The world at Palo Alto's doorstep

New initiatives, and a few surprising events gave Palo Alto international recognition in 2013

Palo Alto made several forays into the international limelight in 2013, building new overseas business relationships and becoming a hub for foreign real-estate investors. The city also played a role in a few unexpected events that thrust it onto the world stage.

The city initiated a Smart Cities program to expand business and technology partnerships in China and Germany. In the same vein, it reconsidered its existing cultural-exchange relationships with six "sister cities," even as the program that maintains the ties, Neighbors Abroad, celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Unexpectedly, the city reached out to one of its sisters when Typhoon Haiyan devastated first sister city Palo, Leyte, in the Philippines, on Nov. 8.

The world also descended on Palo Alto in previously unimagined ways. The city became an investment destination for Chinese homebuyers with ready cash, who were courted by local Realtors.

Palo Alto became the locus for a bizarre international incident, after North Korean officials arrested 85-year-old resident Merrill Newman on espionage and "war crimes" charges while he was visiting as a tourist.

On more neutral ground, Stanford University's -- and Palo Alto's -- international prestige again gained prominence after university professors Thomas S├╝dhof and Michael Levitt won the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine and in chemistry respectively.

The year's events, in addition to signaling that Palo Altans are "not in Kansas anymore," are sure to have a major influence on the city's economic and cultural growth in the coming decades.

Palo Alto boosted its international clout

While the hyperlocal problems of parking and traffic dominated City Council agendas, this has been a year filled with jetlag and passport stamps for council members.

In October, Vice Mayor Shepherd took her second trip to Shanghai in a year to attend the "Smart City Symposium," an event focused on sustainability and featuring elected officials and members of various regional boards. Local students also got to spend some time in Shanghai as part of a new "smart partnership" between Palo Alto and the Yangpu district of Shanghai.

For Palo Alto, the concept of a "smart partnership" is novel. Unlike its "sister city" program, the new deals focus on sustainability and technology rather than cultural exchanges. In August, the council held a wide-ranging discussion about its various international partners and agreed to sign such an agreement with the German city of Heidelberg. The non-binding agreement states that the goal is to "exchange ideas and value, especially in the areas of environmental sustainability and innovation-driven economic development." The two cities, the agreement states, will ultimately seek to "create mutual programs with measurable results."

In October, Mayor Greg Scharff and City Manager James Keene took a trip to Heidelberg and to one of Palo Alto's six sister cities, Enschede, Netherlands. At a council meeting later that month, Scharff recapped the trip and said the main message he took back was how much other cities, from China to Europe, want to be like Palo Alto, particularly when it comes to the city's startup culture and sustainability efforts.

"It's really interesting to see how much they look up to Palo Alto as a world leader in all of these items," Scharff said.

-- Gennady Sheyner

Chinese homebuyers honed in on Palo Alto

ith home prices rising and days on the market shrinking, potential Palo Alto homebuyers were hit with another challenge in 2013: cash-wielding buyers from China.

Stymied by limits on home ownership in their country, Chinese homebuyers came in droves to pick up local real estate.

Some were attracted by the investment opportunities: A 3,000-square-foot house in Palo Alto for under $4 million would have gone for $20 million in Hong Kong, one buyer reported. Others in China's rising middle class were seeking educational options for their children.

Realtor Ken DeLeon went out and bought a 14-seater Mercedes limo bus to show his potential clients around. DeLeon's buses tour both Palo Alto and nearby cities, running twice a week.

He said he expected Chinese homebuyers to represent 15 percent of local sales in 2013, compared to 5 percent just two years earlier.

Many buyers are attracted to new construction -- thus increasing the competition for what is already a rarity in Palo Alto.

And, Deleon said, the impact of these buyers will be felt for years to come, as they tend to hold onto their properties, thus lowering future inventory even further.

--Carol Blitzer

North Korea arrested Palo Altan Merrill Newman

The arrest in North Korea of Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Palo Alto grandfather, on Oct. 26 for alleged "war crimes" thrust Palo Alto onto the world stage.

Newman and a friend, Bob Hamrdla, took a 10-day tour of the secretive country through a Beijing, China, tourist agency. Newman was curious about the country and sought closure of his Korean War experiences, his family said.

The North Koreans saw his visit differently. Newman had trained the Kuwol, a guerilla group that fought against the North during the war. He was in touch with and had visited ex-members of the troop, who now reside in South Korea, and he had hoped to connect with some of their family members who still live in the North.

Although North Korean officials had given him permission to visit the region where they had fought, his guides reported his innocent request to visit Kuwol family members. Newman had a tense meeting with North Korean officials, who grilled him about his war activities. The next day, Oct. 26, just five minutes before his return flight to Beijing was to take off, military officials demanded to see his passport and removed him from the plane.

Newman was not heard from for weeks; North Korean officials were silent, and without diplomatic ties, U.S. officials could do little. The U.S. State Department put out a warning against traveling to North Korea, and the international media put the Newman's Channing House residence on the map.

