On July 30, City Councilman Cory Wolbach shocked Palo Alto's political world by doing two things: throwing his support behind a citizen effort to curb office development and staying completely silent.
A staunch housing advocate, Wolbach is generally associated with the council's pro-city-growth members: Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Adrian Fine, Greg Scharff and Greg Tanaka. The five colleagues have voted as a bloc on some of the council's most controversial decisions, including a short-lived one that stripped all programs out of the city's Comprehensive Plan; a relaxation of the annual 50,000-square-foot office cap in three commercial areas; and the removal from the Comprehensive Plan of a downtown-specific limit on non-residential development, an action that Wolbach made a motion to adopt.
More often than not, he precedes his vote by setting the context and methodically explaining how he arrived at the decision.
But on July 30, he sided with the council's slow-growth members: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou, who agreed to revise the Comprehensive Plan to slash in half the amount of office space that would be allowed citywide between now and 2030, from 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 square feet.
His colleagues looked befuddled. Kniss accidentally hit every voting light on her dashboard and requested a re-do. Immediately after the second 5-4 vote, as Kniss recited the names of council members who supported the office-cap reduction, she omitted Wolbach's name even though he sits immediately to her left.
His unexpected vote became the subject of a question in a September City Council candidates debate: Did he support the "slow-growth" initiative for political reasons and would he be taking a more "fast-growth" approach once elected? asked debate moderator, Diana Diamond.
Wolbach firmly rejected this premise. He maintained he is quick to separate "more housing" (which he says he supports) from "more offices" (which he says he opposes). The only thing he finds surprising today is that others were so surprised by his July 30 vote.
"Four years ago, when I said that we could slow down office growth but we should focus on housing, people thought I was crazy," Wolbach said at the Palo Alto Rotary Club debate. "But it's really become a consensus position, and I'm happy to see that."
If his statements make it sound like he opposes new office development in the city, his votes are more nuanced. He was one of five council members who voted to approve in February 2017 Elizabeth Wong's mixed-use project at 429 University Ave., which includes offices, retail and three residential units. He made the motion to eliminate the downtown cap from the Comprehensive Plan. (He told the Weekly he believed it was redundant, given all the other limitations in place, and noted that "downtown is one of the better places for putting office development.") And he supported relaxing the annual office cap for downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real to give developers more flexibility.
When the council discussed on June 11 the citizen initiative to limit long-term office growth to 850,000 square feet, he voted with the initiative's opponents to delay placing the measure on the ballot, pending a study of its impacts. Weeks later, he voted with the initiative's supporters to adopt it outright.
"For me, it was easy to vote for in the end despite where I initially started because I did my homework and reflected on it," Wolbach told the Weekly.
If Wolbach's positions on office growth have left some of his colleagues scratching their heads and fumbling with their voting buttons, his stance on housing has been steady. Like Kniss and Fine, he often talks about the regional "housing crisis." Like them, he is a big proponent of both market- and below-market rate housing. Like them, he is bullish on accessory-dwelling units and bearish on rent control.
In fall 2017, he joined Fine and Kniss on a colleagues memo suggesting a host of zoning changes to encourage the construction of more housing, including a revision of parking standards and a "minimum density" requirement for multi-family housing (The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is now in the final stages of these zoning-code revisions, which will go to the council later in the year for approval). He had also advocated for setting higher housing-production goals in the city's Comprehensive Plan, in conjunction with lower targets for office development.
At times, his fierce advocacy has rubbed his colleagues the wrong way, as when he preceded his vote against a memo by DuBois, Holman and Kou to explore rent-stabilization policies by calling the memo's authors "insincere" in their approaches to solving the housing crisis. And in January 2017, his successful motion to remove all policies from the soon-to-be adopted Comprehensive Plan prompted a community backlash and an op-ed from his colleague, Tom DuBois, with the headline "When democracy is hijacked."
Wolbach responded in May with a public mea culpa and a motion to restore all the policies.
"My mind has been changed because of reasoned, civil discourse," Wolbach said at the council meeting.
Wolbach, who in 2014 ran on the platform of promoting "civility," refers to those acrimonious episodes as good lessons. He says they taught him to be conscious of things that "really set you off."
"Be conscious of when someone intentionally or unintentionally is doing something where they're baiting you, and don't take the bait," Wolbach said.
As if to prove that point, Wolbach in July joined DuBois, Holman and Kou on a revised version of the renter-protections memo, one which notably excluded caps on rent hikes (commonly known as "rent control"). At one point, tempers flared after DuBois made an amendment that would have expanded the memo's recommendation to include an exploration of rent stabilization — a move that Wolbach said left him "really disappointed" with his co-authors, whom he accused of going back on the compromise they reached in the summer memo. Wolbach observed that the problem with looking for compromise is "you might have kumbaya or you might end up dying in no-man's land." By the meeting's end, DuBois' amendment had been defeated, the memo advanced by a 7-1 vote, and Wolbach felt vindicated.
"My approach to policy making is to say: 'Let's figure out the vision, what's the goal we're trying to achieve, and I'm very open-minded about what policies are best to achieve that goal,'" Wolbach told the Weekly. "I'm pragmatic about what policies we can actually get passed."
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