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Hail to the Residents

Original post made by Fred Balin, College Terrace, on Aug 5, 2014

Excerpted from prepared comments at last week’s invitation-only "Meet the Candidates" at the home of Janet Dafoe:

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

Comments (8)

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Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I really appreciate learning the history and hearing the stories of how Palo Alto became what it is today. The examples Fred cites - protection of open space, the beginning of the fifty foot height limit, the battle with HSR (ongoing), drive to address downtown parking, and the PC zoning referendum are inspiring examples of citizens taking action.

There are a lot of election year residentialists, but these folks are the real deal.

I've met a ton of inspiring people already during my city council campaign, and look forward to meeting even more.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 9, 2014 at 10:43 am

Can imagine what it must of been like to bring in a height limit. Very visionary.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 9, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I respect Fred Balin, even if I disagree with him on a particular issue. He does his homework, for the issues that concern him...sometimes to a fault.

I opposed HSR from the outset, because it was so flawed, while our CC unanimously supported it. This is what I would call 'green anxiety/guilt'. I don't know if Fred is infected with this virus, or not. Larry Klein is Ebola-infected with it. Why are there so many non-rational true believers in PA?

Facing us, coming up, is the anaerobic digestion industrial plant in our park lands. Complete disaster.

When will rationality prevail amongst our leaders?

Like this comment
Posted by dumb question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 5:11 pm

I'm not very well informed about all the issues about HSR. I like the idea of a speed train to LA, and seems like most developed countries have speed trains.

What is confusing is why all the push to get to LA really fast, let's say, compared to addressing all the deficient public transportation in the main urban areas.

Like this comment
Posted by citizen
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:38 am

Dear Fred,
One very important factor in all of this is whether residents change the election code in Palo Alto to get an impartial ballot process like they have in San Francisco.

Even though Measure D won, the even stronger victory of a similar measure in the same election in even more liberal San Francisco (that also included affordable housing, support from City Hall, etc) suggests that the bias the Palo Alto City Attorney inserted in the Measure D ballot still gave the City 10-15 points it wouldn't have had otherwise.

The High Street referendum had nearly the identical bias, but unfortunately, residents didn't realize it then, and losing the referendum even narrowly made citizens groups think they weren't as powerful as they could have been. This opened the door to 10 years of overdevelopment and abuse of City Hall power that culminated in the recent revolt. I feel the revolt is only in its infancy, frankly, because the big apartments near San Antonio and El Camino aren't even open yet, and people are already fed up with the impacts of the existing development. People will see that stuff every day. Every day already I think more resentful thoughts towards Greg Scharff and company over what they did to my side of town - and frankly, to my time and my life with my family. I am not alone. If most of us had really realized what was going in there across from Arbor Real, the revolt would have happened over that thing first. That whole area used to be single story. Every time I drive past there now, I stew. If I were the owner of the apartment behind that thing, I would be livid. Again, I'm not alone. The thing is totally out of scale with the area, and it's way too close to an already horribly congested intersection. What bonehead thought putting a big out-of-scale built-to-the-edge-of-the-property hotel there was a good idea? Especially since that's already hotel row and the new hotel may even put a lot of established but older places out of business. (I'm sure the high-rise people are rubbing their hands at the thought.) This must stop.

Thankfully, many people are savvy to the tactics like the ballot bias this time around. But future generations may not be. Time to fix that problem.

If we get in a better Council, perhaps they will adopt the impartial ballot code without an initiative. If they don't, I think it's really important for citizens groups to do an initiative, it creates a better and healthier power balance between residents and City Hall. Initiatives and referenda exist for a reason, and they don't work for that purpose if City Hall can put their finger on one side of the balance. SF has had their impartial ballot process for 30 years, and it works well. I've seen their code and it's easy to adopt to our City which is also a charter city.

Fred, would have loved to see you run for Council.

Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2014 at 5:51 am

Thanks Fred Balen

I understand you also made Palo Alto to stop cutting trees and replanting them last go around.

Hopefully we can continue to live in 'Palo Alto - the town that is known for; trees, education, innovation and opportunity' without tall building and additional traffic.

Let us all be inclusive: Residentialists + Renters + Start-ups = INNOVATIVE Palo Alto, the best city in USA.

Limit unneeded growth; unneeded GREED and STOP back room DEALS and Surprises.

Let us keep 'Palo Alto' as is and innovate with extreme thought and planning. We are not in a hurry to make it New York or San Jose downtown; Hopefully you all agree. Rome was not built in one day; so is our beloved Palo Alto.

Keep Palo Alto beautiful with buildings no taller than our tallest trees!

Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2014 at 5:55 am

Correction of Fred's last name - Fred Balin


Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Monroe Park
on Aug 11, 2014 at 7:58 am

I agree with Citizen - we need an impartial ballot process so that the wording on future measures isn't biased towards the staff & council preference.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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