Town Square

Post a New Topic

How 'sustainable' are Palo Alto's new top priorities?

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Feb 27, 2007

Priorities, whether they be personal or those of the Palo Alto City Council, are important.

A priority list brings order out of could-be chaos and organizes what we must do first. It's not a "should do" or "wanna do" list, but a "must do."

Council members met in early February to come up a new priority list, and concluded the four things to tackle are:

* Preparedness for emergencies and disasters.

* Climate protection (global warming) and ways to control greenhouse gases.

* Gaining support for and planning the construction of a new police building and an expanded Mitchell Park library and community center.

* A "sustainable budget," including ways to find $3 million a year for infrastructure repairs.

All are noble in concept, especially climate protection and emergency preparedness. Of course, global warming is not a local issue, hence the name, but, I agree, we can do our part to help cut down carbon dioxide, methane and other gases. Emergency preparedness is important; the city should always be prepared for earthquakes and other emergencies.

The third priority, building community support for two bond measures both expected to be on the June 2008 ballot, will be more of a challenge. One bond measure probably will call for a new 49,600 square-foot police facility on Park Boulevard. near the North County Courthouse. The council has already authorized more than $1 million for a study of initial design, environmental review and cost estimates -- and it still needs to figure out how much the building ultimately will cost.

Last June a Blue-Ribbon Task Force recommended a $38 to $44 million price tag including land, but I expect if the size remains the same, the price will go up to at least $50 to $55 million, given increasing construction and land costs.

This week the city's Architectural Review Board learned that a 100-year-old oak tree stands in the way of the new police facility. As a result, there are two architectural layouts -- with and without the tree. How ironic for a city named "tall tree."

By the way, the oak will soon be given an ultrasound to check its health. I had one a month ago -- they are painless, tree.

As to the library remodeling and expansion, I've heard a possible $50 million price tag, bringing the combined bond-measures total to $100 million-plus. Whether residents will approve all these tax dollars is the big question. Indeed, that's a challenge for the council.

Priority four is a "sustainable budget." I am not sure what "sustainable" means, since the council in recent years has always had to find ways to solve deficit issues. "Sustainable land use" almost was made a priority. I guess the council likes that s-word, borrowed from the environmental/green movement. Can it be adapted to a different kind of green, as in $$$?

In reviewing the list, I have to ask, are these the most important issues facing our community? Or are they simply the ones the council feels are easiest to discuss and feel good about. Two of the priorities are politically correct issues without immediate solutions or measurable goals and accomplishments. I suspect "feel good" is the primary motivation.

Yes, it's easier for the council to agree on "Let's be green" and for the mayor to come up with a 10,000-steps-a-day challenge to the community because there are no downsides to such ideas. It's easier to kick the can of hard decisions forward to the next council.

Palo Alto is facing more pressing problems. What's being done to speed up road repairs? We are some $28 million and five years behind. We've had two -- or was it three -- council-appointed committees look at getting more retail in our community. The net result are committee reports. We need more retail downtown, particularly along Alma Street, which is beginning to look like a modern-day ghost town of empty buildings.

An effort to get auto dealers to locate along 101 has crashed. We had a "Shop Palo Alto" campaign that wilted. Are there ways for the city to use its influence and power to get a major grocery in town so residents don't go to neighboring communities to do their main shopping?

Congress this year refused to fund a Joint Powers Authority request for a continued study of the San Francisquito Creek. The project needs annual Congressional approval not only for the study but also for putting the Army Corps of Engineers to work. While some fund juggling this year may keep the project alive, does the council or the JPA have a back-up plan if the feds don't come through in the next couple of years? What is this city going to do to help prevent the creek from flooding in Palo Alto? The global-warming threat of bigger storms in the Bay Area (and resulting creek overflows) is a real local climate-control issue.

Will there be ways for the council to convince the city employee unions that enough is enough? Can city officials find better methods to control the escalating costs of health and retirement benefits?

