Palo Alto residents flex their muscle | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto residents flex their muscle

2015 was a year of successful citizen activism

Citizens united over Palo Alto issues affecting their quality of life in 2015, holding federal authorities, City Hall and developers accountable for problems that included airplane noise, groundwater pumping, leaf blowers, traffic, Airbnb rentals and the failure to retain a grocer at Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center.

Residents turned out in force at City Council meetings, held round-table discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration and effectively organized through social media to get the city and other governmental bodies to listen to their concerns.

They seemed to have the ear of the council, which this year had three new members and a renewed focus on neighborhood concerns. Council members enacted new ordinances and sought to revive other issues.

Here are the top stories that made 2015 a successful year for citizen activism.

Airplane noise

Residents faced down the big guns this year. The Federal Aviation Administration rolled out its new nationwide aviation-flight system, NextGen, in April, but the federal agency's streamlining of flight paths increased the frequency of airplanes -- and the level of decibels -- over local neighborhoods. Palo Alto is the now the nexus of three major flight routes from San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which has created a conga line of aircraft over Palo Alto homes.

Residents were not going to accept the cacophony quietly. They formed a noise-abatement group with perhaps the coolest name of the year -- Sky Posse. Members launched a noise-reporting campaign of thousands of calls and emails to SFO's noise abatement office and lobbied city leaders. And they enlisted U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who brought FAA officials face to face in July with leaders of multiple cities and residents' groups.

Also in July, the City Council included airplane noise as part of the agenda for its lobbyist in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. In November, Eshoo co-sponsored a pair of bills to reform federal oversight of the issue, including re-establishment of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

By November the FAA agreed to review the existing and potentially revised flight paths, plane altitudes and route-planning procedures, including analysis and preliminary feasibility study of new routes.

Groundwater pumping

The practice of removing millions of gallons of water from the ground to construct basements for Palo Alto homes triggered outrage among residents in 2015, especially given the drought's fourth year.

Residents formed Save Palo Alto's Groundwater, which in the fall asked the City Council to place a moratorium on "dewatering" permits and to study the impact of groundwater pumping on Palo Alto's water supply.

The city's last analyses of the construction practice took place in 2003 and 2004, and the last public hearing occurred in 2008, before the drought.

Nearly 50 residents attended the City Council's Policy and Services Committee meeting on Dec. 1, with many demanding a moratorium. Committee members tentatively endorsed short-term reforms and added their own suggestions, including requiring contractors to analyze and remedy the impacts of the groundwater pumping; adding new fees based on the value of the water extracted; and finding new uses for the groundwater. The city would develop a broader long-term study on groundwater management, and they plan to revisit the topic in early 2016. This could include developing dewatering requirements tailored to the drought situation, according to a Dec. 15 Policy and Services staff report.

Edgewood Shopping Center grocery store

Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis residents held a developer's -- and the city's -- feet to the fire this year after grocer The Fresh Market pulled out of Edgewood Shopping Center. The newly redeveloped center along Embarcadero Road was nearing full occupancy in March when The Fresh Market's corporate headquarters on the East Coast decided to pull the plug on all of its California stores.

Finding a replacement grocer within six months, which is required by the city under the site's Planned Community (PC) zoning ordinance, dragged on. Neighbors, who deeply want a market to succeed in the spot, jumped in with suggestions for center owner Sand Hill Property Co. and put out feelers to speed the process along.

Sand Hill staff said this summer that the firm had reached out to 40 potential grocers with no takers. Residents fretted that the developer didn't have much incentive to find a new anchor store: The Fresh Market still holds the 10-year lease, and Sand Hill still gets paid whether there's a grocery store open there or not.

In August, residents called for the City Council to fine Sand Hill for violating its ordinance and to prevent the developer from selling new homes it built at Edgewood until a new grocer is found. The council voted on Aug. 24 to fine Sand Hill if the grocery store space wasn't filled by Sept. 30. The daily fine started on Sept. 30 at $500, increased to $750 on Oct. 1 and rose to $1,000 for each day after Oct. 1 until the space is in filled. Three weeks after the council's August vote, Sand Hill announced that Andronico's Community Markets was interested in taking over the space. But so far, an official agreement has not materialized, and Sand Hill must still pay the fines.

Leaf blowers

Gas-powered blowers were banned from Palo Alto's residential neighborhoods 10 years ago but gardeners and homeowners still flout the ordinance every week. Irritated by the barrage of sound and dust, some Palo Alto residents this summer decided to make some noise of their own.

