Survey shows growing angst about development, parking

With public frustrated about growth, Palo Alto launches 'community conversation'

Palo Alto residents are feeling rosy these days when it comes to jobs and personal fortunes, but smiles quickly turn to frowns when the subjects of parking and new development are brought up, a new survey indicates.

The National Citizens Survey, compiled by the National Research Center and the International City/County Management Association, in many ways reflects the growing pains Palo Alto officials have been grappling with over the past year -- too much traffic, not enough parking and new developments that get widely blamed for exacerbating these trends.

In response to widespread community criticism, the City Council adopted on Saturday "comprehensive land use planning and action" as one of its top priorities for 2014. The first bit of action took place on Monday night, when the council suspended the controversial "planned community" zoning process, which allows developers to get zoning exemptions in exchange for public benefits, and agreed to reform it.

The City Council also approved on Monday night a new campaign called "Our Palo Alto," which aims to get residents involved in a conversation about the city's long-term future and reach out to people who don't typically attend council meetings. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called the new initiative an "an opportunity to engage in a community conversation but also take action and lay a foundation for the city's future for many many years to come."

The National Citizens Survey results suggest that this conversation can't come soon enough. Over the past year, the council has been flooded with citizen complaints about new developments, with many lashing out against the glassy minimalism of modern architecture and others complaining about dense new buildings with insufficient parking. In the category of "land use, planning and zoning," a mere 36 percent of respondents rated Palo Alto as "excellent" or "good" in 2013, far below the number in other cities. This was also a staggering drop from 2012, when 51 percent gave the city the top to grades in this category. When asked about the "overall quality of new development," just 44 percent of the respondents gave the city high marks, compared to 56 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, parking and traffic were the major drivers of this trend. On "availability of parking," only 39 percent ranked the city as "excellent" or "good," a marked decline from 2010, when 60 percent gave these marks (the number dropped to 54 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012). When asked about "traffic flow on major streets," 34 percent gave the city high marks, down from 36 percent in 2012, 40 percent in 2011 and 47 percent in 2010. Bus and transit services also scored poorly, with only 49 percent of respondents rating them as "excellent" or "good," compared to 58 percent in 2012.

Though the Maybell referendum drew most of its support from the Barron Park area close to the project site, the survey underscores the message of the November election, in which a vast majority of precincts opposed Measure D -- frustrations over new developments aren't exclusive to any particular section of the city. On the issue of parking availability, 41 percent of the respondents from north Palo Alto (north of Oregon Expressway) gave the city the highest ratings, compared to 38 percent from south Palo Alto. On traffic flow, frustration was also equitably distributed, with 33 percent in the north and 35 percent in the south giving the city high marks.

The city's grades when it comes to "affordable housing" remained fairly steady from the previous year. Only 13 percent gave the city the highest two grades in the "availability of affordable quality housing," roughly the same as in 2012 and 2011 (12 percent and 14 percent, respectively).

These two topics should loom large at City Council's Feb. 10 meeting, when members will consider staff proposals for a wide range of "transportation demand management" measures meant to get drivers to switch to other modes of transportation. Options on the table include an expanded city-shuttle program, a satellite parking lot east of U.S. Highway 101 and new garages downtown and around California Avenue.

If there is a silver lining when it comes to getting around Palo Alto, it's the pleasure local residents get when they travel without an engine. An overwhelming majority of respondents praised the city for "ease of bicycle travel" (78 percent) and "ease of walking" (82 percent), rates that are "much above" the benchmark, the survey states.

An even brighter silver lining lies in the fact that these pressures stem directly from the city's economic success. Even as residents complain about growth and development (including population growth, which 60 percent of respondents deemed to be "too fast"), they feel good about jobs and personal finances. Just 30 percent of the survey respondents rated job growth in Palo Alto as "too slow," a huge drop from 44 percent in 2012 and 64 percent in 2011. And when asked to rate their "personal economic future," 33 percent said it was "positive" or "very positive," up from 22 percent in 2012 and 12 percent in 2011.

In fact, when land use and traffic issues are taken out of the equation, Palo Alto generally gets sterling grades from its residents. Despite the recent land-use funk, residents love their city, with 91 percent rating its overall quality of life as "excellent" or "good," 90 percent praising the city's "overall image or reputation" and a vast majority (87 percent) saying they plan to stay in the city for the next five years. The survey suggests that despite the recent political turmoil, the city continues to be the envy of its peers. In comparisons with "benchmark" cities, Palo Alto scored above the norm in 21 of the 31 categories, below in two categories and somewhere near par in the remaining eight.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Important to note that 1200 surveys were mailed out, but there were only 337 completed.

Web Link
page 76: The confidence interval for the City of Palo Alto survey is no
greater than plus or minus five percentage points around any given percent reported for the entire sample (337 completed surveys).

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Posted by Effete
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Most Palo Altans did NOT receive a survey, they really should have mailed out about 5,000 in order to get a better cross section.

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Posted by Told 'em, They Weren't Listening
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm

"aims to get residents involved in a conversation about the city's long-term future and reach out to people who don't typically attend council meetings. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called the new initiative an "an opportunity to engage in a community conversation"

This past year has seen a historic level of participation from Palo Altans across town, many of us new to participation and feeling like we put a lot of work into providing feedback (many of us warned the Council about overdevelopment concerns growing long before Measure D) that has been almost utterly ignored.

Why ignore the many people who are trying to participate in order to reach out to those who aren't? It's probably the same inclination that led the City Council to spend an extra $600,000 on the election instead of reading the handwriting on the wall and deciding to overturn the ordinance based on the successful referendum (and the historic levels of participation leading up to it): they are good at ignoring those whose opinions they don't like, and believe the silent ones are all in their camp if only they can get them to say so. We saw this a lot during and even after the Maybell situation, I listened to the most amazing mental contortions by councilmembers who figured both before and after that the majority in Palo Alto really were in favor of PC's and high-density development in our neighborhoods.

I have a clue for the Council: it's not an honest conversation if you never intend to be changed by what you hear back. It's downright insulting to have put so much work into trying to participate this past year only to be ignored and told, NOW we want to listen, only we want to listen to other people, still not any of YOU.

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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 5, 2014 at 10:57 am

So will the City have a another broad-brush "mission statement" meeting about resident input and priorities or will the finally get us some specifics about HOW they hope to get community input?

They continue to ignore suggestions, our transportation manager writes what I called "lengthy but largely irrelevant responses" to complaints and many of our top managers (Utilities and Transportation) refuse to respond to reporters' questions.

Sure Give us your input. Feel free to bay at the moon, too, for all the good it will do.

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Posted by sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm

"Told 'em, They Weren't Listening" has it spot on. More than once, some council members has indicated they don't want to hear from those who've been bothering to participate for 10+ years, but rather only new voices. Most discouraging to those who've studied the issues and bothered to participate in what's supposed to be a democratic process. How about a core value of respecting one's constituents?

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Posted by New Voices??
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 5, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Well, I was a new voice, someone who had never attended a city council meeting or spoke at one until the "traffic-calming" exercise on Arastradero. They didn't listen to me and others about Arastradero, & they didn't listen about Maybell either.

I attended several council meetings and I looked council members right in the eye when residents spoke. When a council member heard something they didn't want to hear, they just tuned out. And, if the so-called new voices say what they don't want to hear, the cycle of ignoring inconvenient facts will repeat. They need to go. All of them.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I feel for the Council. Instead of residents, they should survey the Keenan Land Company, I bet they'd be happier with that data.

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

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