Are there ways to use Fire Department personnel more efficiently, since typically in this area, only 3 percent of their time is spent fighting fires?

And my perennial question: Can the council cut the budget so that it can spend the money on other necessities, or even fund part of a new library?

The council makes decisions on millions of dollars each year. The city's general fund is $128 million in 2006-07, the enterprise fund has $257 million in expenditures and the capital fund is $52.6 million, some of which comes from the other two funds. Palo Alto spends a lot of money -- much more than its neighbors. In a recent blog talking about the Edgewood Shopping Center, Paul Losch, a Palo Alto resident, said, "As much as I value the character of Palo Alto, I think we all need to seriously ask ourselves what our stewardship of the city really is all about. 'Hold fast to that which is good' is not the same as 'Hold fast to that which was good.' In some ways, the more things stay the same, the more they will change for the worse."

Well said -- and it applies to most Palo Alto issues. I think the council can be a good steward and make real progress -- if it wants to. We just have to prioritize better, more realistically and with less focus on political correctness -- and then act on those priorities.

Comments (12)

Like this comment
Posted by Shop in MV
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 27, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Regarding one of your comments:
"Are there ways for the city to use its influence and power to get a major grocery in town so residents don't go to neighboring communities to do their main shopping?"

A major grocery chain will never move to Palo Alto because of a number of reasons. first of all, the ridiculous 20000 square foot rule in PA, which attempts to even the playing field for all grocery stores (which is ridiculous in itself, what ever happened to free market competition). No major chain will agree to open a shoe-box type store--look at the Midtown Safeway--cramped aisles, limited selection, no room at the checkout counters etc.
Second is the fact that if a larger grocery store was okayed in Palo Alto you can be sure that some neighbors and NIMBYists will be out yelling and screaming about too much, too much traffic etc. Look at Alma Plaza--first the store being planned was too large, then it was too small--do you think any national chain will sit around waiting for the City Council to make a decision (which they will never do--how many years has Alma Plaza dragged on? How many years do you think Edgewood Plaza will be dragged on for).
Forget about any major chains in PA, we will have to make due with boutique grocery stores that charge higher prices and cater to a small percentage of the population--plan on doing your everyday grocery shopping in our neighborhood cities for years to come.

Like this comment
Posted by GGRick
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 27, 2007 at 10:50 pm

I agree with "shop in MV". There were about 35 people tha didn't want a big grocery store in Alma Plaza and that was enough to kill it. Of course the city council, developers didn't want that land to be used by an out of town co.. So a local developer bought it for housing and max profit to him, them... We need a bus that goes thru South Palo Alto and goes to the San Antonia/ElCamino area in Mt.View. It could loop around every hour or two and cut down on auto traffic. The issue of a single new police building has a lot of problems/issues. Why would such a building have to cost $1000 per sq ft. ? Why not use the existing police bldg for many of the things like storage, local policing issues for the downtown area, etc.. Having a single location for the police has many problems as would having a single fire station for the entire city. A big disaster/flooding of the Oregon Expressway underpass would isolate the policee to western area of Palo Alto. A single police station is a single target for terrorists not that it is likley in Palo Alto. What is the cost of the land in that location? $10million, 20 million?? The city disposed of a large parcel in that area, east of Alma for something like $500,000 recemtly.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 28, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Two of the Council's priorities conflict with each another: preparedness for emergency and disaster conflicts with the desire to have a huge, impressive police station.

This push for centralization of vital functions is an approach that's 20 years out-of-date. Maybe more. Since that concept was born, we've had Alexander Graham Bell and the Internet.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2007 at 2:19 pm

Out of the four priorities, the first three range from unnecessary to counterproductive, while the fourth one (sustainable budget) is a general principle, not a specific priority.

I would suggest as priorities:
1. Fix the roads.
2. Flood control.
3. Stop the home robberies.
4. Become more retail-friendly.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Palo Alto is too busy being wonderful to be prsctical.

