Steep housing prices, excessive office growth and a prolonged drought all loom as challenges for Palo Alto's future, but it was the city's efforts to deal with worsening traffic and parking problems that dominated Mayor Pat Burt's "State of the City" speech Wednesday night.
Delivered at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Burt's speech highlighted the city's recent efforts to repair its aged infrastructure, make progress on a new public-safety building and meet aggressive sustainability goals, including a carbon-neutral electricity portfolio. He mentioned the council's moves to protect local retail, its efforts to reform employee benefits, its completed renovations of California Avenue and El Camino Park, and its prolonged effort to expand ultra-high-speed Internet to nearly every home in the city through a fiber network -- an effort that he suggested may finally net progress in the weeks ahead.
But it was the city's most visible challenges -- traffic congestion and parking shortages -- that drew the most attention, with Burt borrowing the old Clinton-era slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," and applying it to transportation, the council's top priority for 2016.
"We have in many of our intersection, through a lot of the day, really unmanageable, overwhelming traffic," Burt said. "This is really a big problem and one where the solution isn't going to be simple."
And this problem drives another: parking spillover that is affecting residential neighborhoods, he said.
To tackle these twin challenges, Burt said, the city has recently formed a new nonprofit, known as a Transportation Management Association (TMA), charged with getting commuters to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. The association is one of the city's primary tools for reducing the number of solo drivers in downtown by 30 percent.
Though it remains to be seen whether the city meets this goal, there are some promising signs on the horizon. The council will hear next month an update report on the TMA, which last month became an official nonprofit. At the same time, the large employers at Stanford Research Park have joined to form their own association.
Burt said that when the council requested Stanford Research Park to take steps to reduce the number of car trips going to and from the research park, the companies indicated that they're already moving ahead with a plan to do so.
"They explained that they're moving in that direction because the businesses in the Research Park see traffic congestion as the biggest threat to the well-being of their businesses," Burt said. "So the very thing that we as residents see as problems, we see businesses seeing as a problem as well. Out of that convergence of that issue and challenge, we have the opportunity to really address it and solve it."
Regional transportation projects also offer hope for relief, particularly Caltrain's electrification project, which will nearly double the system's capacity and result in a "faster and cleaner system." On the local front, the city is in the midst of developing more than a dozen bike projects, with the goal of further improving its hugely successful Safe Routes to School program. Thanks to the program, Burt noted, close to 45 percent of the city's high school students now ride bikes to school, up from about 10 percent 15 years ago. And as fewer people drive, the school corridors become safer for biking, which in turn encourages more people to bike.
"We went from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle," Burt said, referring to the school biking program. "We can do this throughout our community."
For an example of what's possible, Burt pointed to Copenhagen, where about 50 percent of the residents rely on bikes, despite Denmark's harsher weather patterns.
"Imagine what we can have in some of the best weather on the planet," Burt said.
Shifting behavior patterns also offer some encouragement, with more young people eschewing cars these days, he said. Many people in their 20s don't even have driver's licenses, much less cars, Burt said.
"We are in the midst of a really significant shift in our transportation modes, and patterns and technologies that is shocking," Burt said. "A year ago, I didn't believe a lot of this was going to be happening to the degree it appears that it may."
Palo Alto's traffic challenges also loom large in the city's policies on new developments. Last year, the council adopted an annual cap on new office buildings in the three primary commercial areas: downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. If the new projects total over 50,000 square feet, they would have to vie for approval in a "beauty contest." Traffic and parking impacts are among the criteria the city will consider in approving new projects, Burt noted.
"That competition is about who has the least impact on trip generation and parking spillover," Burt said. "Which building is the most architecturally outstanding -- not just adequate but outstanding? Which is the most sustainable building? Which might have other community benefits relating to what they're doing?"
Burt also echoed many recent community criticisms when he said he believes some of the new developments have not been the type of structures the community needs.
"We need to have buildings that relate to the street and are warm and engaging and have enough retail in them ..." Burt said.
Given the rising cost of housing, which Burt noted is "among the most expensive in the country," the city has a challenge to build housing that will "minimize and not contribute to trip generation" and not overwhelm the school system. This, he said, means focusing on small apartments that would appeal to young professionals and seniors. It also means concentrating new housing near transit-rich areas, most notably the two downtown districts.
In addition to transportation and development, Burt devoted a good portion of his roughly 50-minute speech to sustainability, both as it relates to the environment and to the city's finances. He stressed the importance of the city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which will establish aggressive new greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
He also made a case for water purification and pointed to San Jose, where a water plant currently produces water that is purer than existing tap water. Given that the energy cost for water purification is "dropping drastically," exploring this alternative could have substantial financial benefits for a city at a time when the price of Hetch Hetchy water is rising dramatically.
Burt also cited the council's recent reforms to employee benefits, changes that now require workers to contribute more toward their own pensions and health care costs. As a result, the city is now in "the strongest shape we've been in a long while with our city's finances."
Even so, Burt warned that the work is not done and that the city will have to continue its work on ensuring that long-term costs are contained.
"We're talking about having to work through negotiations to get all of our city employees to ultimately participate in making our budget long-term sustainable so we can invest in our future and so that our children can have the sort of the community that we have been able to enjoy," Burt said.