New rules target 'revolving door' between City Hall and developers | News | Palo Alto Online |


New rules target 'revolving door' between City Hall and developers

Palo Alto committee considers banning board members from also serving as applicants

The revolving door between Palo Alto City Hall and the high-stakes world of private development is opaque and well used.

In a city that depends on architects to volunteer their time for local boards and commissions, it's not unusual for a member to switch places during a meeting and assume the applicant's chair.

That's what happened to Randy Popp, former chair of Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board, who stepped down from the dais during a June meeting so that he could represent in front of the board a developer looking to build two Marriott hotels on San Antonio Avenue. In doing so, Popp didn't violate any local policies or state laws. He did, however, face criticism from neighborhood leaders for the dual role and resigned from the board shortly after the meeting.

Former planning commission Chair Daniel Garber faced similar scrutiny from the community for his work on 27 University Ave., a controversial project that included four office towers and a theater and that became a poster child for backdoor negotiations. This occurred despite the facts that Garber was hired by the city rather than by the developer to work on the project and he resigned from the commission after accepting the assignment.

Steve Emslie, a former planning director and deputy city manager, had a more direct role in 27 University Ave. as the chief negotiator on behalf of the city with billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga.

Emslie resigned from his position shortly after the council shot down the project in the face of intense community opposition and swiftly transitioned to Goodyear Peterson Hayward Associates, a development-consulting firm whose client list includes Palantir and The Sobrato Group. Earlier this year, he was part of a development team that proposed a four-story project for the busy intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real.

Situations in which a commissioner or former staff member appeals to the city on behalf of a private client aren't common. Nor are they, however, particularly rare. Former architectural board members Heather Young and David Solnick, both architects, have each made presentations to their former board colleagues. Current Historic Resources Board member Margaret Wimmer straddled the blurry line in January, when she represented a homeowner who wanted to make alterations to a historic home on Lincoln Avenue.

Now, Palo Alto officials are looking to tighten the rules and end this practice. Under a proposal that the City Council's Policy and Services Committee discussed Tuesday night, current board members and commissioners would no longer be allowed to appeal to their colleagues on behalf of private entities.

Committee Chair Pat Burt and Councilman Tom DuBois both strongly supported adopting the policy, while Councilmen Marc Berman and Cory Wolbach requested more time to deliberate before making a decision – a request that was ultimately granted by their colleagues.

During its discussion, the committee didn't name any names and made only vague references to recent incidents in which a commissioner or staff member appeared to have a conflict of interest. DuBois alluded to the Architectural Review Board chair's recent predicament as "an uncomfortable situation" and lobbied for a rule change that would put an end to such situations.

"I think it would be very odd to be on a lot of these commissions and boards and then get up and pitch to the colleagues that you've been working with while you're actively on this board," DuBois said. "I don't think it's something we want to have happening."

Wolbach and Berman weren't so sure. Wolbach wondered whether this new restriction would significantly lower the city's applicant pool for architectural board seats and suggested a survey of past and present board members and applicants.

Berman agreed, saying, "I would be very hesitant to create any more onerous rules that would create a consequence of really narrowing the applicant pool to just retired applicants.

"Then you're really not getting the best review you possibly could," he said.

Burt agreed that there is "potential that we'd limit our candidate pool considerably with such a prohibition." Yet he also noted that most architects in Palo Alto work on single-family homes and, as a result, are unlikely to face public hearings in front of the board, which typically deals with larger project.

Burt said he favored a new policy that would ban active board members and commissioners from appearing in front of their own board.

"I do think it's problematic," Burt said of such situations. "It's not necessarily the fault of the architects who serve but by the nature of it. It's as close to certainty an appearance of a conflict of interest or a 'revolving door' as we have – with some degree of frequency."

While DuBois agreed, the committee ultimately stopped short of adopting the change. Instead, they directed the City Clerk's office to consider conducting the survey that Wolbach requested before resuming the discussion next month.

In addition to considering this rule change, the committee unanimously agreed to expand the list of city officials who would have to wait at least a year after leaving office before they could represent any other person or entity at City Hall.

Palo Alto's existing policy already includes such a requirement for most senior officials, including the four council-appointed officers (city manager, city attorney, city auditor and city clerk), assistant city managers, planning director, police chief, fire chief and assistant city attorney.

