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In 'State of the City' speech, Burt details city's emergence from pandemic

Mayor uses annual address to detail City Council's plans and priorities

Mayor Pat Burt discusses the city's priorities during his "State of the City" speech at the Mitchell Park Community Center on April 9, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt used the annual "State of the City" address on Saturday to paint a picture of a city in transition, with key downtown areas evolving into car-free thoroughfares, the economy reviving after a sharp pandemic and signs of hope emerging in the ongoing effort to add affordable housing.

Speaking to about 80 residents and members of city staff at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Burt gave updates about each of the City Council's four priorities this year: economic recovery, housing for social and economic balance, climate change and community health and safety.

He warned about the dangers that the city needs to confront in the months to come, chief among them the growing risk of wildfires that can devastate the city. And he also made a pitch for the city's ambitious electrification effort, detailing plans to invest in solar power and battery systems and to help the community replace appliances that currently rely on gas with clean electricity.

Burt's wide-ranging speech struck its most urgent note in discussing the increasing threat of megafires. He cited the 2020 fire season and the CZU Lightning Complex fires, which destroyed large swaths of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Given Palo Alto's location next to the foothills, the threat of fire has become ever more acute.

"We've all seen what happened in Santa Rosa and Paradise, where entire communities have been wiped out," Burt said. "And we're at the edge of a wildland-urban interface. We're not exempt from all that risk."

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He tied this threat to the city's ongoing initiatives on climate change, efforts that he said the city needs to accelerate. The council's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan committee, on which he serves, is now in the midst of refining the city's plans to meet its 2016 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline.

Electrification, which involves replacing water- and space-heater systems and gas stoves with electric appliances, is by far the biggest part of initiative. But Burt also talked about the importance of improving bike safety and giving people alternatives to driving gas-powered vehicles.

The city, he said, has cut its emissions by about 50% since 1990, though some of that is attributable to the sharp drop of commuters during the pandemic. With COVID-19 out of the equation, the proportion drops to about 42%.

"We're almost 50% of the way toward our goal," Burt said. "We now have a huge focus in our utilities staff, Public Works staff and City Council to really come up with a climate plan that can really achieve our goals."

The city is also facing more near-term challenges, including reversing some of the staffing and service cuts that the council made in 2020 to account for plummeting revenues. After cutting the budget by about $40 million in the early days of the pandemic, the council is now in the process of slowly restoring positions.

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"We're still in an area where we're experiencing fewer staff members and fewer city services that we've had in this community for decades — and that's a real challenge," Burt said.

Mayor Pat Burt discusses the city's priorities during his "State of the City" speech at the Mitchell Park Community Center on April 9, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

Many in the community have had a chance to reflect over the course of the pandemic on what they value about their neighborhoods and on what city services they appreciate. He said he expects the next budget, which the council will start reviewing next month, to bring some moderate improvements.

"What we're now struggling with is how to respond to the recovery we're attempting to make and how to bring back those services," Burt said.

One aspect of the city's economic recovery is reimagining some of its downtown spaces. The council signaled earlier this year its desire to keep segments of California Avenue and Ramona Street car-free for the foreseeable future. Burt said these streets are having "really incredible experiences" and will continue to improve as the city moves ahead with streetscape improvements in both areas.

"We haven't really made the investment in making them the aesthetic and dynamic and social and cultural gathering spots that they have the potential to be," Burt said.

Another area that will require extensive planning and enormous investment is grade separations — the realignment of rail crossings so that train tracks and roads will no longer intersect. Despite prior councils' deliberations over the past decade about ways to reconfigure the tracks, the current council has yet to choose its preferred alignment or to identify funding sources for a project with a price tag that under some alternatives exceeds $1 billion.

Burt said that the council has made some progress on narrowing its alternatives, but he also noted that the city has some of the most dangerous rail crossings in the state.

"We often in this discussion have forgotten about how critical it is to have separations that really eliminate that risk," he said.

In a promising trend, regional and federal agencies are making more funds available for grade separation -- adding urgency to the decision-making, he noted.

"We're going to need to accelerate this again because the federal infrastructure dollars have, for the first time in a long while, dollars for grade separation," he said.