In June, when the City Council was weighing the decision about whether to budget for a new city code-enforcement officer, a few locals, including Midtown resident Bill Rosenberg, saw an opportunity. They complained to the council about the lack of enforcement of the 10-year-old ban, which also limits the acceptable noise levels of electric blowers and their hours of usage, and pleaded for help.

Council members responded by approving a new position in the Department of Planning and Community Environment to lead the code-enforcement team and implement ordinance enforcement. The city has recently hired the new code-enforcement officer.

Residential permit parking and traffic

After years of lobbying City Hall for parking relief, citizens succeeded in getting the Residential Preferential Parking program launched in downtown neighborhoods.

The program gives residents in the parking district up to four free permits and charges downtown employees $233 (or $50 for low-income workers) to park on residential streets. Implementation began in September, with ticketing of miscreants starting Oct. 13.

The program was instantly effective, though there were drivers who simply shifted to parking on residential streets just outside the permit zone. Neighbors living on those newly congested blocks then petitioned the City Council for inclusion in the permit program, and on Dec. 14 they got their wish. The council voted to add 12 blocks to the district and limit the number of permits issued to employees to 2,000. That phase of the program is scheduled to begin April 1.

Palo Alto officials also provided some seed money to form a new Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit organization that will work to convince people who drive solo to work downtown to take other forms of transportation. The group includes a city representative, downtown stakeholders and transportation experts.

The city this year also coordinated and replaced traffic signals on Embarcadero Road near Palo Alto High School and Town & Country Village Shopping Center after receiving voluminous complaints about perpetual gridlock at the closely spaced intersections. The city is also planning to improve the larger stretch of Embarcadero from El Camino Real to High Street and in December announced it is seeking feedback from the community.

Airbnb rentals

In March, city leaders opted against regulating Airbnb rentals in neighborhoods after several City Council members broached the topic, seeking a discussion of taxing and regulating the short-term rentals. Some residents had complained that the "sharing economy" phenomenon was out of control on their blocks because of a lack of oversight by absentee landlords and a revolving door of renters. The council ultimately decided to monitor the situation and revisit the issue in a year.

The council's reticence could be short-lived. Residents again spoke out about the issue in October, when it became clear that single-family homes are being used as hostels and hacker spaces with as many as 16 people living in bunk-bed accommodations.

Related content:

Neighborhoods: Decisions made, decisions deferred


Read other Year in Review stories:

2015: Palo Alto's year of resistance

Difficult start to the year gives way to soul-searching, new visions for Palo Alto school district

What is community worth to you?
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21 people like this
Posted by yes, we have no...
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 31, 2015 at 9:11 am

More than nine months have passed since Fresh Market shuttered it's doors and more than three months since the (premature) report of Andronico's occupying the space. Yet, still no evidence of progress towards a grocery store in this location. Nothing. Nada. Meanwhile, housing units in this development - that the city only allowed to be built in exchange for public benefit of securing a grocer - have been sold. The developer has failed to honor guarantees made in his agreement with the city to locate a grocer but has meanwhile reaped $30M from sale of these new homes. The new year marks the 10 year anniversary since Albertson's closed at this location in 2006. Can we please get information (if not resolution) on the progress of occupying this chronically vacant space?

24 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 31, 2015 at 10:35 am

It's been over a year of sleepless nights and a lowered quality of life due to the non-stop whining of airplane noise over our home. I think a continued effort and "fight for change" should be a top priority for our city council in 2016.

24 people like this
Posted by Voices on Housing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2015 at 10:57 am

And don't forget important community engagement on housing issues within the city! From rallies to help find housing solutions for the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park to the great turnout at the Comp Plan's Summit event in May, to hearing from residents from all ages and socio economic backgrounds speaking at Council about the need to prioritize the creation of housing units this October and November, it is heartwarming to see so many community members talking about ideas and solutions to this important issue in constructive ways.

28 people like this
Posted by tt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2015 at 11:00 am

SFO just broke another record having its 50 millionth traveler this week and with three major arrival routes(sky super highway) to SFO converging over Palo Alto at below 4,000 feet at 80% of the time.

Web Link

Palo Alto has sadly become the noise dump ground thanks to FAA's flawed next gen roll out.

I implore the city council making airplane noise reduction its 2016 top priority instead of more housing developments.