The new change would expand the policy so that it applies to all department heads.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


8 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of University South
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:07 am

This change sounds like it makes sense. I can see the worry that it would realistically bar most architects from serving on the ARB other than the ones who build small private homes. But on the other hand, it does sound like it creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I guess the question is whether it's important to get architects who have real experience with the type of project they are critiquing, or whether it's more important to get architects who are completely independent.

7 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:50 am

I look at the Survey Monkey Building directly across the street from the train station and wonder who thought up and approved that design? It is mostly glass and that is not the type building you put next to a train station, especially since that station may be torn apart for a four rail system.

Further - there is a conference room directly observable from the sidewalk and street - all glass. So who is directing competitive company strategy in an all glass observable room that anyone can stand there and look in at.

I truly wonder what developer thinks this up for that location and purpose and what city council approves it. I am happy for the company that it is moving to San Mateo and gets itself off the street.

There is some thing wrong with this whole process where form, fit and function is totally ignored.

As to the other group at 100 Hamilton - good luck on your high security business - I am sure that all of the people walking by can pick up a lot of info with the right equipment. So what are you selling - security or pop culture.

25 people like this
Posted by Salena
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:54 am

What are Cory and Marc talking about when they say they are concerned that strengthened conflict of interest rules would weaken the candidate pool and result in a poorer result? Why in the world they want candidates like this that have obvious troubling or corrupting conflicts and self interest? What terrible values and priorities. If we need to open the qualifications to a wider range of people, do so. Far better than we keep institutionalizing the road to corruption.Thank you Burt and DuBois.

5 people like this
Posted by ARB does Tend to Overstep, but we need specialists for plan review.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:58 am

It's very important to have architects in these roles. The average person does not know how to read architectural plans very well, especially the complicated details of plans for larger projects like those that have been coming forward lately.

I do think that the ARB tends bend the rules often, encouraging higher density (when they have NO business at all discussing land use. That is not their purview. They should stick to commenting on architectural elements of a project ONLY.

I am disappointed how few projects go through transportation review. How new projects connect to the community transportation facilities matters a LOT. The ARB can't do that work. They have shown time and again they are ill equipped for it. They yammer about building higher density to support transit, but they have no clue at all what it takes to create a project that has the transportation elements that contribute to that kind of change.

Council should draw careful lines defining the ARB's purview and make sure that every project gets thorough Transportation review by Transportation staff (EARLY in the planning process--as soon as a proposal is submitted, BEFORE application application is submitted) and later by the PTC and Council.

26 people like this
Posted by Eva
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:14 am

The Architectural Review Board needs a shake up. It seems like EVERY new development in South Palo Alto on El Camino is violating setbacks. Multiple story buildings are built right up the sidewalk. I don't understand why we as a City are allowing developers to continually override the setbacks. Developers WANT to build in Palo Alto. They should be catering to our needs rather than the other way around.

19 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:28 am

Chip is a registered user.

Developers want to build n PA & some ARB members want to form ties to developers, either as an inroad to doing future business with the developers themselves or for the ego boost of being able to say they "..know & have worked with ...." for whatever benefits such an association can provide, be it bragging rights or a c.v. item.
As long as developers have money & influence to spread around, some ARB members who work in development/construction/architecture are susceptible to the smell of future benefits.

3 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:37 am

All of this is a gray area and yet if there were a true conflict of interest, the City Attorney office would be all over it on a case by case basis. There is expertise in our community - we should be thankful of that. What we need to do is make sure people recuse themselves when necessary.

16 people like this
Posted by Staff
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:37 am

We have paid city staff that have the skills (or should have the skills!) to review architectural documents, we do not need citizen volunteers for that. The ARB is supposed to only comment on the design elements from an aesthetic viewpoint. Sadly, the ARB is also often thrust into the role of catching exceptions to City guidelines that staff has allowed through (usually because they got tired of fighting with the developer).

We don't need full-fledged architects for the ARB, just people with design sense and an ability to understand the City guidelines.

8 people like this
Posted by Staff
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:39 am

>> if there were a true conflict of interest, the City Attorney office would be all over it on a case by case basis.

LOL! If the city attorney were "all over" anything the City wouldn't be sued (and lose) right and left.

9 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:43 am

What type of business are we trying to attract?

