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In a town where development is a touchy topic, Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Michael Alcheck is used to making waves by arguing for taller buildings and looser parking requirements for housing projects.
Last week, however, he found himself in the strange position of trying to convince a hostile crowd that he is not — as some have maintained — a part of the planning commission's "development cabal."
He quoted a post on social-networking site NextDoor.com from downtown resident Elaine Meyer, who used that phrase to describe a faction of the commission that, she believed, scheduled the group's July 25 discussion of a downtown development cap "to pre-empt the election and the expressing of the citizens' voice," a reference to an expected November showdown over a citizen initiative on office growth.
"I think it's safe to assume that when you say 'the development cabal,' you're referring to some nefarious group of which I am a member," Alcheck responded, addressing Meyer directly from the dais at the meeting.
He then tried to explain to the roughly two dozen audience members that the commission in fact does not set its agenda and suggested that, if anyone believes there was "nefarious intent" on the commission's part, the person should call him at the phone number listed on the commission's website.
He didn't get much further before a voice from the audience interrupted him.
"Just don't point out one person!" said one resident.
"Out of order!" shouted another.
"How does this move the cap item forward?!" added a third.
As Alcheck began to talk about the "hundreds of letters" the commission had received in the prior 48 hours that conveyed a "tremendous sense of distrust," he was once again drowned out by the spectators, many of whom had jumped to their feet.
"This is not germane to the issue!"
"You have to stop him!"
"It's not on the issue!"
Chair Ed Lauing repeatedly urged Alcheck to keep his comments brief and on point and threatened to call a recess if audience members didn't settle down. They did.
The heated interchange was only the latest ruckus for a commission that has seen its share of enmity — not just between itself and members of the public but frequently between the members themselves. For an advisory body to the City Council, tasked with vetting every significant housing and transportation proposal and offering its well-considered recommendations, the current commission has developed an unusual track record of polarization and infighting, its members given to squabbling, interrupting each other and reaching conclusions that at times have left council members scratching their heads.
The polarization was on full display in February, after four planning commissioners said that they would need more information before making a decision on a proposal to create a new overlay zone to encourage the construction of affordable housing and to accommodate a below-market-rate project in the Ventura neighborhood. Vice Chair Susan Monk said she was "embarrassed" by her colleagues' direction on the matter, and Alcheck later described the majority's February decision to delay the vote as a "hijacking" of a process.
When the issue came back to the commission the following month, the majority voted not to approve the new zone, citing concerns about parking and income-eligibility levels for qualifying projects. Alcheck, Monk and Commissioner William Riggs then decided to co-sign a "minority recommendation" urging the council to reject the majority's advice.
Normally, when a land-use issue comes to the council, the planning commission sends a representative to report on its discussion. When the council reviewed the proposed affordable-housing zone on April 9, Chairman Ed Lauing and Commissioner Przemek Gardias both explained the majority's concerns. Then, over the objections of Councilwoman Lydia Kou, Monk approached to offer her side's view.
"We're chartered with returning an ordinance to you," Monk said. "It just didn't feel right that we went off and did something that was not without what I view as our obligation to you."
These internal disagreements occasionally get nasty. During an April discussion focused on a "clean-up" of the zoning code, Alcheck admonished Gardias for being unprepared and for "learning about the code on the dais" when the latter tried to propose a revision to rules pertaining to daylight planes. During a separate April discussion on housing, Waldfogel accused Alcheck of "talking about false things" and encouraged him to "stick to the truth," an exchange that featured multiple interruptions between the two commissioners and requests from Alcheck that the chairman intervene.
When asked about the recent polarization on the commission, Waldfogel noted that the commission's role in the city's process in some ways precludes the need for compromise.
"Since the commission is almost a purely advisory body, sometimes I wonder if all my colleague are taking (collaboration) seriously," Waldfogel told the Weekly. "There is a sense that things will get repaired at the next level, so there's no real need to negotiate and reach compromise. The position is, 'Why not stake out an extreme position and let the council negotiate between the extremes?'"
A symptom of the times
Long seen as the city's most influential commission, the seven-member board has served as a common stepping stone for aspiring council members (current members Adrian Fine, Karen Holman and Greg Tanaka are former planning commissioners, as is Joe Hirsch, co-founder of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which favors slower city growth). But Mayor Liz Kniss said the commission's July 25 meeting felt more like "a comedy of mistakes."
