Stewart Carl believes Palo Alto needs to immediately enact a moratorium on office construction, a view that is shared by several of his fellow candidates for the City Council.
Lydia Kou thinks that the city's recently instituted cap on office development should be expanded to Stanford Research Park.
Arthur Keller wants the office cap, which is set to expire when the city adopts its Comprehensive Plan, to be made permanent.
In a different year or a different city, such views could be outliers. But in Palo Alto, where the number of jobs is roughly three times the number of employed residents, and where traffic and parking continue to dominate political discussions, opposition to commercial growth is a mainstream position that has been embraced by just about every candidate seeking a seat on the City Council, including those generally seen as more amenable to growth and development.
The city's crusade against more commercial construction has made national headlines in recent months, with newspapers far and wide expressing shock at Mayor Pat Burt's comments that the creation of jobs should be moderated. Yet when one looks at the positions of the 11 candidates vying for a council seat in November, it is clear that some would go far further than Burt in limiting commercial expansion. Candidates' statements -- in recent interviews, at election forums and in questionnaires -- suggest that whomever the voters elect in November, commercial developers will have plenty of reasons for concern.
When asked in a questionnaire by the residents' group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) about the council's recently adopted office cap, all candidates but Leonard Ely said they support it (Ely, a commercial broker, didn't elaborate on why he opposes the cap. Candidate Danielle Martell did not respond to the questionnaire, but her position statement begins with the words "Stop citywide overdevelopment").
Even Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka, who both serve on the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and who took a skeptical stance toward the office cap when they were reviewing it last year, now say they support the constraint on commercial growth. Fine last August called the office cap a "blunt instrument to address quality of life issues," but wrote in the PAN questionnaire he would like to limit office growth to 50,000 square feet per year until the city adopts its updated Comprehensive Plan (consistent with the council's current policy). Fine, who currently chairs the commission, also suggested that it may be appropriate to approve only those office projects that reduce the city's jobs-housing imbalance, presumably by also including new housing.
Fine doesn't favor a moratorium on all office growth, however, noting in the questionnaire that most problems come from existing office projects and that such a moratorium would be a "serious threat to our economy."
"Additionally, the office and traffic problems are regional, so even if we do pass a moratorium, office growth will occur in Menlo Park or Mountain View, and then Palo Alto will suffer from cut-through traffic," Fine wrote.
Tanaka, who chaired the commission last year, favors a moratorium on office development, at least until the city completes its Comprehensive Plan update. And when it comes to office development in general, Tanaka indicated that he prefers small startup spaces over large corporate headquarters. In the PAN questionnaire, Tanaka said he favored limiting "Class A" office space and maintaining height limits of 35 to 50 feet for commercial development in the city's main commercial areas. This, he said, would help protect Palo Alto's heritage as a "renowned hub for incubating new economic sectors in startup spaces like bedrooms, garages, coffee shops, plug & play suites."
On Palo Alto's political spectrum, both Tanaka and Fine are generally associated with the wing of the council that is more amenable to growth. Each has been endorsed by Marc Berman, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach, council members who often find themselves clashing with the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing.
But distinctions between adherents to the two competing philosophies are almost imperceptible on the matter of office space. Greer Stone, a candidate who has the endorsement of the four "residentialist" council members, shares Tanaka's belief that small startups should be given preference to high-tech giants. In fact, the city should change its zoning code to limit research-and-development downtown to companies with 50 employees or fewer, Stone argued in the PAN questionnaire, "to facilitate more startups and (fewer) large companies."
While Stone does not advocate for a moratorium, some of the policies he proposes would create new obstacles for commercial developers. Stone suggests conditioning approval of every new development on the developer's ability to cut down by 30 percent the anticipated traffic that the new building would bring. The developer would have to come back to council within a year to prove that his traffic-reduction plan worked or face a penalty.
"Too often developers promise mitigated, or no impact, from their developments, and then we are left with more clogged streets and dearth of parking after it is built," Stone wrote. "I would require the developer to pay for, and conduct, a study on the various impacts their development will have. After the study is complete, they will have to sign an affidavit swearing to its accuracy."
Others in the "residentialist" camp share Stone's suspicions when it comes to developers. A central plank in Lydia Kou's council campaign is the need to protect residents from the cumulative impacts of commercial development. She wants to expand the annual office cap -- which today only applies to downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real -- to Stanford Research Park. And in forums and public comments, she has often talked about the negative consequences of growth -- both commercial and residential -- on the quality of life of residents. In the past decade, she wrote in the PAN survey, "rampant building of office space without regard for road capacity or parking has created the problems we're dealing with today."
While proponents of growth maintain that the traffic problems from new developments can be eased through "transportation demand management" plans (which typically rely on a mix of transit subsidies, rideshare services and bike amenities so that commuters don't drive solo to work), Kou isn't convinced that these programs are the solution.
"Part of our traffic and parking problems are the result of the City approving projects based on assumptions that many of the employees would use transit," Kou wrote. "But these claims were simply 'aspirational' -- there was no enforcement mechanism and thus the landlord and occupant put little if any effort into promoting transit."
In another case of meeting in the philosophical middle, Don McDougall -- who has the support of Scharff, Berman and several members of the pro-housing group Palo Alto Forward -- and Keller, who is firmly in the residentialist camp, both favor limiting office growth and, as McDougall wrote in his PAN survey, "actively control(ling) development impacts."
Former planning commissioner Keller advocates for linking future growth at Stanford Research Park to "binding targets for reducing traffic on Page Mill Road, Oregon Expressway, and the Charleston-Arastradero Road corridor." In other words, commercial growth would only be allowed at Stanford Research Park if Stanford comes up with a way to reduce traffic on some of the city's most crowded thoroughfares.
"By tying the rate of growth to a requirement to address the impact of growth, landowners can be motivated to work with commercial tenants to minimize project impacts," Keller wrote.
For some candidates, commercial growth is just one of many factors that must be balanced for Palo Alto to remain vibrant while retaining its family-friendly, residential character. Liz Kniss, the only incumbent in the race, cites the city's transportation problems as a top priority (housing, health and safety are others) and says she supports downtown's new Transportation Management Association, a new nonprofit charged with reducing traffic. She voted to institute the office cap and said she would support expanding it, though limiting commercial growth is not a major part of her platform.
For Carl, on the other hand, stopping office growth is a top priority. During a candidate forum earlier this month, he noted that an office worker today can occupy as little as 75 feet of space. To house this worker, however, the city would need to build about 750 square feet of new development. This, Carl wrote in the PAN questionnaire, creates a tremendous opportunity for housing developers while placing a "tremendous burden on our infrastructure of schools, roads, retail, parks, trees water, our unique quality of life, our seniors, and our residents of moderate means." The city, he argued, needs to immediately create a moratorium on all new office construction.
"The moratorium needs to stay in place until the city can determine how much growth our infrastructure can really support," Carl wrote.
The 11th candidate, John Fredrich, aligned with nearly all other candidates in his PAN survey response: He said he supports the office cap and also a moratorium.
The Weekly has created a Storify page for its coverage on the Palo Alto City Council election.