized opposition effort. But the council must separate the importance of helping the homeless from permitting dwelling in vehicles or turning a blind eye to what is happening at the Cubberley Community Center.
As Council member Gail Price courageously concluded when she shifted positions and voted for a ban on car dwelling in committee, we are not helping the homeless by our current hands-off approach, and we are allowing a bad situation at Cubberley in particular to get worse with the passage of time. What is needed, she said, was intensive help and referral to support services.
The council chambers will undoubtedly be filled Monday night with impassioned advocates for delaying any action so other options can again be explored. But it is long past time for an ordinance, and we hope the council is finally ready to be decisive.
The City Council also returns to a pair of messy issues pertaining to Palo Alto's west side. It's June approval of a Palo Alto Housing Corporation-sponsored development on Maybell Ave. near Briones Park appears to be coming right back to center stage in the form of a referendum that appears likely to qualify for a city-wide vote. And the proposed redevelopment of the Buena Vista Trailer Park is facing vigorous resistance by those wanting to help the park's low-income residents and prevent the conversion of the land into high-priced housing.
These are more than debates over zoning and traffic. Wrapped up in them are questions about our values, where Palo Alto is headed, and how important economic diversity is to the community. The Maybell and Buena Vista proposals bring into sharp focus the delicate issue of how much we wish to invest in preserving or creating low-income housing, and how much should come at the expense of higher density and other impacts on individual neighborhoods.
This is an important conversation to have, and has been all but ignored in the quiet work being done to update the city's comprehensive plan. Without being deliberately addressed, these issues will continue to surface only in the context of specific development proposals, which is the worst place to formulate policy.
With commercial development proposals coming at the city at an unprecedented pace, the City Council is also facing a growing public discontent over the city's approach to parking, traffic, zoning and design.
A massive proposal for a 300,000 square-foot building next to the AOL building at Park Blvd. and Page Mill Rd. on a site that is already built out to the maximum allowed under the zoning is barely on the radar of most community members, yet it is already in the pipeline for formal analyses and rezoning.
Meanwhile a series of community meetings will attempt to gather input on how 27 University Ave., site of John Arrillaga's proposed office towers and theater, should be developed.
And studies of both the future of the California Ave. business district and downtown are in process, with a focus on how much development should be planned for and how parking and traffic should be managed.
Downtown parking problems are another hot potato issue for the City Council, and the council's decision last November to lump a possible residential parking permit system with the downtown development study has only served to increase frustration among virtually everyone who lives between the creek and Embarcadero Rd. This week's release by some neighborhood activists of an open source online tool for projecting future parking deficits downtown is a welcome grass-roots initiative, but also one that reflects resentment over the process.
Public agitation over new development is clearly and justifiably on the rise, and the council would be wise to develop a more coordinated and proactive approach to engaging the community on them. Referenda should be acts of last resort for citizens. They reflect a failure in the normal processes of government and a wake-up call that there is significant discontent. While the economic rebound driving these development pressures is good news, the City Council needs to hear that message and make sure its decisions are aligned with evolving community views.