Another complex challenge that the council is facing is meeting a regional mandate calling for it to plan for more than 6,000 units of housing between 2023 and 2031. Burt said Palo Alto has historically been a leader in Santa Clara County in providing subsidized housing. Among cities in the county, only Gilroy has had a higher percentage of its dwellings offered at below-market-rate levels. But because of Palo Alto's historic status as an engine of job growths, the supply of housing continues to fall well short of the demand.

"There is a huge gulf between us being leaders and what is the actual demand for that," Burt said.

In the coming months, Palo Alto is set to complete its new housing element, which identifies potential housing sites as well as new policies for encouraging housing. It is also seeing an uptick in applications for below-market-rate housing developments, including two projects spearheaded by Santa Clara County on Grant Avenue and on Charleston Road.

Despite these challenges, Burt sounded an optimistic note about the future of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley, which has demonstrated its ability to bounce back from economic downturns in the past. The city, he said, is blessed to be adjacent to what he called the "biggest generator of new ideas and technologies" in Stanford University. And Stanford Research Park continues to be populated with leading research and technological institutions.

"What we need to do is continue to be a scene of innovation and a place that the companies find to be attractive and where their workers want to continue to live because of the wonderful quality of life and the services that we provide," he said.

Watch the full address:

Palo Alto holds its annual State of the City address on April 9, 2022. Remarks begin at the 23:30 timestamp.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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In 'State of the City' speech, Burt details city's emergence from pandemic

Mayor uses annual address to detail City Council's plans and priorities

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Sat, Apr 9, 2022, 1:22 pm

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt used the annual "State of the City" address on Saturday to paint a picture of a city in transition, with key downtown areas evolving into car-free thoroughfares, the economy reviving after a sharp pandemic and signs of hope emerging in the ongoing effort to add affordable housing.

Speaking to about 80 residents and members of city staff at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Burt gave updates about each of the City Council's four priorities this year: economic recovery, housing for social and economic balance, climate change and community health and safety.

He warned about the dangers that the city needs to confront in the months to come, chief among them the growing risk of wildfires that can devastate the city. And he also made a pitch for the city's ambitious electrification effort, detailing plans to invest in solar power and battery systems and to help the community replace appliances that currently rely on gas with clean electricity.

Burt's wide-ranging speech struck its most urgent note in discussing the increasing threat of megafires. He cited the 2020 fire season and the CZU Lightning Complex fires, which destroyed large swaths of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Given Palo Alto's location next to the foothills, the threat of fire has become ever more acute.

"We've all seen what happened in Santa Rosa and Paradise, where entire communities have been wiped out," Burt said. "And we're at the edge of a wildland-urban interface. We're not exempt from all that risk."

He tied this threat to the city's ongoing initiatives on climate change, efforts that he said the city needs to accelerate. The council's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan committee, on which he serves, is now in the midst of refining the city's plans to meet its 2016 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline.

Electrification, which involves replacing water- and space-heater systems and gas stoves with electric appliances, is by far the biggest part of initiative. But Burt also talked about the importance of improving bike safety and giving people alternatives to driving gas-powered vehicles.

The city, he said, has cut its emissions by about 50% since 1990, though some of that is attributable to the sharp drop of commuters during the pandemic. With COVID-19 out of the equation, the proportion drops to about 42%.

"We're almost 50% of the way toward our goal," Burt said. "We now have a huge focus in our utilities staff, Public Works staff and City Council to really come up with a climate plan that can really achieve our goals."

The city is also facing more near-term challenges, including reversing some of the staffing and service cuts that the council made in 2020 to account for plummeting revenues. After cutting the budget by about $40 million in the early days of the pandemic, the council is now in the process of slowly restoring positions.

"We're still in an area where we're experiencing fewer staff members and fewer city services that we've had in this community for decades — and that's a real challenge," Burt said.

Many in the community have had a chance to reflect over the course of the pandemic on what they value about their neighborhoods and on what city services they appreciate. He said he expects the next budget, which the council will start reviewing next month, to bring some moderate improvements.

"What we're now struggling with is how to respond to the recovery we're attempting to make and how to bring back those services," Burt said.