The State Department response was muted; officials tried not to link Newman's arrest to ongoing disputes over North Korea's nuclear-weapons and a United Nations resolution condemning the country's human rights policies. Behind the scenes, the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang worked for Newman's release and to bring him needed heart medicine.

On Nov. 29, North Korean officials formally announced they had Newman, and in a bizarre video and four-page "confession," Newman admitted his "crimes" and begged for forgiveness.

North Korea deported him to Beijing on Dec. 6, and he returned to the Bay Area on Dec. 7. Two days later, he released a statement that he was coerced into making the apology.

-- Sue Dremann

A super typhoon brought Palo Alto, Philippines closer

Fifty years after forming Palo Alto's first sister-city relationship, with Palo, Leyte, Philippines, local residents jumped to their sister city's aid after a devastating natural disaster struck the country.

Typhoon Haiyan devastated Palo on Nov. 8, and Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff urged local residents to contribute to relief funds. He also pledged to have the city work together with nonprofit organizations to get money and assistance directly to Palo. The City Council pledged $10,000 for relief efforts, which the nonprofit Neighbors Abroad distributed to two aid agencies in Palo.

"As a community we've often come together to lend a hand," Scharff said at the council meeting, which was ceremonially closed in honor of Palo. "I think as a community we really need to come together on this and help out our sister city."

By early December, Neighbors Abroad raised an additional $18,000 for Palo, with a large contribution by the Teen Advisory Board from local high schools through their "Glow for the Philippines" event on Nov. 26.

Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical staff from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Stanford Hospital and Clinics took time off to render professional assistance in the ravaged country. They flew to Palo and other areas in an ongoing campaign to provide medical aid amid the devastation.

-- Gennady Sheyner and Sue Dremann


Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 27, 2013 at 11:06 am

there was a time when you could actually afford to live in palo alto. what brings this acclaim to palo alto anyway? this is silly reporting. why not report on st. elsewhere than this?

Like this comment
Posted by Agreed
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 27, 2013 at 11:12 am

This is correct: none of this international real estate investment in PA is worth any accolades or acclaim. Neither are PA's business relationships with China, the crusher of human rights, polluter of the globe, and persecutors of Americans in our own country.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul O. Briones
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm

I love this community. Even thou the standard of living is very high compared to Texas but it is innovative and focused in making it one of the best communities in the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 28, 2013 at 9:24 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Dec 28, 2013 at 9:42 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

I am with Paul. I love this community and am grateful to the past generations and the current residents who make this a wonderful,place to live.

I understand the inconvenience of traffic and not enough parking (there are plenty of ways to expand capacity for downtown) but those inconveniences are the price of success and vitality.

There is nothing like a really big recession to lower traffic and housing prices (really the only proven methods) but I would rather deal with the challenges of success with approaches like the successful Stanford shuttle system that combines growth with transportation management.

Like this comment
Posted by Klara
a resident of another community
on Dec 28, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Things apparently getting out of proportion when Mr DeLeon touring cash wielding Chinese buyers .

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Posted by UnAmerican
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm

I can't help wondering: if non-citizens of the US buy homes here, especially for cash, do those homes and the property they are on cease to be American and then become a little colony of whatever nation the buyer is from? If it does, and I hope it does not! then sellers are selling out their country bit by bit.

Like this comment
Posted by bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 28, 2013 at 6:17 pm

why was my post removed. I don't subscribe to the illogical? PA your a farce...

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Mr.Levy just doesn't understand what defines a great city or community.
It is long-term sustainability, commitment to good design and aesthetics,
ennvironmental quality, and establishing limits within these parameters.
He like our City Council is fascinated by a blowoff in office construction
in a non-regulated situation which is what is happening here now, before the impacts of this insanity and giveaway to private developers are even
close to being fully felt or even understood as the social impacts are
mounting as more valued businesses close,pushed out.

Like this comment
Posted by Only in America
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 30, 2013 at 9:47 am

@UnAmerican: Only in this country are people without citizenship here, or at least citizenship in the works, allowed to buy homes and businesses. Much of the rest of the world, especially Western Europe, requires citizenship in their respective country in order to own real estate.

This also one of the very few countries in the world that does not check foreign travelers for signs of illness at entry.

Like this comment
Posted by Green Card
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

Only in America

Your comment should be addressed to those without green cards. There are many hard working green card holders who also own property, live in the community, often providing work for Americans, and pay all their US taxes (twice) who have no intention of becoming US citizens for various reasons. Not allowing them to own real estate just because they choose not to use a US passport when traveling or vote in megabucks elections, is not a good reason for denying them the opportunity of owning their own home.

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

Until we can consistently balance the city budget and pay for our vital civic needs without another tax increase, how about less emphasis on the world stage. Anything less represents irresponsibility, being completely out of touch, and stupidity.

Like this comment
Posted by Guest
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Dec 30, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Green Card, are you a guest worker? Or a permanent resident? Why would you want to live and work here , but not become a citizen. Most likely, your nation of origin does not allow non-citizens to own real estate! If you are from a country that has a trade agreement with the US, you only have to pay taxes to one country, either your or ours, not both.

