The surprising consensus that emerged three months ago with a unanimous vote of the Palo Alto City Council -- creating a system for limiting the amount of commercial office development through a two-year-long annual cap -- began unraveling Monday night.
The four development-friendly council members -- Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss -- went on an offensive to weaken the measure they had helped to pass in March and which crafted a reasonable and moderate approach to slowing growth while permanent zoning decisions could be considered and implemented.
Because Councilman Tom DuBois recused himself from the discussion due to his wife's employment at Stanford, Mayor Karen Holman and Councilmembers Pat Burt, Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid lacked a fifth vote to adopt the details of the measure initially passed in March.
In the end, after four hours of often-tense debate and unable to muster a majority on some key provisions, the council was left with little choice but to refer the issue to the Planning and Transportation Commission for discussion and recommendations. In sending it to the commission, which will likely inject its own ideas into the increasingly complicated measure, the council will automatically get the issue back after the summer break.
In contrast to their actions in March, Scharff, Wolbach, Berman and Kniss repeatedly sought to create exemptions from the development cap for certain types of projects. Some, such as an exemption for small office additions of up to 2,000 square feet and medical offices of under 5,000 square feet, garnered unanimous support and did not go to the heart of the intended cap.
But the council repeatedly deadlocked over whether development projects that emerged from so-called "coordinated area plans" should also be exempt from the 50,000-square-feet-per-year cap. While masked in technical terminology, this was an effort to exempt the proposed development that is expected to come out of the planning for the property surrounding and including Fry's Electronics.
Wolbach and Scharff stressed that the plan to be created through the Fry's coordinated area plan will be heavily influenced by residents of the immediate neighborhood, and therefore none of that new development should count toward the development cap. The effect would be to potentially allow much more total development than envisioned when the 50,000-square-foot-per-year cap was conceived earlier this year.
That argument runs counter to the entire purpose of the proposed growth cap. There is no reason why one potential large development should be carved out as exempt from a development cap designed to pause commercial growth in the community for the next two years.
The tension and acrimony during the discussion, particularly between Scharff and Burt, showed that achieving anything resembling consensus, which appeared surprisingly possible after the council's March discussion, is now unlikely.
The council, and especially Scharff, would be wise to not disrespect or disregard the input it has received from the community from the outcomes of two elections -- the Measure D vote on the Maybell Avenue housing project and the City Council election last November -- or it may very well find itself facing another referendum or a ballot initiative.
Scharff's attempts to weaken the growth cap and implied threats to stand in the way of its adoption unless he got the concessions he wanted were in contrast to the posture he took in the election campaign, when he expressed agreement with the need for addressing the pace of growth.
His unsuccessful proposal Monday night that the council simply put off further discussion until a "date uncertain" was a brash political move to hold the growth cap hostage for the easing of its restrictions.
Monday night's long meeting demonstrated that while council members can say they are for adopting temporary limits on office growth, the real test comes in their votes on what projects should be exempted from those limits.
So residents must crank up their obfuscation meters. Underpinning the proposed growth cap is the idea that developers will compete for the available 50,000 square feet and that the council will reward those that have the most creative projects with the least, if any, impact on traffic, parking and housing costs.
Creating exemptions from this process undermines the goal and will surely come back to bite the council as surprised and upset citizens wonder how a much-heralded cap turned into a fuzzy measure full of holes.