The actual issue on which the commission was deliberating stemmed from a January 2017 council decision in which the council majority specifically wanted to remove a 350,000-square-foot cap on all commercial development downtown because the city now has other mechanisms in place to restrain the pace of growth. But rather than support the council's directive by approving the ordinance that would turn the directive into actual zoning law, the commission rejected it.
The commission's negative recommendation, if approved by the council, means that Palo Alto would have three different caps on commercial development that apply to downtown: an annual 50,000-square-foot ceiling on new office space in downtown, El Camino Real and the California Avenue area; the downtown cap; and a citywide limit on office and research-and-development space, which the council on Monday reduced from 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 square feet.
Kniss said she found the commission's vote "peculiar."
"It is an advisory body to the City Council, and it's unusual when that advisory body would vote against something that we as a council voted on as part of the Comprehensive Plan. It's just not productive."
Like other council members, Kniss told the Weekly that she believes the current commission isn't functioning well. Things have become too political, with everyone picking a side, she said.
This, from her perspective, is the latest symptom of the town's broader political divisions that emerged in the November 2013 election, when residents overturned by referendum a council-approved zone change that would have allowed the construction of a 60-apartment building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on a former orchard on Maybell Avenue. The Maybell project spurred the creation of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a group that has since become a formal political action committee that raises money and organizes candidate slates. (The group spearheaded the initiative to halve the citywide cap on office development — a proposal that the council this week adopted as law.)
In the past, Kniss said, conversations on governing boards were contentious but generally civil. Now, the city seems to be more polarized — a factor that in her view contributes to the commission's dysfunction. Kniss, who has successfully run for elected office 10 times, noted that prior to 2016, she had never run on a slate.
"I find it sad that we've reached this point, where you have to be on one side or the other," Kniss said. "We've lost our balance. Maybe that's what happened with the Planning and Transportation Commission. Maybe they've lost their balance."
Kniss said she would like to see the council hold a retreat with the planning commission to discuss the commission's purpose and take a fresh look at its mandates. The commission, she said, seems to be unsure of its own function.
"Do they feel they're being asked to support the council (decisions) ... or do they feel they should follow their own conscience and do what they feel is right at the time? It makes sense to go back and look at the entire structure of the two bodies and how they function together.
"The Planning and Transportation Commission has always been a very important advisory group. They always worked very closely with the council. Maybe we need to sit down and have a good heart-to-heart with each other," Kniss said.
Kniss and Councilwoman Karen Holman rarely see eye-to-eye on land use issues, but they both agree about the planning commission's dysfunction. Holman, herself a former planning commissioner, said her proudest moment on the panel came when the commission voted to rezone the site of a proposed hotel to create a residential buffer zone between the project (which ultimately didn't get built) and the homes of concerned neighbors.
This, she said, is the type of detailed, zoning-code-centric work that commissioners used to tackle. Today, you don't hear them talk about buffer zones anymore, she said ruefully. Instead, she said, she only hears about the commission from the public when people talk about "some outrageous behavior," including Alcheck's interaction with Meyer.
Planning and transportation issues, she said, are endlessly interesting but require lots of studying. The current commission, she said, shows a "lack of willingness to listen to staff and to the public and to colleagues.
"There seems to be a lack of willingness to learn rather than pontificate about one's own view of the world," Holman said.
Alcheck's actions criticized
In addition to the July 25 exchange over Meyer's "development cabal" posting, Alcheck has found himself in the crosshairs for other reasons during his tenure on the commission.
Earlier this year, council watchdog Fred Balin filed a complaint with the city about Alcheck's participation last November in a zoning-code change pertaining to new carports and garages. The city has a rule that prohibits placing a front-facing garage at a single-family home property if the majority of the homes on that block have garages in the back, as was the case on Alcheck's block in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood. So in summer 2015, Alcheck, who is a real-estate attorney, applied for a city permit to instead build two front-facing carports. Then, in 2017, he converted the structures into garages — an end result that staff had previously deemed illegal.
The issue prompted a legal dispute between Alcheck and the city's planning staff, which in August 2017 hit him with two notices of violation for converting his carports into garages in violation of the city's code, according to documents obtained by the Weekly through a Public Records Act request. Alcheck subsequently removed the garage doors. He also re-applied to convert the carports and hired an attorney who argued that Alcheck's new carports changed the predominant neighborhood pattern and, because of that, the front-facing garages would now be technically legal. The city acquiesced and in December granted Alcheck a permit to enclose the carports.