Technical companies that are working big time secure projects need to be in a office / business park where the building has both natural and other buffer space - parking lots. Think Stanford Research Park - look at the buildings - note they have buffer from the street and security on site. Go look at SRI.

No serious business can be in the middle of the downtown in a building that has questionable security features relative to building materials.
No major company out there sits exposed for every data spy to walk by and pick up data by hanging out at the bus stop.

The downtown needs to focus on retail, commercial / residential uses.

Technology businesses need to focus on getting themselves at a business park that has natural buffer space so they can protect their proprietary data. Do we not have a "proprietary Information" expert in our midst?

So how does a business sitting out there totally exposed sell their product?
Not going to happen - go public and see what happens.

7 people like this
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:19 pm

@resident 1
Isolating business parks, shopping centers and housing is EXACTLY what got us into this congested, auto-centric suburb in the first place. Mono-culure zoning is outdated and unsustainable and makes areas islands in a sea of parking lots -- empty of life after-hours. Having residential units above retail with a layer of commercial is what makes towns interesting and creative. We need a new way of thinking regarding our zoning and sticking businesses into business "parks" is not environmentally or socially sound.
I think we should leave our R-1 districts alone (other than allowing granny units etc) but put mixed-use buildings next to good transit.
Architects and Planners understand this, which is why we have these commissions -- to help guide LAY people (Councils) with expertise. It's too bad all this Commission-bashing is limiting rather than enhancing the dialogue. Just because you don't like their aesthetic doesn't mean they're incompetent, it just means you want Palo Alto to look like Santa Barbara. Putting people on these boards who just agree with your viewpoint is called rubber-stamping, not a democracy. Taste changes (or we'd all be stuck in houses that look like cottages or castles), cities change and evolve, the environment is changing-- and we need thoughtful, articulate and dedicated volunteers to help. It's always so easy to point fingers and lay blame.

5 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Downtowner - look at the companies that are in business on the stock exchange. They are in locations which protect their proprietary data. And that is why they are successful. If someone is in the security of technical data then they should probably start their careers in a company that has a successful track record in doing that. Then they will learn the rules of the road for companies who have to compete in those endeavors. There are very clear rules of the road and if you do not know them your data will end up in the hands of the "other groups" - TBD.

Stanford Shopping Center is not isolated. Stanford sports are not isolated.
Hillsdale Shopping Center is not isolated. Stanford hospital is not isolated.

I think you are confusing businesses which do not compete in technology vs those that do. The carpet business is actually a hot market right now but is not on the stock exchange as a "technology" business.

And the commissions and architectural board has not hit the mark - they have major mistakes all over the place.

There is a long range set of circumstances discussed on other streams which are going to disrupt the businesses that are along the transit route - a lot of discussion on that topic. So land use has to recognize both current and planned events on a regional basis that has a direct effect of what is happening in each town/city.

If you are not in a business that has to compete against existing businesses for government contracts then you do not understand what this is about.
Professorville not withstanding we are not a sieve of information that we spend money on developing technology then hand out to anyone on the street.

14 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Allowing commission members to sit in judgment on proposals from their co-members and clients is the definition of the unspoken "I'll wash your back if you'll wash mine" type conflict-of-interest.

If City Council members are unable to see this, well, I question whether they possess the intellectual capacity and moral integrity to serve our community.

Participating on these committees should be considered an honor. If the city is unable to recruit suitable candidates to serve for reasons other than their own financial gain, then it's time to re-evaluate the purpose, procedures, and qualifications of the body.

1 person likes this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:50 pm


Have you heard of Palatir? They are located in a number of buildings in downtown Palo Alto.

4 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:52 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

The ARB should recommend, not dictate
When my neighbor rebuilt, I went and looked at the file. The ARB required a 'belly band'. Not one house nearby had one. How is this maintaining compatible styling?
The dictated the COLOR of another neighbors Garage door.
The ARB should not be the Style Police (except when those specific CC&R's exist).

33 people like this
Posted by Questionable
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm

If so many ARB members wish to cultivate ties with developers, shouldn't they be dismissed due to conflict of interest?

Are developers promoting ties with ARB members? If they are, they could be charged with influence-peddling, a jail-able offense.

