Palo Alto to narrow field of Planning Commission contenders

 

Much of the public’s focus is on the Nov. 6 midterm elections. But there’s one vote that Palo Altans can’t participate in, but it may be just as important – which two candidates will the City Council choose for the city’s influential Planning and Transportation Commission.

Thirteen candidates are vying for two spots on what some argue is the most impactful advisory body in the city. On Nov. 5, the City Council plans to decide who among the 13 candidates to interview.  A final vote is slated for early December.

The seven-member Planning Commission is the city’s main board that makes recommendations to City Council on land use, development and transportation matters, such as changes to zoning rules and parking issues. The commission also approves minor development projects – such as certain small house additions — that don’t need special evaluation from the council.

The debates in Palo Alto over how much and how quickly to build manifest themselves in the commission. The current commission has struggled at times to reach consensus, deadlocking on the most contentious issues. In March, a proposal to create a zoning overlay to incentivize affordable housing split the commission in a 4-3 vote.

The majority voted against the proposal, which prompted the other commissioners to send a “minority recommendation” to the City Council, asking members to reject the majority’s advice.

In July, the commission voted against a plan put forth by City Council to remove a commercial development cap downtown, angering officials including Mayor Liz Kniss who said the commission had become “too political,” with the commissioners picking sides in the pro-development versus slow-growth debate.

A major debate is whether to allow construction of denser housing that proponents say could alleviate the shortage of homes in the city. Opponents say such development would overwhelm an already packed town with traffic congestion and parking problems.

The commission sometimes splits along these lines. But that could change when the two seats on the commission become vacant. Vice-chair Susan Monk’s and commissioner Przemek Gardias’ four-year terms expire in December.

Neither have reapplied, but 13 other Palo Altans want to take their place. Among them are Bern Beecham and Dena Mossar, both former mayors. Several candidates are housing advocates or have professional experience related to the commission’s subjects, such as Elaine Uang, architect and co-founder of the housing activist group Palo Alto Forward, and Giselle Roohparvar, who is a land-use and real estate attorney.

Former mayor Beecham said in an interview the city is at a “pragmatic maximum” of what it could handle in terms of housing. “It’s impossible to build affordable housing when the land underneath is so expensive, unless you build at very high density,” he said. “And nobody is a fan of high-density housing.”

To candidate Kelsey Banes, a therapist at Palo Alto VA Hospital, the housing shortage is an emergency. The solution should be more density instead of slow growth.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “In my field, if you have an emergency, you have to take immediate action. Slow growth is a slow response.”

Most acknowledge that the commission’s recommendations have an impact on city council decisions. But its role is still largely advisory. Therefore, residents don’t vote on the new commissioners. City Council appoints them.

At the farmer’s market on California Avenue on Oct 28, many Palo Altans said they wanted to be able to vote for the Planning Commission members.

“The residents haven’t had anything to say about them,” said resident Suzanne Keehn. “And without ballots, commissioners are just not concerned with what is important to residents.”

Resident Mary Ryan asked, “How do we know they’ll make the right decisions if we don’t get to choose who’s on it?”

But according to council member Greg Tanaka, holding elections for the Planning Commission is not the best use of the city’s resources.

“Elections cost money. Not only for the applicant, but also for the city. And the Planning Commission is not even an approving body,” he said.

Council member Adrian Fine said in an interview that while the commission is influential, its importance shouldn’t be overstated. The commission votes on some contentious issues, but the final decision is still up to the council, he said.

Whether the commission can reach consensus on future development projects and streamline coordination with the city council remains to be seen. Either way, Candidate Rebecca Eisenberg, an attorney and longtime resident of Palo Alto, said the commission needs to focus on coalition-building and reaching agreement.

“On a recent meeting, the commissioners spent ninety minutes arguing over a sundeck,” she said. “Ninety minutes, for a sundeck!”

“It was a conversation of people talking past each other and nobody trying to find a way to move forward,” she added.