There is no better example of how Palo Alto gets tied up in knots trying to achieve delicate tasks that are anticipated to create controversy than the city's legally required and long overdue update of its Comprehensive Plan, the vision and road map for what kind of a community we all want for the future.
Launched with little enthusiasm, political direction or process in 2006, city staff and the planning commission, with some intermittent input from the City Council and public, have quietly worked on the plan as if it were an update to a technical manual that, with luck, could get done without too many people really noticing or needing to be involved.
The existing plan, adopted in 1998, had been the product of an exhausting six-year process, and part of its elegance was that advocates for almost any type of land use policy could find provisions in the plan that supported their viewpoints.
So when controversial proposals arose, such as the John Arrillaga plan for high-rise office buildings and a performing arts theater at 27 University Ave., proponents (including city staff) could point to policies in the plan that encouraged the expansion of cultural amenities and new development near transit corridors, while opponents could point to different policies in the same plan that sought to reduce traffic congestion, preserve the character of the community and, most certainly, not allow buildings substantially higher than the city's 50-foot height limit.
The aging plan, most agree, is not nearly in need of change as are the detailed zoning rules that are supposed to be guided by it. But the attorneys don't want the council to jump ahead to zoning changes until a new updated Comprehensive Plan is in place. Yet it is through zoning decisions that ambiguities such as the one described above get ironed out and molded into actual rules with which property owners and developers have to live.
The council and staff are determined to get this process done by the end of next year, and this week a recently appointed 20-member citizens committee held the first of what will be many monthly meetings that are intended to channel public opinion and advise the city's planning staff as it prepares a final draft of a new plan.
No sooner had the names of the new committee been released by City Manager Jim Keene last week than a spirited debate began over whether it was properly representative of Palo Alto, geographically and politically.
Were north, south and west Palo Alto equally represented? (No, 12 of the 17 voting members live in the north.)
Was the committee balanced between members known to lean toward stricter limits on development and those interested in encouraging "innovative" development, especially involving housing? (No, those favoring stricter limits have fewer members.)
Did Keene stack the committee to reflect his vision for Palo Alto? (Probably not, but impossible to know.)
Before rushing to criticize or marginalize this group of 20 citizens willing to devote a big chunk of time to a rather thankless task, it would be good to realize this group has no real power and whatever battles or impasses it encounters will wind their way to the council in due course.
So instant critics should stand down and focus on how to support and influence the process rather than attack it.
There are historical examples of similar citizens committees in Palo Alto that have worked, and some that haven't, and the key to the successful ones has been their ability to build enough trust and understanding of each other's motivations, concerns and desires that they are able to find common ground.
The process, which will be subject to the state open-meetings law and therefore should be fully transparent, may achieve little -- or it may result in the discovery that the opinions and values held by committee members aren't as divergent as it may seem today.
These particular 20 residents may not reflect the breadth of our community as much as we and others would like, but it is clearly diverse enough to ensure that robust discussion on the future of Palo Alto takes place. And whether or not they and the staff reach consensus on language to describe that future, it will all wind up back in the lap of the council anyway, where long and tedious review is virtually assured.