The takeaways of 2016 | News | Palo Alto Online |


The takeaways of 2016

Palo Alto's best, worst and most outrageous moments that defined the year

By any account, 2016 has been a long, strange, extraordinary year. This was the year when Palo Alto realized the true meaning of "disruption."

We aren't talking about the latest app that earnestly strives to make the "world a better place," but events that shook us to the core, rattled us out of complacence, changed the way we think and -- in some cases -- the way we live.

Looking back, we've highlighted 16 takeaways from 2016, from the most inspiring moment to the most outrageous idea, the toughest goodbye and the voice heard around the world.


Voice heard around the world: 'Emily Doe's'

"You don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that's why we're here today."

It was a raw and deeply personal start to a letter whose 7,390 words became synonymous around the world this year with the entangled issues of campus sexual assault, college drinking culture and, as one advocate put it, "The End of Business As Usual."

They came from "Emily Doe," the anonymous young Palo Alto woman who was sexually assaulted while unconscious by former Stanford University student Brock Turner outside a fraternity party in January.

Her 12-page victim impact statement -- which she read in part in a Palo Alto courtroom in front of Turner, his family and hers in June before he was sentenced to six months in county jail -- has been viewed and shared millions of times online; read in full by Congress members on the U.S. House floor and by reporters on live television; recognized by figures from Vice President Joe Biden to elected officials in Palo Alto; inspired new mandatory-minimums legislation that was signed into California state law within two months; and led to an agreement between local colleges, universities and the county district attorney's office on how to collaboratively respond to students' reports of sexual violence.

These concrete changes make the impact of her words clear, but the power of the message it conveyed to survivors of sexual assault across the world -- "to girls everywhere, I am with you," she wrote -- is immeasurable.

Best mic drop: Kate Downing

When Kate Downing announced her resignation from Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission in August, she went out with a bang that was heard from coast to coast.

In a letter that went viral, Downing lambasted the City Council for ignoring residents' demands for more housing and for charting a course for the next 15 years that "substantially continues the same job-housing imbalance" that pays "lip service to preserving retail that simply has no reason to keep serving the average Joe when the city is only available to Joe Millionaires."

Further, she warned the council's actions are threatening to turn a "once thriving city" into a "hollowed out museum."

Downing, a corporate attorney who co-founded the group Palo Alto Forward, also declared her intention to move Santa Cruz, where she said she and her software-engineer husband could afford to live.

But even after her departure, her sentiments continued to reverberate, with the council subsequently agreeing to consider more housing options and with voters choosing in November a slate of candidates less opposed to growth.

Most inspiring: Post-election student march

One week after the Nov. 8 presidential election, Palo Alto's typically car-filled University Avenue was taken over by a long line of cheering and chanting teenagers. Arms linked, they held signs over their heads with messages like "love trumps hate," "voice not violence," and "stronger together."

The entirely student-organized march brought together high schoolers, adults and even young children who gathered to reaffirm the value of all members of their communities, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or background in the wake of the election.

It was also about youth voice and empowerment, even -- or especially -- for those who were not old enough to cast votes. The students received kudos from none other than Palo Alto singer-activist Joan Baez, who attended the march and told the Weekly it was "enormously heartening" to see young people organizing a non-violent demonstration in 2016.

"Our success today isn't in immediate change," Palo Alto High School student Hana Morita told a swarm of students gathering on the school's quad before marching downtown. "It's in standing up and being heard."

Most expected news: 429 University Ave.

No project brought together developers, residents and Architectural Review Board members like 429 University Ave. -- a four-story mixed-use project that in 2016 left every party involved angry and exasperated.

The proposal from Elizabeth Wong initially succeeded in winning the architectural panel's support, only to see that approval appealed by a neighbor and rescinded by the City Council, who agreed the project would be too big and incompatible with the largely Victorian character of Kipling Street.

This year, Wong tried again with new renderings, new architects and a fresh round of public hearings -- all while keeping the building at about 30,000 square feet. In late October, the board minced no words when it struck down the project.

"I think this project is going backward," board Chair Robert Gooyer said, just before the 3-0 vote to deny.

Most unexpected news: School district budget shortfall

It was the multi-million dollar surprise of the year for the Palo Alto school district: a property-tax revenue estimate from the Santa Clara County Assessor's Office that, 15 days into the fiscal year, came in about 3 percent lower than the district had budgeted for.