10 people like this
Posted by Kris Loew
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 31, 2015 at 11:11 am

I'd also like to add to this list Olenka Villarreal and her tireless, charitable work on Magical Bridge Playground at Mitchell Park. Eight years ago, she saw a desperate need for a playground that would serve those living with disabilities, both physical and cognitive, and she set to work to secure land from the City of Palo Alto, raise private financing, seek expert design and insight from the community, and find a team of volunteers and builders to make her vision come to life. In June 2015, her work was realized with the grand opening of the playground, and this magical play space has since been celebrated by countless people from around the world. I'm proud to be a part of Palo Alto -- where everyday citizens can make extraordinary things happen, like building a playground where everyone can play.

6 people like this
Posted by Art
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 31, 2015 at 11:12 am

This 2015 year marked a Turning Point Year for Palo Alto in reforming its zoning near industrial sites with Extremely Hazardous Materials. For the past decade, residents who live close to the Research Park have been appealing to City officials to come to terms with the zoning lapse that had allowed CPI to reconstruct its plating facility and increase its stock of extremely hazardous materials without consulting or even notifying the neighborhood.

The issue has taken a long time to resolve. But finally our City government officials, both Staff and Council, recognize that having allowed this facility to be located so close to homes was, in hindsight, an unwise decision. The City Council action in November 2015, and unanimous City Council vote in supporting City Staff recommendation, validates residents’ long standing position: the current situation poses a risk to nearby residents, is incompatible with good zoning standards and current zoning practices, and changes must be made. The Council agreed to a plan proposed by the Staff and voted to take action.

20 people like this
Posted by Tired of Cronyism
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2016 at 12:22 pm

So in sum: New low altitude flight paths and ever increasing flight capacity stopped? No. Groundwater pumping in extended drought conditions halted? No. Grocery store opened? No. Leaf blower EXISTING codes enforced? No. Residential parking and traffic relief? Some. Airbnb violating leasing laws stopped? No. And this translates into success how? And citizens are being represented by our elected officials how? Cronies must be rooted out of our government at every level and real representatives of citizens voted in. We have to move beyond anger and talk and be the change we want to see, for e.g., sick of aircraft low over your homes 24/7: boycott flying and don't receive or ship by air until altitudes are raised and limits placed on capacity.

17 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 6, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Airplane noise is highest on my list because it affects quality of life the most: sleep, concentration, peace, relaxation, TV watching, telephone calls. It's nearly all hours of the day and affects the most people in our city. We should be able to come home to peace.

19 people like this
Posted by L'Enfer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 6, 2016 at 3:39 pm

L'Enfer is a registered user.

The quality of life has plummeted due to Chinese speculation, the loss of retail, too many offices sprouting up in non-designated areas, fickle-minded zoning changes, ghost houses, over-size McMansions on undersize lots, excessive low-flying air traffic, stressful middle and high schools, and non-citizens allowed all the rights of citizens

14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 6, 2016 at 5:48 pm

"And citizens are being represented by our elected officials how?"

Not very much. The town government is run by the city manager. By law, only the CM can direct staff; elected officials cannot. Couple that with the Brown Act's restrictions on inter-official communications (to the extent they're not subverted), and you have nine elected officials that mainly react to cues from the CM--their nominal employee. Nominal because, although our elected officials hire the CM and are legally required to evaluate the CM's performance annually, they outsource these duties to a consultant at no small expense, and only append to the report their obsequious praise for their master.

34 people like this
Posted by Bogey
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2016 at 6:56 pm

City Council members sit on a dias, and mix-n-match the limited options spoon fed to them by city Staff, at the direction of the City Manager... this is not leadership.

Palo Alto has become a plantation run by the real-estate industry, and the residents are just sheep to be sheared through higher rents, higher retail prices, and higher taxes.

The real-estate industry doesn't care about the quality of life in Palo Alto. In fact, when residents get fed up and leave, that only provides the real-estate industry with more inventory to flip... so the worse it gets the more money they make.

Every real-estate firm in Palo Alto has a list of every residential address, who lives there, and how OLD they are. The real-estate industry hates old people who live too long and deprive them of inventory. They hate old people who don't support overpriced rents by shopping/eating at overpriced retailers. They hate old people because they remember what a nice place Palo Alto was, before the real-estate developers ruined it.

6 people like this
Posted by Stephanie Enos
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 7, 2016 at 5:00 pm

I am in agreement with almost all of the comments above. I hope that the city manager takes a look at them. It's a sorry picture for what used to be a very livable city with strong neighborhoods and great outdoor spaces.

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