Amid policy clashes, Palo Alto council to meet with planning commission | News | Palo Alto Online |


Amid policy clashes, Palo Alto council to meet with planning commission

Joint session on Nov. 30 offers chance to air grievances, consider improvements

It's no secret that the rift between the Palo Alto City Council and its main land-use advisory panel, the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC), has widened in the past year, with each body pointedly criticizing the policies favored by the other.

On Nov. 30, the council and the commission will try to mend the frayed relationship and discuss better cooperation moving forward when they meet for an annual joint session. The discussion will include a recap of the commission's accomplishments in the past year, discussion of its role in Palo Alto's planning process and consideration of reforms to make cooperation between the elected council and the appointed commission more functional.

Normally a perfunctory hearing, the meeting has special significance this year as land-use issues continue to dominate City Hall discussions and as the two bodies continue to clash on policies for addressing the city's recent growth spurt.

In October, four council members proposed downgrading the commission's role in an upcoming discussion of accessory-dwelling units, also known as in-law units. The proposal fizzled by a 4-4 vote, with the four council members associated with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy all voting to have the council's Policy and Services Committee vet the issue before sending it to the commission.

Councilman Eric Filseth, who made the proposal to delay the planning commission's participation in the process, said he had not been impressed with the commission's recent deliberations and accused the commission of pursuing a vision of "unlimited growth" and urbanization.

Councilman Tom DuBois concurred and said that the commission has been trying to set its own policies and acting "at odds with the council."

Other council members defended the commission, noting that the group of volunteers and their input are valuable, even if their conclusions are different from those of the council. But even Cory Wolbach, one of the council's most diplomatic members, acknowledged at the October meeting that "there is a feeling of distrust from both sides."

The policy clashes between the council and its main advisory body have become routine. The planning commission earlier this year vociferously criticized the council's effort to institute an annual cap on office development, while the council has summarily dismissed the commission's proposals to reform the city's controversial "planned-community" (PC) zoning process.

In rejecting the commission's recommendation as inadequate, Councilman Pat Burt cited a "very strong disconnect between what the commission recommended or even considered and what the council gave as guidance."

Commission members, for their part, haven't been shy about critiquing council policies. At a Sept. 30 meeting, Commissioner Kate Downing blasted a council-favored proposal to remove a zoning rule that gives developers density bonuses for demolishing seismically deficient buildings and replacing them with new structures (they would still get a bonus for rehabilitating the buildings).

"Is the council really saying that extra square footage and extra parking are more important than the lives of the people who live and die in these buildings?" Downing asked.

Three of her colleagues signaled that they agreed with her sentiment. At the October meeting, DuBois said he has "serious issues" with that statement.

According to the Nov. 30 meeting agenda, the biggest chunk of the meeting will be a discussion of the commission's "purview and expectation." The discussion will also include a review of the commission's 2015 work and examples of the commission's "value add" in the process.

The commission's annual report states that the commission has, over the past year, "provided input on a range of important land use, zoning, transportation, and related topics, improved the efficiency of our meetings, and engaged citizens through our regular meetings."

In 19 meetings it has held since October 2014 (when the last annual report came out), the commission has reviewed numerous designs for bike boulevards, vetted the city's Residential Preferential Parking Program (RPPP), discussed the Downtown Development Cap and spent several long meetings wrestling with the planned-community process and with proposals to cap growth and support local retail.

"The PTC had a productive 2015 due in large part to the commission's current leadership which proved to be very effective in encouraging thoughtful and concise discussions on the numerous topics reviewed," according to the memo, which is signed by Chair Greg Tanaka.

The memo also makes numerous recommendations for things that the city can do better. This includes encouraging more involvement from the public by offering more digital venues for citizen input. The city, according to the memo, "can lead the nation in digitization of involvement; we are missing a tremendous amount of input from the community."

The commission's memo also calls for the city to continue encouraging pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces; increase opportunity for "entrepreneurial and resourceful entrants, starting with living units, affordable commerce and enterprise space"; and explore synergies between the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board. The memo also states that the commission "sees potential in crowdsourcing and open competitions to lure space planning and public structure design to develop the city's unique identity."

In its final paragraph, the memo acknowledges that the commission "serves at the pleasure of the council, but it also plays an important role by providing analysis of planning and transportation topics, suggesting alternative avenues for staff, and furnishing a public record that befits the development and planning issues facing Palo Alto."

"Planning and transportation issues are not always attractive or interesting, but we are a group that has volunteered our time to thoughtfully explore them – we hope that our time and recommendations are appreciated, and if the council has recommendations on how we can improve, we are open to all suggestions," the memo states.

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35 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 24, 2015 at 1:23 pm

The Commission(s) all serve at the pleasure of the Council. If the Council is unhappy with the way the Commission is being run, simply dissolve the Commission and appoint new Commissioners.

33 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm

If the the Planning and Transport Commission want to change land use policy then they should represent Palo
Alto residents by being an elected body. Until that time they were appointed to serve the council's agenda, not to subvert it.

41 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 24, 2015 at 3:40 pm

There is a widespread feeling that the prior council, some of whom ran for council and were defeated, hurriedly appointed folks (Is stacked too strong a word?) to the Planning Commission that reflected their (voted down) views of the future of Palo Alto. This left the incoming council with a strong residentialist flavor to grapple with a Planning Commission made up of appointees by the outgoing ones.

15 people like this
Posted by Jeremy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 24, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Sorry but the council does not have a strong residentialist flavor-- I would say it is 5-4. The old council may have known that with Holman as mayor and Dubois and filseth on the council, the only way to maintain a fair balance was to appoint open minded members to,the PTC that did not owe any allegiance to PASZ.

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2015 at 5:13 pm

@Jeremy has a point here: if you're an ideological minority and the majority doesn't agree with you, then elections are not definitely not your friend. In that case it's ok to subvert them.

36 people like this
Posted by Filled with Regret
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Until the day he resigns or is voted out, I will regret voting for Cory Wolbach. His smooth talking was all dishonest.

29 people like this
Posted by Hurting_PA
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 24, 2015 at 5:57 pm

The current PTC is hurting Palo Alto. Has anyone watched how they battle staff and don't seem to know (or want to follow) city ordinances? How they can take pretty clear council direction and subvert into hours long discussion on brand new policy under the guise of "brainstorming"? It's nuts!

It appears Council has been hesitant to go "nuclear" and simply dismiss them all. Council should be commended for trying to make this work. But the PTC's errors are growing - their unwillingness to follow council's lead is creating disfunction that's harming us all. Coupled with the previous discussion on these boards about recusal issues, it's time for some of them to go.

11 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 24, 2015 at 7:58 pm

The council may be split now, but that is not what the majority of voters expected when they voted in the fall.

As far as voters were concerned the majority of votes went to five candidates who were (or claimed they were) residentialist: Tom Dubois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach. The sixth candidate who lost by only 37 votes was also a residentialist.

Greg Schmidt and Pat Burt who is a swing vote vs Marc Berman and Liz Kniss means there should be a majority of 6 or 7.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 25, 2015 at 1:47 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Bye Bye
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 7:26 am

[Post removed.]

23 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 25, 2015 at 7:29 am

This council should have dismissed all the PTC members appointed by the outgoing council and appoint a committee that more reflects the views of its majority. The previous council had performed an end around in order to subvert the election results and infuse the new committee with many PAF/pro development, pro growth voices.

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