"Shocked" and "surprised," district leadership scrambled to address an initial $3.7 million shortfall in an otherwise financially robust year. The shortfall has been attributed to various factors -- a rise in assessed properties that are exempt from taxation (primarily the Stanford hospitals); the unpredictability of property-tax growth; and, for some, the board's adoption of unprecedented three-year raises for teachers.

How to respond to the unexpected drop in revenue divided the school board, with some trustees viewing the shortfall with greater urgency. The issue will continue to play out in 2017 as the district must plan for further cuts.

Most touching testimony: Sept. 11 survivor on 15th anniversary

The strength and bravery of surviving the greatest horror on U.S. soil in the 21st century was exemplified by 9/11-attack survivor Lori Schertzer Brody, who told her story in the Weekly's print edition and in a video on Palo Alto Online for the 15th memorial of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Brody, who now resides in the Bay Area, lost her brother, Scott Schertzer, in the attack. Her unflinching story of that day, its aftermath and her struggle to overcome trauma and survivor guilt made for this year's most touching story.

Most outrageous idea: Plans for an 11-bed, 14-bath mega home

Just when Palo Alto's mega homes couldn't seem to get any more extravagant, residents on Newell Road learned that their neighbor submitted plans to the city for an 11-bed, 14-bathroom home. Residents feared the proposed 4,529-square-foot, two-story home at 1710 Newell Road, would replace the existing 1,878-square-foot, single-story residence with an Airbnb rental or group residence. And the proposal only had a one-car garage. Bishoy William, one of the owners, said the home was for himself, his wife and two children. The other bedrooms were for visiting relatives. As of Nov. 10, city planners had not yet reached a decision and sent the owner a notice requesting clarifications to the application, according to city documents.

Most awkward moment of the election season: Accusations of impersonation

Ever since the citizens' group Palo Alto Forward launched in 2014 to advocate for more housing and transportation options, its members have maintained that its focus isn't politics but educating the public and facilitating a conversation. So when paperwork was filed in June for a political-action committee bearing the group's name, it raised a few eyebrows, particularly among the group's own founders.

That's because, as it turns out, the paperwork was filed not by the group but by Tim Gray, who is affiliated with the group's ideological adversary -- Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning -- and who served as treasurer for City Council candidate Lydia Kou's campaign.

Gray maintained that he only registered the name to protect the city's brand (a short-lived program also called Palo Alto Forward) from being misused by pro-housing advocates.

Members of Palo Alto Forward found that explanation to be ludicrous.

"That's pretty much impersonation," founder Elaine Uang said.

Biggest conflict: Arthur Keller vs. Adrian Fine

When political newcomer Adrian Fine applied to join the Planning and Transportation Commission in 2014, he didn't sign up for a fight with one of Palo Alto's best-known development skeptics. But that's what happened when the outgoing council opted to appoint Fine and not reappoint Arthur Keller, a data-crunching veteran who favors slow city growth.

The rivalry spilled into this year -- when both jumped into the City Council race -- and reached its apogee in October, when Keller and fellow candidate Lydia Kou sent out mailers conflating Fine with developers who support "unlimited sprawl and giant growth." Fine struck back with his own public message, which pointed out that Kou and Keller were the only candidates who received contributions of more than $5,000.

Ultimately, Fine had the last laugh, finishing third out of 11 candidates for four open seats. Kou trailed him and picked up the fourth seat. Keller finished fifth and was not elected.

Biggest disappointment: Edgewood Plaza's missing grocery store

In a year and nine months -- more than double the time it takes to birth a baby -- the Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center has remained without a promised grocery store. The Fresh Market, the only one to open there since the renovated center reopened in 2013, closed on March 31, 2015. Developer Sand Hill Property Company said its hands are tied. Fresh Market has the lease for 10 years and has authority to sublease the property. Andronico's was rumored to be close to a deal but bowed out in April as did Lucky Store. In November, the Palo Alto City Council increased the daily fine to $2,500 against Sand Hill for violating its zoning ordinance by leaving the store empty. Sand Hill's attorney informed the city in early December that the fines were unlawful and excessive. The saga -- and a possible lawsuit? -- is sure to continue in 2017.

Biggest nonissue: Super Bowl 50

Despite all of the hype and hoopla and fear of traffic jams, the golden anniversary of the nation's biggest football game of the year, the Super Bowl, fumbled spectacularly in Palo Alto. Hotels had vacancies, and restaurants, bars and even business organizations just didn't think the event, which was at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara Feb. 7, would bring throngs to the city worth the cost of putting on events. The Denver Broncos used Stanford University athletic facilities for the team's pre-Super Bowl practices, but it still wasn't a touchdown for Team Palo Alto.