These two entities need to be kept separate at all cost in the interest of fairness; otherwise, there are too many chances for illegal and unethical things to occur.

1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of University South
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:57 pm

Resident 1 - those worries about security were true in the past, but that's not really true anymore with modern building standards, even for government buildings.

Tyson's Corner near DC is a great example. It's the hub of federal security contracting with a bunch of three-letter agencies - the very highest security that private companies would need. It's historically been much like SRP, with huge parking lots and the office spaces segregated from the street and from retail.

However, it's just become a huge, traffic-laden mess.

Now, the county is moving Tyson's Corner to be more mixed-use, putting in housing, a transit line, and encouraging the office buildings to become more pedestrian-friendly. It's going for a more downtown feel rather than an office park. The government contractors who are there have been supportive, and the goal is to reduce traffic substantially by putting the housing next to the offices next to retail and restaurants, and all of it next to transit.

It would be very interesting to see something similar for SRP. As it is, the downtown companies seem to have fewer people driving than SRP does, and that's a good thing! Anything that reduces traffic on Page Mill Road would be great. The city needs to make a plan, and Stanford needs to be held accountable.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Gee Chris - I attended a presentation and book signing for your leader at the Commonwealth Club. And yes the reference to 100 Hamilton is the correct address. And I have been to the web site where their "business" is profiled.
They have not gone public.

And if you haven't noticed one of the topics on these sites is the prevalence of Palatir employees on the boards. Chris - you are going to have to keep up the pace here.

12 people like this
Posted by Ethics check
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Here's a question for Councilmembers Wohlbach and Berman:

You say are interested in having qualified applicants serve. Why would a qualified applicant with integrity want to apply for a commission knowing that people with conflicts of interest can also be "serving"? If you were a qualified applicant who held themselves to a high standard of integrity, wouldn't you want to know that your fellow committee members are worthy of the public trust?

To my point: perhaps as councilmembers you could clarify why PTC Commissioner Michael Alcheck (whose family LLCs are deeply into real estate development) discloses NO financial information in his financial disclosure form which is a public document required for the application process, and yet he was still appointed to the commission.

Is it not curious that Commissioner Alcheck --who rarely misses an opportunity to say he wants to bust Palo Alto's 50 foot height limit-- is also a contributor to Mark Berman's campaign?

3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Tyson's Corner is a shopping center with trendy stores, restaurants, and hotels. The actual businesses are in the outlying areas. Yes - there are apartments because the people that work in the area have to have a place to live.

Go to Bethesda - the business are near a shopping mall but are not in the shopping mall. And there are residential areas that are not intermixed with the major companies. And many of the companies have their own hotel facilities within the buildings for visiting personnel. Like Marriott International Corporate facilities.

The zoning for commercial and residential is not the same for the actual businesses in that area. Most of the major businesses have many outlying locations where different product lines are developed.

As to SRP it is a small location and is surrounded by a university with housing, homes, apartments, and transit already existing. Don't get your comparison here. It has no comparative value.

2 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:50 pm

@SteveU: Your neighbor's house had nothing to do with the ARB - the ARB does to review houses. It went through a process called "Individual Review", which is run by one man who has complete control over the appearance of 2 story houses.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:52 pm

sorry - ARB does NOT review houses.

7 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Grandma
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Where is it written that everyone on the architectural review board has to be an architect? It seems to me that having that limitation on prospective members is what has put the city in the position it is today. I can't see that any of the architects on the committee speak for Palo Alto residents who may have a very different idea of what kind of buildings work for the city and for the residents. The ARB has approved some of the ugliest architecture I've ever seen not to mention that much of the new construction does not relate in any way to buildings already in place. And much of it just looks cheap. If the City Council made an effort to populate the committee with people who are not architects, or developer shils, I bet there would be lots of folks applying.

7 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 28, 2015 at 2:45 pm

The ARB has not always been composed of only architects. In recent years non-architects who applied for the ARB have been turned down. I seem to remember that Susan Fineberg who had served on the PT&C a few years ago applied for the ARB and was turned down. Another problem I noticed when being present at the ARB is that the architects are reluctant to criticize proposals presented by their professional peers. It's very important to have non-architects appointed to provide balance.