One aspect of the city's economic recovery is reimagining some of its downtown spaces. The council signaled earlier this year its desire to keep segments of California Avenue and Ramona Street car-free for the foreseeable future. Burt said these streets are having "really incredible experiences" and will continue to improve as the city moves ahead with streetscape improvements in both areas.

"We haven't really made the investment in making them the aesthetic and dynamic and social and cultural gathering spots that they have the potential to be," Burt said.

Another area that will require extensive planning and enormous investment is grade separations — the realignment of rail crossings so that train tracks and roads will no longer intersect. Despite prior councils' deliberations over the past decade about ways to reconfigure the tracks, the current council has yet to choose its preferred alignment or to identify funding sources for a project with a price tag that under some alternatives exceeds $1 billion.

Burt said that the council has made some progress on narrowing its alternatives, but he also noted that the city has some of the most dangerous rail crossings in the state.

"We often in this discussion have forgotten about how critical it is to have separations that really eliminate that risk," he said.

In a promising trend, regional and federal agencies are making more funds available for grade separation -- adding urgency to the decision-making, he noted.

"We're going to need to accelerate this again because the federal infrastructure dollars have, for the first time in a long while, dollars for grade separation," he said.

Another complex challenge that the council is facing is meeting a regional mandate calling for it to plan for more than 6,000 units of housing between 2023 and 2031. Burt said Palo Alto has historically been a leader in Santa Clara County in providing subsidized housing. Among cities in the county, only Gilroy has had a higher percentage of its dwellings offered at below-market-rate levels. But because of Palo Alto's historic status as an engine of job growths, the supply of housing continues to fall well short of the demand.

"There is a huge gulf between us being leaders and what is the actual demand for that," Burt said.

In the coming months, Palo Alto is set to complete its new housing element, which identifies potential housing sites as well as new policies for encouraging housing. It is also seeing an uptick in applications for below-market-rate housing developments, including two projects spearheaded by Santa Clara County on Grant Avenue and on Charleston Road.

Despite these challenges, Burt sounded an optimistic note about the future of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley, which has demonstrated its ability to bounce back from economic downturns in the past. The city, he said, is blessed to be adjacent to what he called the "biggest generator of new ideas and technologies" in Stanford University. And Stanford Research Park continues to be populated with leading research and technological institutions.

"What we need to do is continue to be a scene of innovation and a place that the companies find to be attractive and where their workers want to continue to live because of the wonderful quality of life and the services that we provide," he said.

Watch the full address:

Comments

Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 9, 2022 at 1:47 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 9, 2022 at 1:47 pm

Is there a link to the speech and the public comments/questions? Thanks.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 9, 2022 at 2:17 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 9, 2022 at 2:17 pm

Electrification is a joke of course. What the City needs to do is to upgrade our service, stop the many outages due to weather, balloons, squirrels, geese and seagulls, as well as faulty or poorly maintained equipment. It is not likely that they should be telling peope to get rid of gas heaters and stoves when our electricity supply is so unreliable.

Perhaps the Weekly should look into the number and nature of the outages over the past year!


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 11, 2022 at 11:08 am
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 11, 2022 at 11:08 am

I appreciate the mayor and entire council dealing with so many pressing issues. Council's consensus and action plan needs clear communication and understanding by all of us who are busy and often unfocused. Tough challenge!

Our needs seem overwhelming to PA's traditional problem solving process. For example, I am concerned about the fire risks such as fire storming down the creek between Menlo Park and Palo Alto, but how do more immediate issues get resources. Levees and grade crossing require better estimates and tabled for serious long-term planning.

The art of city government will be the shorter-term expenditures and cash flow. What can be funded now with current cash flow and what opportunities await marginal cash flow from new tax revenue AND uncertain economic recovery?

I dont have a good grasp of those opportunities.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2022 at 12:07 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 11, 2022 at 12:07 pm

To Bystander...

Mayor Burt specifically mentioned the importance of upgrading the city's electrical grid in his comments, though I see that it is not mentioned in the article above.

More general comments...There are some very big ticket items on the city's "to do" list. Grade separations and electrical grid upgrades, affordable housing, emergency preparedness, and improving transportation among them. The city's current budget shortfalls are a problem. A residential population base of roughly 67,000 people cannot supply all of the revenues needed to support rapid growth of our commercial sector.