Like this comment
Posted by diana diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Feb 28, 2007 at 7:56 pm

diana diamond is a registered user.

Resident of Midtown:

You certainly have simplified, condensed and clarified the four priorities in this town, and you are right. I may have a different third priority, but that we can debate, and that can be fun.

As to "shop in MV's" comment about grocery stores, I have been told that the 20,000-square-foot limit is a myth --the city has no such limitations. But I also think a number of people in town (who don't want neighborhood traffic that a grocery store would bring) have used that perception to convince the council that we ALL want small grocery stores. I, for one, would love a decent grocery store that does not double the price of canned goods and that offers a wide selection of groceries.


Like this comment
Posted by Shop in MV
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 1, 2007 at 8:15 am

I also agree with the bulk of Resident of Midtowns priorities. If only the City Council would develop some courage and address these issues.
As for the grocery store myth--a myth it may be, but it has been used successfully to prevent large grocery stores in town--after all JJ&F must be protected at all costs.
Not just grocery stores, but most any retail will always be opposed by a small group of naysayers in this city who use the "too much traffic" argument to block retail development in PA and by doing so cut our tax base.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 1, 2007 at 11:29 pm

Remember the Top 5? In 2004 - 2005 the city’s Top 5 priorities were:

- city finances
- infrastructure (the CityWorks program)
- affordable housing
- land-use planning (including the zoning ordinance)
- alternative transportation/traffic calming

Did we solve all those problems? Or does the city council just come up with new priorities every couple of years?

Maybe the first priority should be “accountability.”

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2007 at 10:49 am

More on the "Top 5"

Fall 2004 City Pages headline: “Council Makes Strides in Addressing Top 5 Priorities.”

Frank Benest wrote, “As City Manager, I'm pleased to report the recent accomplishments of the City Council on the Top 5 . priorities."

Some examples:

- "... a Shop Palo Alto campaign was launched." How much additional sales tax revenue resulted from this campaign?

- "the Dine Out campaign has been well received." How do you measure - in dollars - "well received"?

- Council has “maintained . . . major infrastructure projects.”

- "Public Works Staff and the Storm Drain Blue Ribbon Committee have developed recommendations for the Finance Committee." Since 1989, the year of the last big flood, all we have are recommendations.

- ".. . upgrades at the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center are in the works." What does that mean? Were they planning the bond issue back in 2004?

It doesn't seem to matter what priorities the council comes up with when there's no accountability.

Like this comment
Posted by SW
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2007 at 6:43 pm

I don't see how the City can develop a sustainable budget without developing a better tax base. It concerns me that we are converting many retail and hotel sites to housing. It also is disconcerting that Palo Alto mostly has stores that appeal only to those with high incomes. I would love to have just one store in town that had a nice selection of goods at a reasonable price (Kohls, Costco, Target, JCPenney, Sears, Mervyns). The closest I can come to that now is Macys, but for kids clothes I just can't see paying those prices. I drive to Mountain View to do most of my shopping these days, and I know I am not alone. I don't think I will ever be able to shop mostly in Palo Alto, because it just feels overpriced. Gee that's what a lot of people say about the housing.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 7, 2007 at 11:03 pm

Pat gets right to the essence of the problem. The council may be setting unrealistic, counterproductive or even ridiculous goals and priorities, but it doesn't matter what priorities they say they have if there is no follow-through, and no penalty for failure to do so.

As Pat points out, we've had a lot of high-minded rhetoric and even some ambitions to fix the obvious problems in the city over the years...but nothing has happened in virtually every instance.

They might as well set fighting global warming as a priority. At least no one really expects them to make a difference there.

Like this comment
Posted by okkobusn
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 14, 2007 at 8:02 am

iowgxvbk Web Link mgspgwiu edrhphin [URL=Web Link] Web Link">cwdvkucw

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

Coffeebar opens in Menlo Park
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 5,295 views

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 868 views

Spring College Fairs
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 791 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 789 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 408 views