The most Palo Alto story: $32K monthly rent

Just when Palo Altans thought the ceiling on housing costs couldn't go any higher, a new penthouse condominium in downtown Palo Alto was listed this fall for $32K -- per month, or more than five times Palo Alto's median rate of $5,500 .

But in a city that has long bemoaned (or celebrated, depending on which side of the lease you're on) the skyrocketing price of rentals, perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise.

The 5,000-square-foot three-bedroom suite on the fourth floor of 611 Cowper St. includes all the usual luxurious trappings of Silicon Valley life: a private elevator, a pool, a spa and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Palo Alto skyline, according to the listing.

Commenters on Town Square, the local online forum, speculated that a corporation would rent it out, making it available to visiting executives and for hosting events.

Pet peeve of the year: Dog poop disposal

The most under-the-radar quality of life issue in Palo Alto in 2016? Inappropriate disposal of dog feces.

Little did Town Square poster "PA Resident/Neighbor" know when he or she wrote a polite warning this summer to whoever placed dog waste in PA Resident's trash can that a firestorm of reaction would follow.

Within days, the thread drew nearly 100 comments from outraged residents — some, at the audacity of an apparently frequent practice of using someone else's trash cans to dispose of pets' poop, and others at the audacity of being so upset about said practice.

Putting poop in someone else's trash can equates to being an "irresponsible dog owner," one commenter wrote," and there are plenty of them in Palo Alto." Another asked for the police chief to weigh in with a statement and expressed a willingness to catch offenders on video camera. Others debated whether a trash can on the sidewalk is considered public or private property.

Others took a lighter view on the situation.

"Would you rather have someone step in it?" poster "Dennis the Menace" asked. "That person can put dog poop in our trash receptacle any time they want."

Toughest goodbye: Police Chief Dennis Burns

Since joining Palo Alto in 1982, Dennis Burns has served as a beat cop, a detective supervisor and a member of the SWAT team. He's rappelled off buildings to raise money from charity, served as incident commander after a fatal plane crash sparked a citywide power outage, helped diffuse community tensions after his predecessor was forced to resign amid allegations of racial profiling and temporarily served at the helm of both the Police and Fire departments.

Even after rising to the chief's position in 2009, the former track athlete remained true to his beat-cop roots, at one point chasing down a bicycling purse snatcher on University Avenue.

So when the City Manager James Keene announced that Burns will be stepping down at the end of this month, it was a bittersweet moment for everyone at City Hall.

"While it's a loss for our city, everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy the next phase of life, especially after three-and-a-half decades," Keene said.

Just. Plain. Wrong.: Track guards arrested for crimes

They were hired to protect the most vulnerable among us -- those whose pain was leading them to contemplate the unthinkable. But among the guards entrusted to monitor Palo Alto's railroad tracks, a few bad apples were watching out for themselves instead.

Late in 2015 and early this year, three guards from two separate security companies were arrested for committing crimes in Palo Alto including assault, burglary and lewd conduct. All three were charged, and two were sentenced this year. No additional arrests have since been reported.

Bluntest commentary: 'So ugly I drive a different route'

C'mon, Palo Alto residents. Tell us how you really feel. When a Barron Park neighborhood resident by the name of "Wade" posted about the new College Terrace Centre on the online forum Town Square, he didn't mince words. "So ugly I drive a different route" he titled his three-sentence critique.

"That new mega-something being built on JJ&F Market's old site (El Camino between Stanford and College) is such a ghastly eyesore that I now actually drive a different way to work so I don't have to see it. It makes me so sad and mad about architectural quality control in this city. Apparently there is none," Ward wrote in July. Other residents also expressed disdain, particularly over the color, which -- genteelly put -- is mustard.

The 65,000-square-foot development at 2180 El Camino Real includes office and retail space, affordable housing and parking and is scheduled to open by early 2017.

Related content:

This year's headshakers

Uplifting stories that topped 2016

School district's unexpected challenges

The 12 stories that Palo Alto Online users engaged with the most


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32 people like this
Posted by Resident2
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2016 at 10:58 am

And so Palo Alto Weekly inadvertently displays one of the national news stories of the year - manipulation of the media - in its repeating the Downing grandstanding without any perspective on its veracity, and thus normalizing false claims.

