Adrian Fine, the chair of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, isn't exactly a "Grow, baby, grow" kind of guy.
He has advocated for taller buildings in the past, calling the city's 50-foot height limit "pretty arbitrary" during a May meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee that is updating the city's long-term vision document, the Comprehensive Plan. But now he opposes breaking the barrier, telling the Weekly that he doesn't see any point in "blasting it right now." He would like to see more development in areas well-served by transit but argues that single-family neighborhoods need to be preserved and protected from new development.
He was also initially skeptical about the city's cap on new office development, calling it a "blunt instrument" during the commission's review and, at one point, voting against it. But now that it's the law, he said he sees no reason to mess with it and favors keeping it until the city adopts its updated Comprehensive Plan, at which point, he hopes, the city will have better controls over office growth.
Rather than a cap, Fine prefers conditioning approvals of development on performance metrics (the development's impacts on traffic, parking, etc.) and its support for the city's Transportation Management Association, the nonprofit aiming to reduce traffic in downtown Palo Alto. He noted the city can learn from many similar efforts in the area, whether it's Stanford University's cutting-edge transportation-demand management program on its campus or the recent associations formed by cities like Walnut Creek and Emeryville.
Fine also said he is concerned about the prospect of the office cap (which currently applies to downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real) simply pushing development to other areas.
"We may see new office development in other areas and we're still not addressing the impacts there," Fine told the Weekly. "I'd rather see the cities address the root issues rather than the symptoms."
While controlling office development is one theme of the current council race, encouraging more housing is another. Some candidates, including Stewart Carl and Lydia Kou, have made the former the pillar of their respective campaigns; Fine is laser-focused on the latter. He believes that the city is in a deep hole when it comes to housing and that something needs to be done. A renter who lives in College Terrace with his fiancee, he points out that renters make up 45 percent of the city's population but have virtually no political representation. He hopes to apply Palo Alto's famous spirit of innovation to the housing crisis.
"When you have 70 percent of Palo Altans saying 'We need more housing' and we're really not producing housing, that's a shame," Fine said, noting that between 2007 and 2014, the city had built only about 13 percent of the units that it was required to plan for under the Regional Housing Need Allocation. "No wonder we have a housing crisis!"
Fine believes the city should be more aggressive when it comes to housing, whether this means experimenting with very small apartments ("microunits)" or allowing some new housing in Residential Parking Permit districts and not distributing permits to the new occupants. This, he said, would force them to bike, walk and take transit. (Fine practices what he preaches; he doesn't own a car.) The city can never change the market dynamics that drive up housing prices, Fine said, but it can do its "fair share" for the region in creating some new supply.
"We're in an enormous housing hole and, as a region, we all need to step up to that," Fine said. "That means each of us has to play our part, and we can't get caught in a prisoner's dilemma of saying, 'Other cities are doing things but it doesn't affect housing prices, and therefore we shouldn't do anything.' I don't think that's responsible."
Fine is a Palo Alto native who learned to ride a bike on Bryant Street and who holds a master's degree in city and regional planning from University of Pennsylvania, spent two years working for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the regional body best known for supplying grants for transportation projects), currently works for the social-network site NextDoor, and, in November of 2014, inadvertently stumbled into the middle of the city's political tug-of-war.
Days after voters brought a slow-growth "residentialist" majority to the City Council, the outgoing council voted to appoint Fine to the commission. In doing so, they declined to re-appoint Arthur Keller, a two-term commissioner with a record of challenging new developments. Suddenly, Fine found himself cast as the "pro-development" guy and saw his appointment characterized by some as a "parting shot" fired by the lame-duck council after an election loss. Fine, for his part, was puzzled by such characterization.
"You can peg me one way or the other, but I'm taking the 'Palo Alto' view," Fine said in a recent interview, explaining his decision to run for council. "To me what that means is: It's about the community members; it's not about whether I'm pro-development or anti-development, (or) am I for Maybell or against Maybell? I'm trying to take a 30,000-foot view on this thing, which is that I love this city. There's a lot of people who worked hard to be here. But I also want us to be an inclusive, walkable, multi-generational city of the future."
Fine has several ideas for achieving this vision. The central one involves the creation of "area plans" -- neighborhood-specific vision documents forged through collaboration of residents, city planners, business owners and other stakeholders. By crafting such plans for the downtown area, for California Avenue (where such a plan was recently created but not adopted) and perhaps for the San Antonio Road area. Through this effort, the community can identify potential sites for housing, figure out needed traffic improvements and come up with policies to ensure adequate parking.
As a planning commissioner, Fine has favored technical critiques over ideological stances (his panning of the council's office-cap proposal was a notable exception). An avid bicyclist, he has been enthusiastically approving the city's recent bike projects, including a new plan for dedicated bikeways on Embarcadero Road. Yet he has also found fault with the council's recent plan to raise impact fees on new developments to support affordable housing. In August, Fine supported the idea of spreading out the fee increase for non-residential projects over a five-year period but then held off on a formal recommendation, agreeing instead to form a new subcommittee to vet the issue further.
To address the city's traffic and parking problems, Fine advocates for proactive engagement with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other grant-making regional organizations and a revision to the city's parking policies. This means doing a better job in providing information about available parking spots in local garages. It also means eventually going to dynamic pricing for parking to pay for transit efforts. He acknowledges that getting rid of free downtown parking probably won't be popular but "we've got to eat our spinach," he said.
"We're giving away an enormous resource for free and that's why you can't find parking," Fine said.
Ultimately, Fine said, addressing the city's transportation challenges comes down to two options: Palo Alto can build more roads or it can manage things better. He said he is clearly in favor of the latter.
"I'd rather devote more space for people than for cars," Fine said. "I'd rather have homes than parking spots."