Former Palo Alto mayor Dick Rosenbaum dies | News | Palo Alto Online |


Former Palo Alto mayor Dick Rosenbaum dies

Fiscal watchdog served the community in numerous roles for decades

Former mayor Dick Rosenbaum, a fiscal conservative and supporter of Palo Alto's residential quality of life, has died. He was 81.

Rosenbaum died at his home surrounded by his immediate family on Sunday, Oct. 11, after a brief illness, his son, Dan Rosenbaum, said.

The Palo Alto Weekly once dubbed Rosenbaum a "fiscal bloodhound" because of his achievements in civic service in Palo Alto, stretching back to the early 1970s. He remained vocal on city issues until shortly before his death.

Under his leadership, the city emerged from recurrent financial crises and developed a road map to energy independence at a time of deregulation of the industry.

Rosenbaum served three stints on the City Council from 1971 to 1975 and from 1991 to 1999, and one term as mayor in 1998. He was a strong representative of slow-growth, "residentialist" values, which got him elected for the first time to the council in 1971, his son said.

His opposition to the "Superblock" — two 10-story buildings that would have taken up two downtown blocks — swept him into office with no prior political experience, his son noted. Rosenbaum took out a full-page newspaper ad to oppose the project and formed the Citizens Committee to Block the Superblock.

Rosenbaum supported regulations that would maintain or improve Palo Altans' quality of life, including a full ban on leaf blowers. He opposed rampant dense development, and was sympathetic to the parking woes faced by residents then — and now.

He was a frequent contributor to the Weekly's guest opinion page, writing about fiscal matters including the city's union labor contract, which in 2006 he called "suicide economics."

Rosenbaum was raised by a single mother in Queens, New York. A math, science and engineering prodigy, he went to Brooklyn Tech and attended Cornell University on a full scholarship, his son said. He received a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He met his wife, Ruth, at a mixer while she was an undergraduate at Simmons College in Boston. The couple moved to the Bay Area in 1961 when Rosenbaum took a job as a research scientist at Lockheed — a job he held for 31 years. They moved to Palo Alto in 1963, his son said.

During the 1970s, Rosenbaum oversaw a smoking ban in the council chambers of City Hall, pushed for reduced bus fares for seniors and wanted to add low- and moderate-income units to a proposed townhouse development on Arastradero Road.

But he rejected, with other residentialists, another proposed housing project that would have added 74 low- and moderate-income housing units because the project was too dense at 27 units per acre.

Rosenbaum claimed at the time that the dense project at 574 Arastradero Road would raise the property value to an artificial level beyond its present taxable value. And it would raise the threshold for future dense developments to be built in the city, according to a 1971 Palo Alto Times story.

His interests went further than housing and finances. He supported opening Palo Alto Foothills Park to nonresidents, but he quickly withdrew council discussion of the issue because he didn't want to jeopardize a ballot measure to create a regional open-space district (what is now the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District).

He lost a bid in the 1970s to add bike lanes on California Avenue, but lived to see bike "sharrows" installed earlier this year when the city revamped the retail district.

Rosenbaum and some other council members were voted out of office after a controversial proposal to open a drug-treatment center, his son said.

"I was 11, and it made me happy when he was swept out in 1975," he said, noting that he would now have his father back after so much time away from home.

Rosenbaum was replaced on the council by Realtor Scott Carey, whose company, Cornish & Carey, frequently came before the council. Rosenbaum opposed the company on dense development projects including the Super Block.

Carey died two months ago to the day of Rosenbaum's death on Aug. 11 at age 82 in his Portola Valley home. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who knew Rosenbaum well, said that the two men were never adversarial in the way some people thought them to be.

Simitian said he had "tremendous respect and affection" for Rosenbaum, with whom he served when Rosenbaum was re-elected to the City Council in the 1990s.

"I think people who knew him (while he was on the council) didn't always realize what a wonderful, warm person he was," he said. "He could be very ... focused while on the council but he had a great sense of humor. He was very old school in a way that I found appealing."

Rosenbaum was respected for his expertise in finance and utilities. He served on the city's Finance and Policy and Services committees, but his reach went well beyond development. He was committed to the city's municipal utility system, and was the liaison to the Utilities Advisory Commission and the city's representative and eventual chairman of the Northern California Power Agency.

