From congested roads to inadequate parking, transportation problems have been driving most of the debates at City Hall over the past year.
So when City Council embarked on Monday night on what promises to be a long journey toward an updated Comprehensive Plan, it seemed like the logical place to start. In its first substantive discussion about the goals of the updated Comprehensive Plan, the council cobbled together a list of issues that should be included in the document, which will be the guiding document for local policymakers until 2030. Not surprisingly, parking, car congestion and a commitment to reducing green-house gas emissions will all play a central role in the city's new transportation vision, the council agreed.
Councilman Pat Burt, who crafted the motion laying out the new transportation element (elements are what the plan's chapters are called), stressed the importance of getting it right.
"So much about what we'll do as a community going forward is dependent on whether we can solve transportation issues in our community in a way that enhances the quality of life in the community and enables many of the things that otherwise would be determined by the lack of solving (them)," Burt said during a wide-ranging discussion that began at about 11 p.m. and concluded just after midnight Tuesday. "Other decisions will be determined for us if with can't solve the transportation issues."
Some of these issues aren't new. The existing plan already includes policies about reducing the number of people who driving solo, encouraging biking and protecting neighborhood streets from traffic going through the area. Many of these will remain in the new plan, though they will be complemented by new goals that will emphasize the city's recent traffic-reduction efforts.
Councilman Tom DuBois argued Monday that "congestion relief" should be explicitly called out in the vision for the Transportation Element.
"It's become an issue that I think needs to become more of a priority on its own," DuBois said.
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed and added into Burt's motion a statement calling for traffic flow to be enhanced and "traffic congestion reduced where possible." The council also added into the new Comprehensive Plan a reference to greenhouse-gas reduction and a commitment to encouraging "attractive, convenient, efficient and innovative parking solutions."
They also agreed with Mayor Karen Holman's suggestion that the existing Comprehensive Plan's commitment to keeping local streets "safe and attractive," and "designed to enhance the quality and aesthetics of Palo Alto neighborhoods."
Though Monday's discussion was the council's first foray into actual revision work (prior Comprehensive Plan meetings focused on the process for the update), much of the prep work had already been done by staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission, which spent several years reviewing and revising each element of the Comprehensive Plan.
The new Transportation Element will likely include a mishmash of vision statements and goals from both the existing document and the planning commission's revisions. Other goals that the council agreed to add during its discussion were the reduction of people who drive solo by 30 percent; the creation of a trench on the Caltrain corridor; improved mobility options for seniors and people with special needs; and "attractive, convenient, efficient and innovative parking solutions."
The discussion has been a long time coming. The City Council launched the effort in 2006, recognizing that the existing document was intended to stretch from 1998 to 2010. Over the years, the council has repeatedly changed course on the update process, most recently agreeing to appoint a citizens panel to help the process along. The panel will independently review each element and propose programs and policies that are consistent with the council's goals.
The latest process is expected to stretch the timeline for the Comprehensive Plan even further into the future. When the council committed over its annual retreat earlier this year to completing the update, the plan was to get it done by the end of 2016. Now, the informal deadline has been extended by four to six months, into the first half of 2017.
The council also agreed on Monday to explore a system for prioritizing the Comprehensive Plan's policies, though exactly what this priority system will look like remains to be seen (planning staff will bring forward a proposal at a future meeting).
The decision was prompted by years of concerns from residents about the inherent conflicts between different Comprehensive Plan policies, which effectively allow developers, residents and anyone else to find justification in the broad document for seemingly any position. DuBois proposed exploring a priority process and the council agreed by a 7-1 vote, with Marc Berman dissenting and Liz Kniss absent.
"It's really meant to address the issue we hear over and over: That's there's something in the Comprehensive Plan for everyone and nothing has any weight," DuBois said.
The DuBois proposal also called for exploring a new "quantitative framework," which would include real-life data and projections, for making decisions on the updated Comprehensive Plan.
While most of the council agreed, Berman voted against the proposal, saying he doesn't understand enough about the proposal.
"My concern is that we're going to get to a point that creates a point system that we'll attach to every project that comes in front of the council," Berman said. "I don't know enough about it to support it at this time."
In addition to the Transportation Element, the Comprehensive Plan includes elements on housing; land use and community design; natural and urban environment; business and economics; community services and facilities; and governance. The council will review each chapter over the next year.