Seems to me that the city attorney is pretty lenient when it comes to less obvious conflicts of interest. Recently when discussing the proposed annual 50,000 downtown cap council members Scharff and Kniss participated despite my understanding that they both have an interest in commercial properties in the downtown area, or just outside the area being discussed.

Another example is when previous council member John Barton, an architect, refused to excuse himself from a very contentious issue requiring a zone change even though the architect presenting the proposal had used him as a sub-contractor and might well do so again.

4 people like this
Posted by Nowhere
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:02 pm

@pa grandma. "Where is it written that ARB must all be architects?" Nowhere. The city rules do say that 3 of the 5 should be architects and the othe 2 can be none architects. The architects can be retired or work I other cities.

10 people like this
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Palo Altan wrote: “… if there were a true conflict of interest, the City Attorney office would be all over it on a case by case basis.”

The city attorney was involved with the Arrillaga mess. In a closed meeting, she was ready to sell 7.7 acres of city property to him. See Grand Jury Report at Web Link

11 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:00 pm

The ARB is a giant joke! It is specified that members have to be architects or designers, but they don't even have to live in Palo Alto. It is clear from the members of this board over the years that they are members of large architectural firms (and they seem to be able to take a lot of time off to serve). Undoubtedly this looks good on their resumes and doesn't hurt if their companies bring up plans before the board.

We need to get rid of this board entirely. A combined ARB and Planning Transportation committee would be good. It should be made up only of Palo Alto residents and no need for an architectural degree, since most of us can understand the law and know an ugly building when we see one. The city council should come down hard on these boards and instruct them to follow the laws for appropriate zoning and set backs - no exemptions. And no one with any conflict should be allowed to serve.

4 people like this
Posted by Staff
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:24 pm


"Like" times 1000!!!!

I can't believe Gooyer and Lew were re-appointed - neither of them reside in Palo Alto and they do not reflect Palo Alto's majority values in their votes.

Like this comment
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2015 at 1:31 pm

The developers and groups like Palo Alto Forward are helping PA make better use of the available land. For that they are to be commended. We can't let developers do anything they want, but only following the directives of a small yet very vocal minority will make things infinitely worse. The developers are much more our allies and partners than the anti-growthers. Halting all growth isn't a realistic option, so there is no expectation that scenario will be allowed to happen. Dense housing and development is garnering increasing support in the Bay Area, including Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2015 at 1:32 pm

"I look at the Survey Monkey Building directly across the street from the train station and wonder who thought up and approved that design?"

Maybe they did a survey? ;-)

2 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 29, 2015 at 7:00 pm

My understanding was that Survey Monkey was identified very early on as the tenant and to a certain extent the building was designed with them in mind. Also the chamber of commerce would be the non-profit occupying the "public benefit" space. although that nugget of information appeared to have been kept under wraps until the developer had got various concessions in return for providing a public benefit.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 29, 2015 at 9:15 pm

You do not put a glass building cross the street from a train station that is going to have HSR going by, as well as many pedestrians who are in that area. The street is not even that wide.

I was in a hotel in Burbank across the street from the LA Metro train and when that went by it had a big impact on the building, despite the fact that there was a cement wall as a buffer.

We are on a earthquake fault - one of the most famous. So why a glass building?

There seems to be a proliferation of glass buildings of late - how much sense does that make? None. That is a cheap looking building.

If you expect the building to last about twenty years then you need something that has more substance.

And Survey Monkey is moving to San Mateo. Have you checked out their buildings? Beautiful buildings with substance and presence. Check out the designs for Menlo Park - buildings with substance.

3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 29, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Who is the architect and developer for that Survey Monkey Building?
Maybe it is time that we start identifying who is building in the city.
Maybe any new construction that is taking place needs to have the participants identified.
We should be noting if we are spreading around the business and providing competitive bids for property development.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg_H
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 30, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Greg_H is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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.

Pluto's appears to close after more than two decades in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 14 comments | 7,013 views

What Local Teens are Saying
By Sherry Listgarten | 19 comments | 2,816 views

Plastic vegie bag ban: Pragmatic? -- or simply politically correct?
By Diana Diamond | 35 comments | 2,093 views

Edible Education – Free Course - UC Berkeley Online
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,329 views

Letting Christmas Linger
By Cheryl Bac | 4 comments | 539 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 26 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away more than $7 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. When you make a donation, every dollar is automatically doubled, and 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.