It’s exciting to be here and a privilege to address you. History is in the air and amongst us.
Residents engaged ...
Back in the early ‘60s, few on the city council cared or worried about that.
They conducted business without a comprehensive general plan, although required by law. There was no Environmental Quality Act. No concept of park dedication. And seemingly unlimited power to build on public lands.
It was anything-goes in projects. Plans for an industrial park on hundreds of acres of city-owned Baylands; and high-rises in the Foothills.
But they were not built. Residents hired a young environmental attorney named Pete McCloskey, and the courts halted all permits pending completion of the Comprehensive Plan.
Three years later, residents collected enough signatures for an initiative to amend the city charter and include a chapter on parkland dedication. On the ballot in 1965, it won, by a 7-1 margin and immediately protected over 3,500 acres of parkland. More would follow over the years.
For close to 50 years, through today, no Palo Alto City Council can decide to use parkland for any other purpose without majority consent of residents at the polls.
What would Palo Alto be like today without that?
One of the resident leaders of those efforts is here today. Not surprising, she is one of your five co-hosts. Say hello to the incomparable Enid Pearson.
But development desires to be another San Francisco or Wall Street did not disappear.
The early 70’s, saw plans for:
- A pair of 10-story office towers at Bryant St and University Avenue — stopped by residents via referendum.
- An expanded Palo Alto Clinic within a 160-foot facility, bounded by Waverly and Bryant Streets, and Channing and Addison Avenues — stopped by residents via referendum.
- But a 15-story office tower at 525 University Avenue at Cowper Street was approved and completed along with foundation laid for a second such tower. However by then, residents' push for a 50-foot height limit had prevailed, so the Bank of America building on the Lytton Avenue side is just three stories.
Where would be today without the 50-foot height limit?
A third residential exemplar:
In Fall 2008, state proponents for a huge project, which sounded like a forward-thinking idea at least in concept, came to the city council for its blessing. Despite some reservations, the council unanimously endorsed the state ballot measure for an initial $10 billion of funding for high speed rail.
Shortly after, a group of four women each with young children, and not involved in city politics, but who liked and cared about our community decided to learn more.
They embarked on a remarkable undertaking — of research, communication, and education — that not only led to a complete reversal by the council, but major changes to the discussion on the regional and state level. in 2011, one of them was invited by, and testified before, Congress on true costs and ridership numbers.
The city now spends hefty sums on lobbyists, but when people want to know the local details on high speed rail, they call Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, CARRD: Palo Alto residents Nadia Naik, Sara Armstrong, Elizabeth Alexis, and Rita Wespi
Residents who have done outstanding work to promote quality of life, as so many others have as well:
Residents who have protected, residents who have kept watch, residents who collect data, residents who communicate and discuss, residents who advocate.
[Long list of specific examples not listed here]
Two pivotal, residential efforts have propelled us into the present catalytic chamber.
A retired executive, who downsized family accommodations in favor of the accessibility and convenience of Downtown, awoke one day to the realization it was fading fast and efforts to deal with the deterioration were going nowhere.
He joined residents already involved, and through an unrelenting allegiance to the power of hard data, a desire to talk to anyone and everyone who had a stake in a solution, sheer commitment and volume of communication, he transformed the issues of parking, development, and traffic into ones that the city could no longer push aside.
In South Palo Alto, a Planned Community proposal adjacent to a crowded school corridor, brought forth a neighborhood response we have not seen in years.
Both efforts were not only extremely well organized, but smartly and properly took their case beyond parochial interest:
Without intervention, Neilson Buchanan argued, the Downtown parking crisis would continue to spread, not only to adjacent neighborhoods, but it would soon be replicated in the neighborhoods surrounding the California Avenue business district.
VoteAgainstD, said to residents, “This could happen to you.”
Already wary of PCs and other zoning exceptions, unattractive taller residences and closely-packed smaller ones; narrow sidewalks and minimal setbacks, the message had resonance.
Toss in the increased traffic impacts and housing deficit from two mega-proposals, 27 University Ave and 395 Page Mill Road, and a sleeping, giant pump was fully primed.
No person or group in and around the City Hall establishment supported VoteAgainstD; only residents.
It was the moment when the community said: "We’ve had enough," and won by 13 points.
We are noticing the effect at the city council and in this election season. Staff and council are more receptive to ideas and input; candidates are speaking neighborhood concerns. The residential flag is in vogue. But how long is that going to last?
-Fred Balin, 7/30/14