Yet as Keene concluded his decadelong tenure as the city's seventh city manager on Dec. 28, the vibe at City Hall has become more upbeat compared to 2008. The city is coming off years of revenue growth, fueled by strong hotel- and sales-tax receipts. Its infrastructure plan is finally moving ahead, with several projects (such as the Rinconada fire station and Charleston-Arastradero streetscape improvements) kicking off this year and several others (including the California Avenue garage and a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101) set to break ground in 2019.
Keene also leaves a lasting legacy when it comes to environmental sustainability, an issue about which he has particularly strong feelings. Under Keene's leadership, Palo Alto greatly expanded its network of bike boulevards and became a "carbon neutral" city when it comes to electricity, a national leader when it comes to electric vehicles and an adopter of one of the strongest "green building" codes in the state.
And despite the City Council's political split, Keene has been enjoying broad support from Palo Alto's elected leaders. On Dec. 17, his final meeting, the council gave him a standing ovation and passed a resolution recognizing Keene for his four decades of public service, including his prior stints as a county manager for Coconino County, Arizona, and city manager for Berkeley and Tucson, Arizona. The resolution includes an Aristotle quote, Langston Hughes' poem "Motto" and references to Keene as a "philosopher leader," "inspiring poet" and a "bodhisattva."
Yet his image as Palo Alto's folksy philosopher king also helps explain some of his biggest limitations as a city manager. Philosophers are generally known more for bold ideas than for fixing bugs once these ideas are implemented. Keene's critics can point to the city's error-laden Business Registry, its semi-functional 311 portal or its inconsistent code-enforcement program. All of these services were subject to critical audits in the recent month. It will be up to Keene's successor, Ed Shikada (whom council members have called a "nuts-and-bolts" engineer), to make the necessary repairs.
Furthermore, a philosopher can talk eloquently about bringing ultra-high-speed internet to every Palo Alto home or to separate the railroad tracks from local streets at rail crossing, a project that Keene referred to as the largest in the city's history. But as recent years show, implementing these projects is another matter. The project once known as Fiber to the Premise (the expansion of the city's fiber ring) has been in limbo for the past two decades, and Palo Alto remains well behind other Peninsula cities in planning for grade separation, despite Keene's calls for more urgency.
Keene's legacy on land use is also decidedly mixed. Under his leadership, the city successfully prevented the displacement of nearly 400 mostly low-income residents from the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and completed negotiations with Stanford University Medical Center on a major expansion of its hospital facilities — a giant project that continues to unfold.
That said, Palo Alto has continued to fall well short of its goals on housing. The council came nowhere close to meeting its 2018 goal of producing 300 units per year and it hasn't built an affordable-housing project since 2012, when the Tree House project went up on Charleston Road.
During Keene's tenure, voters held a successful referendum in 2013 to overturn an approved housing development that included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. The city continues to have three times as many jobs as housing units (the highest rate in Santa Clara County). And even though Keene can take some credit for the city's adoption in November 2017 of an updated Comprehensive Plan, the achievement followed a costly, contentious decadelong process that was byzantine and bitter even by Palo Alto standards.
Keene also took some heat from the public for the city's involvement in two projects that had not yet materialized: the 2010 proposal by billionaire John Arrillaga to build office towers and a theater at 27 University Ave., and AJ Capital's pending plan to convert the historic President Hotel from an apartment building to a hotel (its original use). In both cases, the negotiations between the city and the developer occurred largely behind closed doors, prompting anger and skepticism from land-use watchdogs, government watchers and even some council members.
He can, however, point to plenty of significant achievements when it comes to fiscal management. Even though employee costs continue to rise, Palo Alto finds itself in a far more enviable position than where it was 10 years ago.
Part of this has to do with the strong local economy. Local property values are sky-high, while unemployment level (2.5 percent) is well below the state and national levels. Palo Alto's latest long-term projections show revenues continuing to rise by more than 3 percent in each of the next 10 years, including a 5.9 percent increase in 2020.
Yet Keene can also cite numerous proactive measures that the city took under his leadership: new pension rules with less generous benefits for new workers, the outsourcing of certain city functions — including park maintenance and janitorial services — to save money and new public-private partnerships, including the city's recently approved deal with the nonprofit Pets In Need to manage animal services (a function that was in danger of being outsourced to another city a decade ago).
During his speech at the Dec. 17 meeting, Keene quoted urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who said, "Cities are problems in organized complexity" and decried the growing polarization, both locally and across the nation. He also pointed out that "democracy requires citizenship" and said he eagerly anticipates his next phase of life.
"It went by really fast," Keene said of his tenure with the city. "But I also feel like I've been here forever."
READ MORE ONLINE
Read an interview with Jim Keene about his plans for the future in "Off Deadline: City Manager Jim Keene plans a year off — to write and recover," posted on PaloAltoOnline.com.
This story contains 1085 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.