None of these things were mentioned last November when Alcheck and the rest of the planning commission were revising the zoning code to clarify the city's provisions on carports and garages. For Balin and several council members, that was a major problem. Since then, Balin has repeatedly raised concerns about both Alcheck's use of a two-step process (build a carport and then convert it to a garage) to get around a loophole in the city's code and his subsequent failure to recuse himself last November from a meeting when the commission closed that loophole. Since then, Balin has urged the city attorney's office to investigate Alcheck's behavior and called for Alcheck to resign (City Attorney Molly Stump told the Weekly that her office is confident that the council's decision-making process "was sound and free of conflict of interest" and that "any advice about the appropriateness of a commissioner's prior conduct would be confidential").
Alcheck, who declined to comment for this article, previously said that he received legal advice from the city and was assured that he could participate.
After the July 25 discussion of the downtown cap, Balin wrote on Palo Alto Online's discussion forum, Town Square, that Alcheck's "inappropriate behavior" has not abated since the carport discussion. He criticized Alcheck for "directly criticizing a member of the public in attendance" and "making general comments that disparage groups of people he does not see eye-to-eye with," a reference to Alcheck's occasional soliloquies about NIMBYism. At the February discussion of the affordable-housing zone, for instance, he called NIMBYs the "elephant in the room" when it comes to local planning and described a typical participant in the process as a "well-to-do homeowner strongly averse to changes in their surroundings, time-rich, opinionated and articulate."
"Residents," Balin wrote on Town Square, "need to know the position of each candidate running for City Council, as to whether Michael Alcheck should continue on the commission for another three-plus years. I will ask it of them, and I hope you will too. The council appoints and the council can remove."
Politics and the commission
For Councilman Tom DuBois, the answer to Balin's question about Alcheck's tenure is a simple one: "It really feels like the Planning and Transportation Commission would be a lot more functional if we were to replace Mr. Alcheck," DuBois said.
He believes that the council should meet to discuss Alcheck's actions, both in regard to the carport issue and his general conduct.
That discussion, he acknowledged, is unlikely to happen before the November City Council election. The commission is, after all, a council-appointed group whose current members happen to politically connected. Waldfogel was among the major donors in 2016 to the campaigns of slow-growth candidates Arthur Keller and Lydia Kou. Monk chaired Kniss' the re-election campaign. These relationships would make it easy for the public to chalk up criticism of a pro-city-growth commissioner by "residentialist" council members to simple politics.
Those on the council with more pro-growth views tend to shake their head, roll their eyes and decline to speak on the record when asked about Alcheck's conduct. Kniss said she hasn't fully reviewed the issue but said that Balin's complaints appear to be "a very personal issue, rather than a political or a professional issue."
DuBois, who is running for re-election this November, strongly disagreed and argued that Alcheck's actions are an ethical issue. Whatever his political leanings, Alcheck should have recused himself from the commission's carport discussion, DuBois said.
"He didn't mention that he had a project relating to the specific thing he was reviewing," DuBois told the Weekly on Tuesday. "That's when you have to recuse yourself. The thing with ethics and recusals is you're supposed to recuse yourself even if there is an appearance of a conflict. It's about (people) trusting the government."
Also troubling is what DuBois called Alcheck's disregard for the commission's rules on how meeting should be run.
"From what I've seen, Mr. Alcheck doesn't follow those rules. He can be disruptive. He badgers other commissioners; he badgers the public," DuBois said. "It's a political commission — the council appoints its members — but how they operate and how they manage their disagreements is an important thing."
Holman said the most important action that should be taken to make the commission more effective is better training. When she served on the commission, every member was given three books that clearly defined the roles of planning commissioners and urged behaviors like concise expression of views, compromise and respect for the public. Somehow, she said, those lessons have been lost with the current group. Instead, Holman said, she has watched meetings in which "the commission doesn't come to any decision."
"They can't agree or they punt or they defer or they get into areas that really are not their purview," Holman said.
And the city's issues, she said, are not getting vetted in a "comprehensive or even comprehensible manner because the meetings are so disorganized and dysfunctional."
"They need tools to become effective and valuable and to build expertise on how to become a really good planning commission," Holman said.