Ross Road residents know all too well that change, however well-intentioned, can be a jarring experience.
In the fall, as the city kicked off its long-planned redesign of Ross and other busy streets in the Midtown area, residents woke up in a strange new world of roundabouts, traffic islands and speed humps. Some welcomed the changes, which are part of an $8.6 million bike-and-pedestrian project that the City Council approved in the summer. Many others found them confusing, hazardous and, above all, shocking.
Like many of her neighbors, Alison Cormack said she was unaware that the "traffic calming" project involved narrowing the road and putting bicyclists in the same lanes as cars, shoulder to shoulder with oncoming traffic.
"I have since learned it's a great idea, but when a bulb-out shows up unannounced in front of your house, it doesn't seem that way," she said.
The dramatic changes on Ross Road and the divergent reactions to them epitomized in many ways 2017 in Palo Alto, a year in which the council made giant strides on some of its most pressing priorities and began to pivot from plans to action -- drawing mixed reactions for its efforts.
The new network of bike-friendly routes in Midtown, which comprises about half of the projects in the city's 2012 bike master plan, is just one example of this pivot from the abstract to the tangible. The Palo Alto Transportation Management Authority, which the council formed in 2015 to help discourage driving solo, began to see promising results and increased investment from the city. New parking-permit programs sprung up in the Evergreen Park and Southgate neighborhoods to offer long-sought relief to residents from perpetually parked-up blocks. The city's yearslong push to save Buena Vista Mobile Home Park from redevelopment concluded on a victorious note in May, when the El Camino Real mobile-home park was officially purchased by the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County. And after a prolonged period of stagnation on housing production, the council approved a development with 50 apartments at the former site of Mike's Bikes, also on El Camino.
Yet even in this year of action, the council's most significant achievement in 2017 came on the planning front. In November, the council finally adopted an updated Comprehensive Plan, a land-use vision document that was more than a decade in the making and that sets the stage for future zoning revisions and development decisions. But getting there wasn't a smooth ride. Just weeks after the swearing in of two new council members -- former planning commissioners Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka -- and one incumbent, Liz Kniss, the newly established pro-development majority stripped all policies out of the Comprehensive Plan that would have spelled out how the city would implement the vision. The decision was ultimately reversed after a community backlash, but it was only one of a series of tense 5-4 votes over issues ranging from a downtown cap for commercial construction to "community indicators" that would track impacts of new projects. But in the end, a year that began with vitriolic accusations flying between the council's two factions concluded with hard-fought consensus and a Champagne toast in the Council Chambers in November, when the council finally approved the plan.
For some Palo Altans, the changes are too big and coming too soon and too fast. In January, the council discussed a citizen survey indicating growing angst about traffic congestion, housing costs and the city's overall "quality of life." These themes would emerge throughout the year during public hearings on everything from "grade separation" on the rail tracks (an expensive project that aims to, among other things, address increased traffic at grade crossings) to Stanford University's application to build more than 2 million square feet of academic space and 3,000 housing units by 2035.
Palo Alto's traffic problems, critics say, will not be solved by new developments and city-designed "road diets." Many remain unconvinced by the council's new reliance on "transportation demand management" strategies -- which incentivize commuters to switch from cars to other modes -- to really curb traffic. For them, projects that offer less parking than is normally required -- such as the "car-light" 60-apartment development proposed for the busy corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road -- will not actually result in fewer drivers; they will just lead more people to park their cars in other areas.
Similarly, some decried the city's September decision to loosen its cap on office development -- which now no longer includes a "beauty contest" and which now allows developers to carry over "unused" square footage to future years -- and opposed the city's moves to encourage more accessory-dwelling (or "granny") units and to promote market-rate residential development (below-market-rate housing, by contrast, remains relatively popular).
But it was the housing advocates who had the most to celebrate in 2017, a year that repeatedly reminded us that local elections have serious consequences. With Fine, Tanaka and Kniss winning seats (along with residentialist Lydia Kou), the council's pro-development camp won a 5-4 majority. In early March, the council decided to relax regulations for construction of accessory-dwelling units, a move that Fine said will leave "the choice of growth up to each resident in Palo Alto."
As the year wound down, the council's focus on housing sharpened, reflecting both its political makeup and the severe nature of the regional housing crisis. In November, just after the council signed off on the new Comprehensive Plan, it set its differences aside to unanimously support an ambitious memo from Fine, Wolbach and Kniss that calls on the city to consider a host of zoning revisions to encourage housing -- changes that could impact everything from parking rules to building heights.
"We've heard loud and clear from the community that housing is a top priority," Fine told his colleagues at the Nov. 6 meeting, in explaining his memo. "These proposals are focused on creating more BMR and market rate housing in the least impactful area."
While traffic and housing remained hot-button issues throughout the year, council members marched largely in lockstep on other critical decisions that will change Palo Alto for decades to come. They advanced plans for new garages in downtown and near California Avenue; a new public-safety building on Sherman Avenue and a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 -- projects that have been mulled about for years and that are now creeping closer to construction. They embraced in August a proposed partnership with Pets In Need to build a state-of-the-art animal-services facility. They united in September behind a new master plan for the local park system, which proposes (among many other things) new dog parks, more park restrooms and pickle-ball courts. And in December, they unanimously approved a long-awaited reconstruction and expansion of the beloved Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, which is set to be completed in 2019 and re-opened to the public the following year.
"There are few moments in life where you can sit back and say, 'This is great, the community is moving forward and we should be proud of our community,'" Mayor Greg Scharff said during the Dec. 4 meeting, just before the vote on the zoo expansion. "This is one of them."
Yet for all the jubilation, the year had its share of foibles, slip-ups and challenges, some of which will extend to 2018 and beyond. Three council members -- Kniss, Fine and Tanaka -- faced investigations this year from the Fair Political Practices Commission. While Fine and Tanaka got off with a warning and a small penalty, respectively, the Kniss probe has been ongoing since March. As of late December, state investigators were still looking at alleged improprieties in her reporting of developers' contributions to her 2016 campaign. This means she will likely remain under the cloud of the FPPC investigation in early 2018, when the council is set to choose its next mayor (as vice mayor, she is the odds-on favorite).
More significantly for the average resident, the city continues to face fiscal challenges, with pension obligations ballooning to nearly $1 billion, according to one councilman's estimates, and the costs of infrastructure projects spiraling out of control. For all of its progress in 2017 in building new bike boulevards, nudging its infrastructure plan forward and upping its recreational dreams, it will be the city's management of the uncertain budget picture that will help shape the year to come and determine whether the council can maintain its late-year momentum as it advances into 2018.