For those who are about to jump on me for saying that, I actually do read the budget. Have done for the last 20 years. We are in need of additional revenue sources. I plan to vote for the upcoming continuation of the utilities tax, and I'm considering the business license tax-- I see that businesses are already lobbying the public on this subject. I received a big, expensive, glossy brochure this week telling me what a hardship it will be for businesses to suffer any additional taxes. Interesting, it is Stanford and local business growth (especially the biggest businesses which this tax would target) create the increased traffic demand for grade separations and other expensive transportation improvements and utilities infrastructure upgrades. They have a role to play in resolving the budget challenges their demands necessitate.

In my opinion, the BLT should be used for expensive capital projects that are needed to support infrastructure to keep our transportation systems efficiently operational and safe.


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Apr 11, 2022 at 2:01 pm
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Apr 11, 2022 at 2:01 pm

I’m glad to hear we are refocusing on climate change. When dining in San Fran recently I was delighted to observe that all the leftover and takeout packaging was compostable ! They weren’t wasting lots of wrapping and eating stuff (napkins etc.). Palo Alto dropped its compostable materials law for restaurants and takeout when covid hit. We need to reinstate those laws and start enforcing them. We must protect the earth and all its species. Eliminating or at least reducing restaurant-take-out packaging and using only compostables will help. Let’s get back on the road to protecting our planet.


jvpadojino
Registered user
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Apr 11, 2022 at 4:15 pm
jvpadojino, digital editor of Palo Alto Online
Registered user
on Apr 11, 2022 at 4:15 pm

Hi @Online Name, my name is Jamey, digital editor at Palo Alto Online. We've added a YouTube link from the city that shows the full speech. There were no public comments/questions at the event.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 11, 2022 at 7:53 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 11, 2022 at 7:53 pm
Mark Michael
Registered user
Community Center
on Apr 14, 2022 at 9:04 am
Mark Michael, Community Center
Registered user
on Apr 14, 2022 at 9:04 am

Due to the estimated billion dollar cost, rail grade separation may be the "third rail" of our policy objectives. Could behavior modification provide a practical solution? Transportation projects sometimes suffer from a phenomenon known as "induced demand." Failing to fully account for induced demand causes public entities to greatly overestimate the benefits of transportation projects and build more roads than is optimal from a financial and environmental perspective. What about reversing the approach? First, build less expensive pedestrian and bike tunnels under the tracks and then simply constrain vehicular cross-track capacity via different red light timing and preventing left turns. Double or triple the wait time -- for example, at Churchill Avenue -- and see how motorist behavior evolves. Fine tuning of the settings would be feasible.
Cost would be less than $1B. Instead of induced demand, use reduced demand. Or, the Council could debate the lack of billions of dollars for decades to come and the status quo would persist.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 14, 2022 at 9:49 am
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 14, 2022 at 9:49 am

I like Mark Michael's comments because he illustrates lack of simple scenario planning. We seem to be jumping ahead of harsh reality of demographics, job growth/stagnation, WFH, trickle down housing, reliance on public transit, school enrollment, etc, etc.

At my age the personal urgency of scenario planning for the sub-region is not great, but it vital for my adult children and grandsons. These are complex scenarios without clear answers and they directly impact the younger generations when short-term decision degrade allocation of scarce resources.

IMO, scenario planning for a small govt unit like Palo Alto is almost impossible but a reasonably sized subregion would produce good scenarios via well-funded experts. Otherwise..... while we ae distracted by elusive grade grading schemes without funding timetables, the Bay might inundate Highway 101. Scenario planning might highlight our greatest assumptions, their strengths and weaknesses.

For example, it CalTrain was electrified to the max in a few years, how much of job growth would be accomodated?


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2022 at 10:47 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 14, 2022 at 10:47 am

If the City is concerned about fire in the hills, then what about putting some thought into how to evacuate Foothills Park?

When it is busy how will it be evacuated in an emergency? There is poor cell signals and getting the word out to visitors will be difficult. When visitors are leaving in an emergency there is no way of knowing if it would be safer to go uphill to Skyline or downhill? There will also be residents leaving and of course people on bikes. That sounds chaotic and then throw the emergency vehicles into the mix and Page Mill Road could be a death trap.


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