Faced with community anxieties over growth and flagging confidence in local government, Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff used his "State of the City" speech as a platform to advocate for more unity, more civility and more housing.
In a speech that veered from idealistic to wonky and that alluded frequently to the broader debates raging across the state and around the nation, the mayor highlighted the City Council's priorities in 2017, pledged to govern in a transparent manner and addressed the council's recent dustup over the Comprehensive Plan.
Alluding to the regional "housing crisis," Scharff said his goal for the year is to advance at least two "significant" market-rate developments and one affordable-housing project, an objective he called "modest but achievable." Scharff, who represents the city on the Association of Bay Area Governments, argued that Palo Alto is looked at regionally as "part of the problem" on housing and made the case for reversing that trend.
"Housing is a regional problem and we are not doing our fair share," Scharff told the more than 150 spectators assembled at HanaHaus on Wednesday night. "Whereas we are seen as a regional and even national leader on many issues, we sorely lag behind on housing issues."
Even as he called for more housing, Scharff predicted that in 20 years Palo Alto will look largely like it does today. The city's neighborhoods, parks and schools will "essentially remain unchanged" and single-family neighborhoods will look like they do now, he said.
"However, we need to address the impact of growth in a thoughtful and intelligent manner that thoroughly involves the community in that discussion," Scharff said. "We also need to make room for a few more people in our community. Regional pressures and traffic will continue to impact us as they do every Bay Area city and we need to strongly engage with regional partners to develop effective cross-jurisdictional solutions."
Scharff's remarks came on the heel of two council meetings in which members sparred over the Comprehensive Plan and split 5-3 in a vote to approve a four-story development on University Avenue. Scharff also took some heat from his colleagues and residents after he and four of his colleagues abruptly voted on Jan. 30 to remove all the programs from the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding land-use document.
While council members Tom DuBois and Karen Holman each took issue with the action, which Holman called a "radical departure" and which DuBois likened to a "hijacking" of democracy, Scharff defended it Wednesday as nothing more than a "formatting change," which relegates the programs into the appendix of the document but doesn't actually discard them.
Most of the speech, however, was devoted to broader and less divisive issues. He drew cheers when he pledged that Palo Alto will "remain an inclusive, welcoming community" and alluded to President Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric and anti-immigration efforts.
"I expect that over the next year, there will be much discussion about whether Palo Alto should not just act like a Sanctuary City, but join other progressive cities in risking the loss of federal funds and declaring politically that we stand with those in our community who most need protecting."
The city, he said, "can be a beacon to a divided nation by grappling with our most sensitive and difficult issues in a tone of respect."
"We can rise above the national discourse and preserve the quality of our own community dialogues about tough issues through respect and openness," Scharff said. "If any place can do this, it's Palo Alto, where we have an engaged citizenry who care deeply about their community."
Yet this citizenry, he noted, is also expressing increasing frustration with local government. Scharff pointed to the recently released National Citizen Survey, which showed that between 2015 and 2016, residents' overall confidence in Palo Alto government dropped by 8 percent and that there was a 10 percent drop in respondents who said they believe their local government was "generally acting in the best interest of the community." The council, he said, needs to "turn this trend around and find better and more effective ways to engage with and understand the needs of all our residents."
"This is also a moment when the quality of discourse in our national civic life has deteriorated and when polarized views and divisiveness are pervasive," Scharff said. "We take a great risk in emulating this tone, or allowing it to seep into how we communicate with each other, as we grapple with the challenges facing Palo Alto in the coming year."
Scharff singled out the comments section of Palo Alto Online and told the crowd he was "saddened and disheartened" by what he called the "increasing vitriol." He urged the Weekly to require people to use their real names when posting comments.
"We should all be accountable for what we saying the public arena," Scharff said. "Let's commit this year to building a community -- not tearing one apart."
Scharff also touched on the council's other four priorities: budget and finance, transportation, infrastructure and "healthy city" and went over some of the projects that will either be completed or advanced in the coming year. These include the newly reconstructed Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, which is scheduled to reopen later in the year; the new police headquarters, which is now in the design phase; and new garages in downtown and on California Avenue.
"These investments in infrastructure will serve the community for many years to come and will help to enhance public safety and alleviate some of our parking challenges," Scharff said.
Read the full "State of the City" speech here.