"He was someone with a very sharp eye and a sharp pencil, and had sharp questions to go with it," Simitian said. "He was pretty clear ... that a quality of life is what makes Palo Alto what it is."

Jean McCown, former mayor and councilwoman, also remembered Rosenbaum fondly, calling him "a great public servant."

"He always spoke thoughtfully and worked to achieve the best outcomes for the Palo Alto community. He also had a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. It was a personal pleasure to work with him as a colleague for many years," she wrote in an email.

After his election in 1991 and re-election in 1995, he worked with Simitian and then-Councilman Joe Huber to cut overspending. As mayor in 1998, he oversaw the challenges of the 1998 winter floodings and guided the city during energy deregulation to develop a utilities system that received power at a far lower rate than that of surrounding cities.

The city received top financial ratings under his leadership by Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investor Services, in preparation for issuing golf course bonds.

In 1997, Rosenbaum was the only council member to oppose a $960,000 renovation of the council chambers, a price tag that was three times the amount suggested by staff and which he called "unconscionable," according to a Palo Alto Weekly story.

He was also a firm believer in preserving Palo Alto's historical buildings. After he left the council, he served as both president and treasurer of the Palo Alto Historical Association, his son said.

Rosenbaum and his wife traveled widely, and he coached Bobby Sox girls' softball and was a starting pitcher on the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's softball team, his son said.

But he didn't remain silent just because he left public office. He served on the Utilities Advisory Commission for nine years, from 2000 to 2009. And when the council considered the controversial 27 University Ave. project in 2012, Rosenbaum had choice words for the gargantuan John Arrillaga project, which involved building four office towers and a theater near the downtown transit hub.

"This is a project that would've been laughed out of the council chambers a few years ago," Rosenbaum told the council during a December 2012 meeting. "Yet here it is being considered seriously. If you proceed, there will almost certainly be a referendum, and I believe it will be successful. You will save the city a lot of money if you stop this project."

And despite his recent illness, Rosenbaum took the time in a June letter, along with 23 other former mayors and council members, to support the council's efforts to save the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.

The City Council dedicated its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, to Rosenbaum.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ruth; his son, Dan Rosenbaum; his daughter, Amy Rosenbaum; and three grandchildren. According to his wishes, no services will be held.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


10 people like this
Posted by Former City Employee
a resident of another community
on Oct 14, 2015 at 6:34 am

[Post removed.]

19 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 14, 2015 at 7:55 am

Dick was a tireless and valuable servant of the community for over 40 years. This is a loss for all of us.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:04 am

Dick Rosenbaum was a great friend to Palo Alto residents and will be sorely missed.

18 people like this
Posted by Ron Andersen
a resident of another community
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:32 am

Dick was a remarkable public servant who always took a long term perspective. What impact will this proposal have on the community in the long term? His opposition to early retirement proposals, still loathed by some public employees, were correct. I say this, having publicly differed with him on some of this issue. He saw the long term costs, and hazards of many of the unions' proposals that have since come to pass. Palo Alto has lost one of the finest.

9 people like this
Posted by Leland Manor resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:34 am

Mr Rosenbaum, You are such a gentle and intelligent person. We live around the corner from you and am saddened that you have passed. Every time we passed you would say hello and Ruth would always be beating you in her fast paced walk around the neighborhood. You did very well helping Palo Alto in your community services and we really appreciate what you have done for our community.
RIP my friend, Best to your family.

9 people like this
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2015 at 10:06 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I was thinking about Dick this morning - I didn't know him well, but he met with me a couple of times last year while I was running for city council. As a complete political newbie, I really appreciated his support and interest, and willingness to share his perspective. He also had a great sense of humor. He believed in true community service and is a role model for all of us.

6 people like this
Posted by Ariel Calonne
a resident of another community
on Oct 14, 2015 at 11:09 am

Dick was brilliant and focused on public service. I am saddened from afar to hear of our loss.

9 people like this
Posted by David Schrom
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 14, 2015 at 11:39 am

Dick's clear thinking and principled action remain an inspiration. We and those who follow will continue to reap the benefits of his commitment to our community and the world beyond. I feel grateful to have known him.