Downing clearly COULD afford to live in Palo Alto, just not in the syle she apparently wanted to be accustomed right out of school. Large single-family homes were, to her, immoral, but only when anyone else besides her and her husband lived in them. You wouldn't even sniff the false claims or gross hypocrisy from that re-whitewasing above. If you want to cover housing, cover housing, and be balanced about it. Don't allow a Trump-like manipulation of media by Downing for the sake of a personal agenda. I seem to recall a post asking people to talk about how they got into the local housing market, especially by people with nowhere near the means of Downing, and there were many common themes - why hasn't the Weekly ever bothered to cover that?

The unaffordability of Palo Alto is an old story, but the "hollowing out" that is happening now is the result of the Council allowing overrunning of Palo Alto by companies like Downing's husband's employer Palantir. (Speaking of LOTR, makes me think of the Shire after Saruman/Sharkey take over.) These companies do not contribute to the vitality of Palo Alto, in fact, have seriously hurt the quality of life here, do not pay their way, and strain infrastructure in a way that is scary if there is an emergency (Think about the massive gridlock just from an accident on Dumbarton, imagine a real emergency.)

The jobs housing imbalance is the fault of Council alright, but the answer is reducing the footprint of companies, especially in areas where they were never zoned for office space. If the recent election wasn't enough of a reminder, this nation would be far better off if we did not try to pack all the jobs here. We need to make Palo Alto startup friendly again, especially given prroximity to Stanford. We should not be facilitating companies to take over downtown and shut out that innovation, and residents. Facebook grew and left Palo Alto. It was a good move all around. The serious issue of the Council favoring the takeover of Palo Alto at the expense of residents (literally, see the news story about how residents are subsidizing development costs even at the city level) never gets dealt with when the local news lets itself be manipulated by Downing and associates that way. THAT was the real story, not flash-in-the-pan Downing whose attacks on Palo Alto served as a great diversion from her hypocrisy and ditching her responsibilities on the planning commission as soon as she got the big single family home.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2016 at 11:11 am

Three stories only? One serious and dealt with in the above comment, one humorous as well as having a serious side, and one a reaction to a national situation.

However, there are long ongoing problems such as Caltrain grade separation not dealt with and 2016 has to have included a couple of these. Any time there is an issue with a vehicle or individual on the tracks, the question of undergrounding or raising the tracks or perhaps a combination of the two is mentioned by almost all commenters and gets ignored by the Weekly, by the City Council and by Caltrain.

When will this serious issue be addressed?

25 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2016 at 12:57 pm

If I never hear of Poster-child for the Priveliged, K Downing ever again, it will be a happy new year. I look forward to her eventually identifying with Santa Cruz more than Palo Alto. Here, after demanding that housing she wanted should by tight be available to her, moved and bought a big $1.5 million ocean view home.
I never here her speak for the housing needs of actual low income Palo Altans, Buena Vistans. Only for gold plated professionals such as herself, often stating inacurrate info about city zoning and land use to an uncritical social and national media.
Let this end the attention her way.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Dec 30, 2016 at 3:06 pm

The student protest was NOT the inspiring event of the year. This entire list sounds like propaganda rather than a genuine recollection of this riveting year.

4 people like this
Posted by Puhleeze
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2016 at 3:54 pm

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2017 at 5:25 pm

If stopping office development makes a city less expensive, Atherton would be the cheapest place to live on the Peninsula.

Let's keep Palo Alto a growing, thriving city focused on the future. Kate Downing said things a lot of people didn't want to hear, but she's right - it's Palo Alto's tight restrictions on housing that make it so expensive to live here.

Now that the people have spoken and we have a new Council, I hope we can see some of those restrictions lifted.

3 people like this
Posted by Atherton???
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2017 at 6:55 pm

Atherton IS cheaper on a square foot basis. It's just that Atherton has larger houses on larger lots. But you get more for your money in Atherton and Woodside because of the lower price per square foot. This is also true of Portola Valley.

Like this comment
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2017 at 8:56 pm

Yes, that's exactly right. Atherton is cheaper on a square foot basis - but completely impossible for anyone who is not incredibly rich to live there. Ten million dollars will buy you a nicer house in Atherton than in Palo Alto, but three million dollars will get you nothing.

Fifteen, twenty years ago you could raise a family there just by being moderately rich - a successful VC, an early startup employee. Now you have to do all that and inherit money, too. (I have several friends in their thirties who are raising families in Atherton, and they all fit that description.)

Let's make sure Palo Alto doesn't devolve into that. Let's get some more four-story condos in downtown, near California Ave, and on El Camino. Let's get some housing in the Stanford Research Park, or by the Mall. And let's let this new affordable housing complex near Cal Ave go through instead of blocking it.

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