The problems are clear: too many jobs, too much traffic and a housing shortage that is pushing long-time residents out of Palo Alto and allowing only the wealthiest in.
The solutions, however, remained hazy Monday night, despite years of analysis by planning staff and consultants and about four hours of deliberation by the City Council.
The city's recent analysis of four possible growth scenarios (one that would continue all current polices; another that would aim to limit growth; a third that would encourage more housing; and a fourth that would focus on sustainability policies) showed that all of these paths lead to the same place: a city that in 2030 will have three jobs for every employed resident.
Though the city could try to alleviate the congestion by promoting transit and other modes of transportation, improving the city's shuttle network and encouraging more housing for workers, the Draft Environmental Impact Report that the city released earlier this month suggests that significantly lowering the city's jobs-housing imbalance would be a difficult, if not impossible, task.
Faced with this predicament, the City Council on Monday night added a new wrinkle to the ongoing update of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, when it directed staff to consider a fifth scenario. The new scenario would focus on improving the city's "quality of life" by limiting job growth and adopting policies geared toward reducing traffic, parking shortages and greenhouse gas emissions. In the months ahead, it will be up to planning staff to determine what exactly these policies will be and to analyze their potential effects.
The council reached its decision to add another scenario to the Comprehensive Plan after hearing from nearly two dozen residents. Some complained about the city's worsening housing crisis, while others lamented the rapid pace of growth.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said the number of jobs in the city jumped from about 78,765 in 2000 to 95,460 in 2014. Current data shows that in the past four years alone, the number of jobs spiked by 10,000 even as housing production has remained fairly flat. Today, the city's ratio of jobs to employed residents is 3.06 to 1, well above the Santa Clara County and Bay Area ratios of roughly 1 to 1.
"We all understand and just feel that job growth in the region since the end of Great Recession has been pretty amazing," Gitelman said. "The booming economy has led to a pace of job growth that none of us has seen in many years and we just feel it as an important issue that must be addressed."
The influx of jobs has stoked local anxieties, with several residents complaining on Monday about the city's deteriorating quality of life and urging the council to put the brakes on office development.
Resident Jeff Levinsky asked the council to adopt stringent requirements for new office developments, including mandates that they reduce traffic, parking congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Palo Alto, he said, has become a city of "growthaholics" who have been in denial about how growth is ruining the city.
"We're so addicted to growth that we can't see how it's robbing us of what has made Palo Alto great," Levinsky said
For other residents, housing was by far the bigger concern. Jessica Clark, a day care provider who grew up in Palo Alto, said the lack of housing options has "forced (her) family into crisis." Last month, she said, the monthly rent for her three-bedroom apartment went up by 20 percent, or almost $1,000. Though she was able to reach a short-term compromise with her landlord, Clark said that "realistically, there's no place for us to go when time runs out."
Moving elsewhere, she said, would mean leaving a place where she and her husband grew up and where her parents, siblings and 100-year-old grandmother all live. Other local employees, including teachers, health professionals and firefighters, are likewise getting pushed out of the community by the rising housing prices, she said.
"The city is sending us a message that says we do not value what we do for the community," Clark said.
Molly Cornfield, who grew up in Palo Alto and just returned to the city, said she now has no options for having a place of her own in the city. Cornfield, 25, said she and her husband now live with her parents, which she acknowledged "is not very fun."
"I know there are a lot of people like me who are young and want to live in Palo Alto and even work here," Cornfield said.
The council generally agreed that the four scenarios in the existing Draft Environmental Impact Report don't come close to solving the housing and traffic problems. Much of the discussion focused on a fifth scenario, which would go further than the other four in addressing these issues. Exactly how this would be done remains to be determined, though the council signaled that a big part of the solution is limiting job growth.
Specifically, the council asked staff to consider ways to regulate employment so that job growth would be even lower than under the Draft Environmental Impact Report's slowest-growth scenario.
Councilwoman Karen Holman suggested exploring new limits on office development, an idea that her colleagues approved by a 5-4 vote, with Councilmen Marc Berman, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff dissenting.
The council was more united on the broader proposal, voting 8-1 (with Councilman Greg Schmid dissenting) to direct staff to come up with new sustainability measures that would further reduce the impacts of growth, including traffic, noise and greenhouse gas emissions. Planning staff was also asked to come up with mitigation measures that would "improve quality of life in Palo Alto."
The broader motion was crafted by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff with assistance from Councilman Tom DuBois, who urged staff to consider ways to lower employee density in existing developments and to come up with a regulatory mechanism that could kick in if mitigations don't prove as effective as hoped. At the same time, if the mitigations work better than anticipated, the city could consider loosening the restrictions on housing construction.
Berman, a proponent of housing development, said Monday that the housing crunch is costing the city its diversity. The problem, he said, "is getting worse and worse."
"What mechanisms do we use to evaluate the value of having some amount of socioeconomic diversity in (our city)?" Berman asked. "I don't know how to quantify it, but I know we're losing it. And we hear it from people time and time again."
The council has already taken some baby steps toward encouraging new housing units, particularly small apartments and studios for employees and seniors. One initiative currently in the works is a revision of the city's rules for accessory-dwelling units (also known as "granny" units), with the goal of encouraging more such units. Other proposals included in the Draft Environmental Impact Report include the relaxation of the 50-foot height limit (to allow 55 or 60 feet) for housing developments in transit-rich areas, and encouraging more mixed-use developments along El Camino Real near Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Research Park.
On Monday, the council showed little appetite for dramatically enhancing the city's housing supply. Instead, much of the focus was on reducing the impacts of growth. Mirroring the comments of several of the speakers who addressed the council earlier in the evening, Scharff argued that the concern shouldn't be the jobs-housing imbalance per se, but rather the visible effects of the imbalance.
"We're not against jobs here. We're not against people moving here. We're against traffic, congestion and the impacts these things cause," Scharff said. "The fifth scenario in the Draft Environmental Impact Report should create a "positive quality of life in Palo Alto."
The scenarios are all being evaluated as part of an effort by Palo Alto officials to create a new land-use vision that would guide growth until 2030. The council was largely sympathetic with the speakers who lobbied for more housing, though some members also acknowledged that given the rapid pace of job growth, it would be all but impossible for housing construction to keep pace.
"Really, the biggest problem is that we've far outpaced the housing with the job growth," Mayor Pat Burt said. "Trying to have the housing keep up with really fast job growth is really like a dog trying to chase its own tail -- it really doesn't work."
His colleagues generally agreed that slowing the pace of growth, rather than ramping up construction, would be a better strategy.
Filseth said he supports a slow-growth scenario, framing it as a choice between having Palo Alto be a moderately-dense suburb with great schools and a regional job center.
"This is one of the most fundamental and important decisions we've had to make as a council," Filseth said.