8 people like this
Posted by Greg Schmid
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Dick gave so much to the community over the years. I was always struck by his thoughtfulness and concern about the longer term consequences of current actions. He had a clear perspective but he never lost his ability to get along with others with a good sense of humor. He spent many hours working for his City but I think he enjoyed each moment of it.

10 people like this
Posted by Enid Pearson
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2015 at 4:17 pm

It was a privilege to serve with Dick from 1971 to 1975. Our council was the first majority residentialst council.
Dick Rosenbaum, Kirke Comstock, Alan Henderson, Sylvia Seaman and Enid Pearson. Many of the programs that
have made Palo Alto such a great town were started by this council - 50' height limit, bicycle lanes started, mini-park program begun, Lytton Garden built, Animal spay-neuter clinic opened, child care program launched, campaign contributions disclosure ordinance enacted,and etc. Fortunately for Palo Alto, Dick was reelected again (1991) and
continued his good works.

Palo Alto is such a nice city because of Dick's great contributions. Thanks, Dick

5 people like this
Posted by Pastor Johannes (HOPE CENTER of Palo Alto)
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2015 at 7:02 pm

We were so very sorry to hear of the loss of our friend, and HOPE CENTER's starting softball pitcher. The value of the bat he gave me a few weeks ago when he had to officially retire from our softball team will be used in his memory during the Palo Alto Men's Softball league playoffs on October 28 (Baylands).

Our condolences to Ruth and the rest of the family - we share in the celebration of Dick's life-long contributions to public service and a true sense of community in Palo Alto.

4 people like this
Posted by Sheralee Hill Iglehart
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:29 pm

You have my deepest sympathy over the untimely passing of your husband Dick on Sunday, October 11, 2015. Dick was a personable, warm, brilliant and gentle friend. He was a mayor of Palo Alto. Dick will be missed but he will live on in memory,
Sheralee Hill Iglehart

6 people like this
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:58 pm

I met Dick when he led the referendum on the Superblock in downtown Palo Alto around 45 years ago. His quiet approach to problem solving and his wonderful gentle humor stood him in good stead over all these decades. He was a brilliant and thoughtful leader. I shall miss him.

2 people like this
Posted by Chris Gaither
a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 16, 2015 at 8:33 am

I had the opportunity to meet Dick through his wife Ruth while working on the La Comida board since the year 2000. Each year, the board has a potluck dinner at one of the board member's home. Dick would always accompany Ruth to the potluck. The potluck always seems to occur around World Series time, and Dick was joyful in conversational topics ranging from baseball, to world politics. Even if he disagreed with your perspective, he heard you out, and respected your right to your own opinion. And, the conversation would move on to another topic, to start another dialogue. It was also great to see him and Ruth come over to the California Avenue area to enjoy in the local establishments. A real community spirited person. Thanks for being open to different perspectives. You shall be missed!

2 people like this
Posted by Dan Rosenbaum
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 17, 2015 at 7:45 am

To all who have commented: Our Family has read these Comments and truly appreciates these thoughts, and the PA Weekly for providing this Forum.The outpouring of memories and compliments has been a wonderful "salve" for our spirits this last week. As mentioned often, Dad decided that Palo Alto was a special place and that he had a role to play in keeping it that way. This was long, long before Palo Alto became "PALO ALTO." Wealthy people in this town were still doctors and lawyers... The irony that his son became a Commercial Real Estate Developer never escaped us, and we had long conversations about the merits of a lot of the project in and around Palo Alto. We miss him very much. Dan Rosenbaum.

Like this comment
Posted by Regis Anderson
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 20, 2015 at 9:42 pm

I had the privilege of working with Ruth Rosenbaum at Palo Verde School for 8 years. When our computers failed us, Dick would unfailingly come to bail us out. He was patient & efficient, which we always appreciated. I did not realize at the time his outside commitments to the community. He was amazing. Regis Anderson

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Anne Le Ziblatt, formerly of Tamarine and Bong Su, is back with a Vietnamese noodle bar in Redwood City
By Elena Kadvany | 7 comments | 3,755 views

Local Pols Debate Climate
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 3,068 views

Truth Matters (and so does good beer)
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,373 views

You Can Help: Scents and Migraines
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,181 views

The E.R.A. – no real equality yet. Why not?
By Diana Diamond | 15 comments | 1,068 views