Also, if you are a citizen and you buy a house, or take out a loan of any kind, you will pay lower taxes and lower interest. As a non-citizen, you are considered a flight risk by financial institutions. I know this because I used to work in banking, and before rates to non-citizens were raised, foreigners often absconded with loan money and cars, abandoned houses and returned to their home countries.

There are perks to being a citizen of the US. If you refuse to become a citizen, you should not complain about the taxes ( or interest rates) you pay. You many not really be a flight risk, but the government and the financial institutions assume that if you were NOT, you would have become a citizen

Like this comment
Posted by Another Green Card Holder
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 30, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Guest, I am also a Green Card holder - Permanent Resident, and Palo Alto property owner. The issue of citizenship is a very emotive one and I, for one, have not quite got there yet. I love Palo Alto, I love California and, if I could, would happily become a citizen of just the State. However there are large swathes of the country for which I have little affinity and pledging myself to the whole country, and giving up allegiance to my home country, is not something I feel able to do yet. Contrary to your post, my home country, the UK, is quite happy for non-citizens to own property, it has never been an issue, and I have never felt at any disadvantage being a non-citizen property owner here.
Yes, there are many advantages to being a citizen - taxation without representation being one of them. However, there are downsides, particularly for anyone who may want to return to their home country at some point - which, btw, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, which make the decision much, much more complex.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 31, 2013 at 11:40 am

Just wondering . . .if cities from China to Europe want to be like Palo Alto, why do we hear so much about the European model and try to copy it?

Like this comment
Posted by Naturalized citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:05 pm

To the green card holder(s) above:

Well, whether you like it or not, California ia part of the US. I too am from Europe. I too don't relish too much attitudes more prevalent in red states, but, hey, the fact is California is part of this nation that is the US. Actually, California often is ahead of the curve and a model for the rest of the country.

That said, can't UK citizens have dual citizenships? I am from France and have dual citizenship. I could no longer live in a place where I could not vote. That was the clincher for me. I also have children who most likely will live in this country most of their lives and who feel more American than French, frankly. I owed it to them to be a citizen in their own country.

I will concur with you on one thing: in France too, a foreigner can own real estate. And I believe it's true as well of many other European countries such as Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, for example. Strange that people would think the US is the only place where a foreigner can own real estate.

Like this comment
Posted by Naturalized citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:17 pm

@ Annette,

I doubt that European cities want to be everything that Palo Alto is. I believe they admire the innovation, the creativity, the business acumen and the economic dynamism of the area. They probably also envy the openness to new ideas, and even to failure. They envy the overall affluence, and yes, the climate.

I don't believe they envy the overall lifestyle. I think they would be shocked to see how much people are in their cars and the utter lack of public transportation. They would decry the gap in wealth between rich and poor, and the lack of safety net and universal health care, as well as the easy availability of firearms. They usually find all of this shocking.

Let's put it this way: they want to emulate the economic vitality and one or two other things. They don't want the rest. IMO.

Like this comment
Posted by Naturalized citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:20 pm

@ Annette

They would also be appalled at the lack of maternity leave, the long hours worked, the little amount of paid leave, the disparity between schools, the lack of universal preschool system, the cost of higher education, and on, and on.

Like this comment
Posted by Another Green Card Holder
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 31, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Naturalized Citizen - yes, the UK allows dual citizenship, and my child (born in the US) and husband (naturalized US citizen) both have UK passports as well. However, the oath you take as a US citizen specifically revokes allegiance to any other country. Sure, I could cross my fingers when I say that bit but if I am going to become a citizen I should do it properly. My green card is up for renewal and I did look seriously at citizenship but I am just not there yet - doesn't mean I never will be, but just not now.

Like this comment
Posted by Green Card
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Yes, there are many reasons why someone would not want to take out citizenship.

For me there is no reason to do it. I do not need the expense or the time to do so, I do not need to take an exam or swear an allegiance to something I have never had to do for my own country. I do not want to vote in elections that make no sense to me and cost so much money. I do not want a US passport that would not get me into countries I can presently do so without a visa. I would not give up my present citizenship where I have family and sentimental attachment as well as assets and allegiance.

Moving here was done primarily for business reasons. Buying property was for practical reasons, I do not like to live in a home that I have no control over. I have children who are dual citizens and are proud of their heritage.

I do not think this country is as wonderful as most Americans think. It is not the leader of the free world (whatever that is supposed to mean). It is very backward in many respects. It has many pros and cons to living here. The attitude of many Americans to how wonderful it is, is actually one of the reasons I would not want to become an "arrogant American" as many of the world view this country and its people. I am with natauralized citizen above and am disappointed in some of the laws here regards to vacation time, maternity/paternity leave, education, public transportation, guns, and healthcare, to name just the ones that come to mind without too much thought.

The positives are here too, and I enjoy the lifestyle I have with the many benefits, but the fact that so many people can't understand why I can't feel loyal to my community without taking out citizenship baffles me. I am not a flight risk. I obey all the laws, pay all the taxes, act in the most neighborly manner and feel very much a Palo Altan without feeling any more is necessary. Why that isn't enough for some of you to understand is beyond me.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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