The crowd at The Patio in downtown Palo Alto was filled with faces old and new: City Hall veterans, community volunteers and residents who came here for the big reveal — results of the November election.
Ed Lauing, chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, and Shana Segal, a veteran teacher, learned just after 8 p.m. that they would soon ascend, respectively, to the Palo Alto City Council and the Board of Education. The happy cacophony of laughter and congratulatory libations offered few hints, aside from the occasional mask, of the health crisis that had been gripping the city, the nation and the world since March 2020. This election party, much like a separate one that was taking place concurrently at the Hilton Garden Inn on the south side of the city, seemed like a celebration of both the election victories and of the community's recovery after two years of COVID-19 and budgetary woes. The contrast with the November 2020 election night, when candidates and supporters stayed at home or confined themselves to small gatherings, couldn't have been more jarring.
Lauing didn't hesitate when he was asked about the main difference between this election and the one two years ago, when he fell just short in his bid for a council seat.
"I got to be with people all the time, which is what I love and which I hope they love," he said.
The spirit of unity, perseverance and victory was just as prevalent at the Hilton, where residents and volunteers were celebrating the passage of two ballot measures, one that established a tax on big businesses and another that affirmed the city's historic (but legally dubious) practice of transferring funds from its gas utility to pay for basic city services.
Just days prior to the election, the City Council was bracing for a close call on the utility measure — so much so that it moved to delay adding nearly $235,000 to a contract for installing dinosaur sculptures in front of the Junior Museum and Zoo. Instead, it sailed through with 77% of the vote. Combined the two measures are expected to bring in about $17 million in extra revenue every year.
Election night was in some ways emblematic of Palo Alto's year, which saw a strong resurgence from a period of austerity, uncertainty and, for many, isolation. The year began with the council going back and forth over whether it was safe to resume meetings at City Hall and ended with city leaders and residents congregating to celebrate the city's new affordable-housing development, Wilton Court, opening on El Camino Real. The four-story building also marked the return of Alta Housing to Palo Alto after a decade of building elsewhere. Its experience with Wilton Court, which was unanimously approved by the council and strongly backed by the Ventura neighborhood, stood in stark contrast with its prior Palo Alto project, a development on Maybell Avenue that was overturned by the voters and spurred it to leave its hometown and build housing in Redwood City and Mountain View.
At the grand opening ceremony on Dec. 6, Mayor Pat Burt called Wilton Court a "great project" and cited a list of other affordable-housing developments currently in the development pipeline.
"Every one (of these projects) will be a process that we'll have to come together and work constructively to get it done," Burt said. "I think we can do it."
Joining him in that work will be Lauing and newly elected council members Vicki Veenker and Julie Lythcott-Haims, each of whom emphasized unity and inclusiveness in their respective campaigns. The sharp ideological split that had marked prior campaigns — with developers making big contributions to candidates seen as pro-growth, a handful of mega-donors donating tens of thousands of dollars to those seen as "residentialist" — was far more subdued this time around.
And with the city's most divisive project of the year — the reconstruction of Castilleja School's Bryant Street campus — finally crossing the finish line in June after six years of acrimony and bureaucracy — unity now seemed like the order of the day.
Milestones and missed opportunities
A similar resurgence took place in the Police Department, which had been battered over the past two years by budget cuts, accusations of excessive force, decreased transparency and waves of property crime such as theft of catalytic converters and brazen "smash-and-grabs" at Stanford Shopping Center. The council approved this year the restoration of numerous department positions and newly appointed Police Chief Andrew Binder set the tone in August when he reversed the department's contentious policy of encrypting radio communications, which kept the public and the media from tracking police activities.
"I wanted the community to be able to have the ability, if they wanted, to listen to police activity," Binder said in an October interview. "My hope was that this would build trust with them. We don't have anything to hide."
The passage of the two revenue measures in November should give the department a healthy boost and allow it to restore staffing after the pandemic-induced cuts of 2020. Earlier this month, Binder reported that the department hired three veteran officers from other agencies, graduated a new officer from the police academy and saw three new officers complete the department's field training program (a stepping stone to patrol duties), while also hiring two public safety dispatchers and a records specialist — a hiring spree that would have seemed unthinkable two years ago and that will continue in 2023.
The council also hit milestones year on numerous key projects that have been in the works for years and — in some cases — decades. In addition to finally passing a business tax, the council approved a blueprint for expanding the city's fiber-optic network, with the goal of ultimately giving residents a municipal alternative for high-speed internet, and an upgrade of the wastewater plant that is projected to cost more than $160 million.
It also approved in November a draft of its new Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's strategies for adding 6,086 residences by 2031. The document will almost certainly undergo further revisions in early 2023 based on feedback from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
In other areas, progress has been incremental at best. The city has yet to make a decision on grade separation — the redesign of the city's rail crossings so that tracks and roads would no longer intersect. Though the council favored a "partial underpass" plan on Churchill Avenue, it has yet to pick an option on the Charleston Road and Meadow Drive crossings despite millions of dollars spent on analysis and years of public debate. (Its only decision this year was to spend more money and time on analysis.)
Cubberley Community Center, which years ago seemed like a perfect opportunity for a collaboration between the city and the school district, remains as dilapidated as ever with no clear path forward. The school district indicated that it has no interest in collaborating on a full-scale redevelopment of Cubberley facilities, as envisioned in a recent community-driven master plan. The district's decision to reserve 20 acres of the 35-acre center for a future school further dashed the city's hopes for a partnership on Cubberley. Though the two sides have been talking about a possible land swap that would allow the city to proceed with development, the year was remarkable for how little happened on Cubberley.
And some of the services that were cut during the pandemic, including the community shuttle, never came back despite the recovery of revenues. Council member Alison Cormack talked often during her 2018 campaign about the need to expand the shuttle network and give residents, workers and visitors a real alternative to cars. With her and council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth all concluding their terms this month, the shuttle network remains a dream deferred, though the city is now talking about launching an on-demand shuttle program in spring 2023.
All of these issues will return to the forefront next year, when the new council is sworn in. A key question that could determine progress is: Will the spirit of cooperation that has characterized much of 2022 endure into the new year? Lythcott-Haims, an author whose campaign slogan was "Neighbors. Together. Thriving" said she believes it will.
"These election results demonstrate that the people of Palo Alto don't want factionalism," Lythcott-Haims said in an interview just after winning a council seat. "The people of Palo Alto want us to cooperate and strengthen the city."
Palo Alto Online is taking one last look at 2022 all this week. If you missed any parts of our series, view the stories below.
From beavers to brazen crimes to long-awaited resolutions, 2022 was a year when we could finally think about something other than COVID-19.
Bigger and better than ever, our year-end news quiz is returning for a third time, giving Palo Alto Weekly readers a chance to look back on the past 12 months in local headlines.
From pod housing to a rare turtle-dove sighting, look back at the Palo Alto area happenings that made headlines.
We've compiled 14 moments captured behind the camera lens that tell distinct stories from this year.
Our staff and contributors reflected on the past 12 months and compiled our favorite drinks and dishes of 2022.
There's still a bounty of great films to discover from a year of cinema at theaters and home.
The city's most and least expensive home sales this year surpassed that of 2021.